Can Cape Town’s apartheid structure be undone?

(Republished from Future Cape Town).

Living in the Cape Town CBD, I forget that the area of the city is 2,455 km², which is actually bigger than Johannesburg, at 1,645 km². Then why does Cape Town feel so small for some and so large for others?

Last week, Future Cape Town traveled to Langa for the first of three Density Syndicate studios, a series of collaborative design workshops bringing together multidisciplinary teams consisting of Dutch and South African urbanists, researchers, and activists to develop three site-specific speculative studios exploring densification options in Cape Town. The taxi-ride took less than 20 minutes, and passed through what felt like 10 different cities, from the pastel boxes of public housing in Athlone to the pristine golf courses around Mowbray, all the way to the Athlone Power Station and the access point to Langa.

It seemed apt that the Syndicate was held at the Guga S’Thebe Arts and Culture Centre in Langa, making participants navigate their way daily through the city’s disjointed and often disorienting landscape.

The Apartheid government sought to fragment and divide the city of Cape Town (and the rest of South Africa) based on race, and driving through the city shows that regime’s success. The Density Syndicate was convened to re-imagine Cape Town, and find ways to build the city differently. The Syndicate seeks to find a densification approach that allows for social integration and urban sustainability. During the workshops the exact definition of densification was also up for discussion with many describing it as an increased intensity in the mix of uses of spaces within our city. To achieve this goal, the African Centre for Cities (ACC) and the International New Town Institute (INTI), a Dutch think tank dedicated to improving major planning issues in cities around the world, have come together with support from the City of Cape Town to hold The Density Syndicate initiative.

The goals of The Density Syndicate, according to the the African Centre for Cities call for proposals, are to: Develop three site-specific speculative studios exploring densification options in Cape Town; Create an archive of recent (5 years) densification planning practices in Cape Town as a resource; and function as a resource for future densification plans for the City of Cape Town.

The Density Syndicate is undertaking three speculative studios focused around three different urban areas: a large greenfield strip that stretches from the Two Rivers Urban Park (Observatory) to the Athlone Power Station; an informal settlement brownfield context—Lotus Park in Gugulethu; and a brownfield context along Main Road in Maitland. Each site offers a unique set of parameters and contested interests.

A group of five Dutch and eight to 10 South Africans have been tasked with developing speculative plans for densification in each of the areas, with the goal of finding viable ways of achieving mixed-income, transit-based and sustainable ways of living.

The teams are supported by a reference group including representatives from the City of Cape Town, property economists, researchers, ecologists, activists and relevant design thinkers. Participants include representatives from the African Centre for Cities (SA); Arup (SA); Cape Town Partnership (SA); City of Cape Town Spatial Planning & Urban Design (SA); Community Organisation Resource Centre (SA); dhk urban (SA); Doepel Strijkers (NL); Dutch Consulate (NL-SA); H+N+S Landscape Architects (NL); International New Town Institute (NL); Jakupa (SA); Land+Civilsation Compositions (NL); Matthew Gray Architects (SA);NL Architects (NL); Provincial Department of Human Settlements (SA); Sustainability Institute (SA); Uberbau (Germany); Urban Water Management Research Unit (SA); Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (SA); Witteveen+Bos (NL).

The SA-NL design teams met in Langa from the 12-16 May 2014 to investigate their respective sites and brainstorm about possible interventions. ACC and INTI coordinated a workshop, allowing the SA-NL partners to work through ideas using “design-as-research” and explore possible solutions to Cape Town’s planning issues.

A second studio will take place between 7-11 July in Department of Design, to exchange and refine ideas. In September/October, the Dutch architects will join their counterparts in Cape Town for a final workshop that will result in the production of plans, models and supporting narratives that will be processed for inclusion in ACC’s exhibition entitled City Divided | City Desired opening at the Cape Town City Hall in October 2014.

For more information on the African Centre for Cities:

For more information on the International New Town Institute:


Anna Brown is a writer from New York with a passion for all things urban. 

Photo: The Guga S’Thebe Arts and Culture Centre in Langa, which housed the Density Syndicate from the 12th to the 16th May. Anna Brown.

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