Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Where are the centres of Cape Town?

The fishing village of Khayelitsha... or the city of Khayelitsha?

Khayelitsha is a city.

It has a bigger population than most European capital centres. It has five train stations of its own, and numerous taxi ranks. Apparantly, it is the fastest growing suburb in South Africa.

Khayelitsha is a city. And yet, we call it a township. (Because it doesn't have a cathedral, noted one commentator!)

Public art in the Khayelitsha CBD, between the courts and the public baths.

When people talk about `Cape Town', mostly they mean the part of the city that we know as the inner-city, the old city. The City Bowl. The neighbourhood called Camissa. When we Capetonians say we are `going to town', we don't mean to Athlone town centre, or the CBD of Wynberg or Khayelithsa. We mean the old city at the foot of the table topped mountain. Senior citizens in Wynberg, like my neighbour the late auntie Annie on Ottery Road, would talk about going to `the main road', meaning the commercial centre of Wynberg. She would talk about going `to town' – going to the historic centre - as a major excursion, something to dress up for. Two young ladies I met on the train to Khayelitsha recently, they told me they had gone `to town' to look for work.

Tourism companies offer `City Tours', which are usually walking tours of the inner-city, from the BoKaap to District Six, and down to the foreshore. `City Tours' tours never include townships, and never include the Northern Suburbs, Southern Suburbs or the Atlantic Sea Board. For tourism language, the city is really tiny.

Just take a look at Metro Rail's rail map, above, and see how in this model, all roads lead to Rome, ie the historic centre. And how the same map shows you how big the city really is. The centre of Cape Town, the old city, is a tiny part.

For a long time I've been intrigued by how we perceive the scale of a city. Joburg is considered a big city. Cape Town is considered a small city. In population size, both cities are quite close, separated by a few hundred thousand. And in landmass they are also close (Cape Town has the mountain range taking up a lot of space). If you travel from Hout Bay town centre to Mitchells Plain town centre, you'll realise just how big Cape Town is. If you travel by train and taxi each day from Symphony Way in Delft, to the Harbour in Hout Bay, you'll know that the city can be as big as about two and a half hours. Each way! On a good day.

And yet Cape Town is perceived as small. And that is partly because we see only one centre.

Recently on this blog I posted a 2008 sketch I did where I repositioned the centre of Cape Town in Langa. It was a conceptual idea - how differently do we look at Cape Town if we put the centre of the city in the visual centre of the map of the metropole?

How to turn the centres of Mitchell's Plain, Athlone and Guguletu into thriving
zones that attract a diversity of Capetonians?

It's a bit facile, perhaps. But the point is: how do we look at this city differently?

Andrew Boraine, the visionary CEO of the Cape Town Partnership, responded that it's not about repositioning the centre. That it is not about maintaining a single centre in a city. It's about multiple centres. He commented that “Cape Town is today a multi-nodal or polycentric metropolitan area, no longer a radial city with the traditional Central Business District (CBD) of 50-100 years ago.”

And I agree with him completely. Cape Town does indeed have multiple centres. I've touched on just some of them above.

But we don't see them as centres. Not us as citizens, not the city governers. We are very Roman in still, today, deferring to the `throne of power', the epicentre of Cape Town, ie the historic centre. The radial perspective of the city is still exactly how most of us Capetonians still see the city. And while it is true that the historic centre is, as Andrew says, “one of the few spaces in our divided city where a relatively diverse range of Capetonians meet each other on the streets, in the public spaces and at events”, surely the future of the city is one where this kind of diversity exists in multiple parts of the city.

The Manenberg Waterfront. A hot attraction in the next ten years, and the
centre of new Manenberg?

And so, for the moment, I would like to pose a set of questions.

How do we transform the city's other centres into spaces that we would consider `town'? How do we make Langa town centre a space that residents of Woodstock, for example, head to for entertainment?

How do the zones that most need the economic development, that would benefit most from the effects of diversity and densification, diversify? How does Bonteheuwel, for example, open up and attract a diversity of residents and a diverse internal economy?

And how do we start to see a place like Khayelitsha as the major urban centre that it is, rather than simply a township?

The Athlone Tower precinct from the sewerage works on the other side of the N2.
I'm excited to see what this all gets turned into. It could create a hot new node
for the city.

How do we change the language we use in order to change the way we see things? We know that in this city, the more we find each other across the boundaries mapped out by apartheid town planning, the more we change the way we experience and see and express the city.

Is there the space in, for example, Langa, a neighbourhood with a lot of heritage, to create a smart wired and smartly priced residential Piazza, with stunning views of the mountain, that can draw a diversity of young professionals as first time buyers who cannot afford an apartment in the old centre?

Why is Mzoli's about the only attraction in Cape Town's Cape Flats suburbs?

And how do we as citizens of Cape Town collectively imagine the future of the city?

Bonteheuwel, outside the library precinct in town centre.


  1. Lots of challenges. I live in wynberg (ottery road side). The recent fifa 'upgrades' demonstrated well the limits of the historical centre with little being done anywhere beyond woodstock.
    A start could perhaps be to upgrade 'cultural centres' - I'm not convinced that places like guga sthebe in langa really serve a purpose outside of selling to a handful of tourists.

  2. globilization and the internet mean that the centres of the future are virtual or shopping malls.the problem with the cultural centers is that they are run into the ground by corupt staff who operate them as their personal kingdoms and money making ventures.I have experienced this in langa and kayelitsha. they are actually hampering culture in some case's so a makeover is deff needed.in an age of aspirational media advertising its hard to redefine our pride and purpose and project it conceptually?the athlone site is a chance in a lifetime to break new ground-mmm one wonders if they'll get it right.

  3. Nice discussion topic but apart from Dublin, Bratislava and the far less-spoken about Talinn I can't find any EU Capitals larger than greater Khayelitsha (pop est 500,000). Johburg really is twice as big as Cape Town and probably growing faster. My guess is they're topping us by about 3million at present.

    To find your centres (where is mine?) try looking for mall footprints on Google Earth. Even Khayelitsha has a mall now. Sad I know but cathedrals are too expensive for Khayelitsha to maintain (which is why we built one in Greenpoint).

    A city initiative, www.VPUU.org has transformed the heart of Harare (a suburb in Khayelitsha) with community driven architectural and town planning responses to what you correctly perceive as a lack of infrastructure in poorer areas. Let's do what we can to support their very real efforts.


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I have a curious mind. I created Coffeebeans Routes, a travel company that creates experiences around urban stories, creativity and culture. I think in moving pictures.