Cape Town not exempt from an urban spring?

The protests which have played out on the streets, in the squares and outside the stadia of Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Cairo, have brought to the fore the importance of public participation and engagement around the development of cities. These protests should send a strong signal to Cape Town and other cities in the Global South.

The problem of public participation is most acute in the developing world, where the impacts of urbanisation are challenging, and resources are constrained. The effort and resources required for ordinary citizens to contribute formally to planning processes is also greater. Public participation is therefore made doubly difficult in the rapidly-urbanising countries in which it is most needed.

Furthermore, infrastructure projects in developing countries are typically needed more urgently than in the rich world, and are often less a question of maintenance or upgrading than a question of building sorely-needed vital infrastructure for the first time. For this reason “public participation”, and more importantly public engagement, that is thorough enough to be useful is in constant danger of being characterised as a luxury that defers much-needed improvements to the urban environment.

But, globally  the balance of power in cities has shifted and continues to move towards the urban citizen. One that is no longer a passive recipient of major infrastructure projects and city planning, but a more educated, informed and active participant in civil society. The democratic deficit that results can escalate alarmingly fast, as the protests at Taksim Square have showed. From the Sorbonne in 1968 to the Occupy movement, iconic urban developments and spaces are easily vehicularised as symbols for broader discontent. In this way, the redevelopment of Gezi Park became a “citizen-led” referendum on an entire government.

The R157 billion Wescape housing development with an expected 200,000 homes (for which an amendment to the urban edge was approved) contradicts most, if not all, City policies and strategies including the Cape Town Spatial Development framework. And, if it goes ahead, could mean billions of rands diverted from the poor and marginalized towards bulk infrastructure to service this development, for which the economics still seem shaky at best. This shift in attention towards the north of Cape Town, through a private sector led development, with a  lesser focus on the Metro South-East would also be contentious. What prevents angry protesters from occupying the first phase of a future  Wescape housing development in this way? The current system’s flaws can be no more eloquently shown than by the fact that a development such as Wescape, housing up to 1 million people, can pass muster with no more than a handful of public submissions for and against it.

To answer honestly, at the present juncture, nothing does. The City of Cape Town will, like so many others, have to create – and soon – a more ambitious, far more solicitous public participation process that understands scale, and in which the size and gravity of public opposition and support for projects is less clumsily represented.

Another instance in which a development has been foisted on a reluctant community is taking shape at Princess Vlei. Here,a proposed shopping mall on the banks of a fragile wetland system has galvanised a community. Princess Vlei is an example of a real public participation process – and thecreation of a positive resulting frameworkfor appropriate future development – coming about in opposition to and after the failure of a legally mandated (yet wholly inadequate) public participation process. The vision of what legally necessary public participation processes should and could be is in the Princess Vlei community’s authentic and grassroots-level campaign to distil its own voice, against the clock of private development and the irreversible damage this would bring to a delicately balanced ecosystem.

Where development threatens the public realm, both the physical and the social, policy must step in to draw the line and guide the process forward. However, the erosion of the public input in the city’s developments has also come under the magnifying glass, as a result of two policy proposals by the City of Cape Town. The first relates to the centralisation of land use planning decisions with one public official, which would limit public participation in large-scale development applications, while the second entails the repeal of existing policies on public engagement.

In an open letter to the Mayor of Cape Town, Len Swimmer, chairman of the Greater Cape Town Civic Alliance describes these policy proposals as the “very antithesis of democracy and its belief in the rights of a population to partake in matters affecting their daily lives”. It then becomes clear that the role of policy to foster public engagement and participation is not entirely flawless, if not inadequate.

The lessons that emerge from these interwoven cases in Cape Town is that cities of the Global South must recognise the great risks involved when the democratic processes, and the role of the urbanised citizen, as part of a city’s development are undermined.

John Rossant, chair of the New Cities Foundation, captures the essence of the urbanised citizen, in a recent article in the Financial Times when he says that ‘today’s urban citizens, whether in Istanbul, Cairo or New York, want to be listened to; they want their city to work better, and more equitably.”

The communities of Grassy Park, Philippi and beyond have banded together, created forums and groups, and have pro-actively drafted their own vision plans, making it clear that they too want their city to work better and become more equitable. Given South Africa’s status as the apparent protest capital of the world, Cape Town and its city leaders would do well to acknowledge this and to heed the lessons of its counterparts if it seeks to avoid an ‘Urban Spring’ in the Mother City.

This article was produced by Urban Africa’s partners Future Cape Town as part of our urban reporting project.

Image credit: demonstration in the heart of Taksim square (June 3, 2013) via wikimedia user Mstyslav Chernov.


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