The global population has passed the 7-billion threshhold, and over 50% of us are living in cities. By 2030, this percentage in South Africa is estimated to be as high as 70 to 75%. In this context, Professor Ivan Turok, an expert on global urban economies and the principal author of the 2011 state of South African cities report, took some time to frame the difficult conversations Cape Town needs to have in order to design a more sustainable, more equitable future.
How to densify our urban landscape "There's little doubt that we need to densify in order to accommodate our growing population while limiting the city's footprint. We must also do it in a way that's more inclusive. Inclusive is tough: the inequalities are great, and the design challenges are difficult in creating a city that accommodates both rich and poor. But the city cannot shy away from it. There must be a distinctive path to balance and integrate these agendas because the challenges are so exceptional. And it's really important to note that what works in London or Jo'burg won't necessarily work here. There needs to be some hard thinking about what will work in Cape Town."
How to create a city for all
"We need to ask who the Central City is for, and what its role is in relation to the rest of the city. There needs to be some rigorous debate how the city centre can become more inclusive, and what a genuinely inclusive city is. The Central City's great strength is that it has survived the political transition. However, it's not that relevant to large parts of Cape Town, particularly our poorer communities. We need to adapt better to our shifting context. We cannot stay unchanged, stay the way we were 20 years ago, without risking our future."
How to improve existing infrastructure
"The BRT and the city's new public transport lanes have received a lot of support and profiling of late. But why aren't we also focusing attention on our rail system? The rail network is more extensive than any other in South Africa, and we need to give it exposure - so that we might also show where service is poor and needs to get better. At the moment there are frequent delays and cancellations, overcrowding at rush-hour, there's trash piled up on the tracks, broken billboards, differing departure times displayed. As a regular rail commuter, I'd love to see things improve and get more people out of their cars."
How to support under-celebrated, but highly innovative retailers
"Consumer services are very important, a specialised activity on the streets of the Central City. When you walk down Plein Street, look at the shops. They're not conventional outlets owned by the big corporates, but are run by emerging entrepreneurs supplying a range of items that are very responsive to what consumers want: Cell phone repairs, internet cafés, haircuts, second-hand books. None of them advertise, but they're entrepreneurial and profitable because rental in these areas is relatively high. There's a dynamism out there that we need to understand better and build upon. We should be talking to these shop owners, finding out what they need, whether we can help them to grow and develop, whether that's more space or more flexible leases. And do they want to live in the city centre?"
How to design affordable housing into our centre
"How could Cape Town's creativity be used to restructure how we think about housing? The design of affordable housing is vital: we don't want cheap and nasty high-rise buildings that get stigmatised and become white elephants. We need clever design to blend together different segments of the market and create mixed-income areas. We should also be looking at related services: If young working people bring kids, we should have good day care and schools, social services, community centres, associated facilities. And public space - areas that are attractive to socialising and relaxing - is a priority if people are living in small flats."
What role the creative industries should play in shaping the city of the future
"Creativity is not just about what people practically do, but is also about the general approach or mindset we adopt - a questioning and thoughtful approach to how the city is developed and managed. Creativity means challenging others and ourselves on how we do things in order to improve. We need to shift our city thinking, planning and design to meet all the new challenges we face. We must do things differently and avoid getting locked into old habits and patterns which are no longer fit for purpose. And we may not get it right the first time, but we have to take a risk and push back the boundaries. It would be great to see more of this in Cape Town."
To find out more about the state of our city, and how Cape Town compares in a national context, read the 2011 state of South African cities report, commissioned by the South African Cities Network.
This article first appeared in the November issue of City Views: Cape Town as an innovative design city.