Thursday, 26 November 2020 11:03

Post-Covid Cape Town: A Tale of Two Cities or a 'New Normal'?

Written by David Bettesworth
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In our April newsletter, written during the height of the Lockdown here in South Africa, our focus was on assuring our clients that Bettesworth Scott was open for business. That is by the way, still very much the case and we would love to assist you with any planning related needs you have. The City’s planning office for example is now operating at almost 100% of its pre-Lockdown capacity, with advertising and decision making all occurring in a “business as usual” manner.

In this Newsletter, however I would like change tack a bit and pause to contemplate the “New Normal” that seems to be emerging as we move into 2021 and hopefully into a phase of post Covid socioeconomic re-building.

As I am sure we are all aware, in spite of 26 years of democracy, Cape Town has remained very much “A Tale of Two Cities”, to borrow from the title of an old book.

If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic has accentuated the divide between rich and poor, between informal and formal, and notably between “First World” urban environments where everything seems to work and is highly regulated and “Third World” urban environments which are essentially about informality and survival and where almost nothing is regulated.

To illustrate the point, one of our clients has had their development project seriously disrupted during the Lockdown by rapid and extensive informal land invasion. Other parts of the City were similarly affected during the Lockdown period. As planners it is our job to zero in on the spatial implications of things and so for now I’ll steer away from speculating as to the causes of these land invasions. Suffice to say, all is not well in Cape Town and we need to act urgently.

Travel through the poorest/informal sections of the City and one might as well tear up the Zoning Scheme and National Building Regulations, which in theory apply to exactly the same extent as in Camps Bay or Summer Greens. In the middle of Du Noon or parts of Imizamo Yethu, it seems absurd to debate building line setbacks, boundary wall heights and separation of land uses, when the primary focus needs to be providing basic water and sanitation facilities and preventing shacks being destroyed by fire or flooding

And yet Cape Town has a Municipal Planning By Law, the Development Management Scheme (zoning scheme or DMS) and a host of other planning regulations and enforcement systems that would be the envy of many a First World Country. In fact, the typical planner assisting a client with a simple house extension in Camps Bay, has a host of sophisticated regulations and laws to navigate, from a multi-page guide on how to interpret the 4m height restriction within 3m common boundary provision in the DMS, to engaging with surveyors and conveyancers in order to respond to the objector’s (similarly extensive) professional team’s arguments relating to building height measurement or title deed restrictions.

So not only is Cape Town “A Tale of Two Cities”, it is a tale of totally different spatial realities that require more nuanced approaches to planning than is currently the case.

What are the solutions to this dilemma, which echoes across most South African cities? And what planning mechanisms and tools do we need to facilitate the meaningful spatial transformation which is so desperately needed?

As a starting point, it is essential to have a clear vision as to where we want to end up. What does a spatially transformed Cape Town look like? Secondly, we have to have a clear set of measurable goals in order to consistently work towards achieving this vision. Then we need to have collective by-in to this vision, with all major stakeholders such as developers, the receiving communities, politicians, officials, development professionals, subsidized housing beneficiaries actively working in tandem.

Surely a key part of this vision is achieving densified mixed use public transport corridors and nodes i.e. Transit Orientated Development (TOD). The tools are there to achieve this, such as the expanding MyCiti bus network and favourable spatial planning policy. However, how does this help us if the receiving communities continue to oppose these developments, resulting in delays and often planning application refusal?

Add to the mix, that the world is changing and vast numbers of us will most likely never return to our corporate office buildings – or at least not in the same way. Surely this presents a massive opportunity to reinvent our CBDs and other commercial office nodes as areas for accessible and more affordable housing - through repurposing former office blocks? The demand for such housing and the willingness for developers to respond is surely there, but how does it help if the regulatory system is so complex that it can easily take say two years and a complex planning process to achieve such a retrofit?

So yes the challenges are daunting, but all is not “doom and gloom”!

By way of example, the City is currently embarking on a comprehensive 5 yearly review of the Planning By Law and DMS. This presents an ideal opportunity to repurpose these planning laws as instruments that are more nuanced and responsive to the vastly different spatial realities that comprise our City. For example why not create simpler base zones, but then make greater use of the overlay zone mechanism to address areas of the City (such as the more affluent areas) that do require a greater degree of regulation?

Other mechanisms and incentives must also be introduced to fast track priority spatial transformation as set out in the collectively agreed spatial planning vision. For example why not add extra floor area concessions to overlay zones along identified TOD corridors and nodes, especially if affordable (inclusionary) housing forms a component of the development? Why not reduce development contribution levies and increase infrastructure spending in these corridors and in key nodes such as Bellville in order to incentivize spatial transformation related private sector development?

Remember that the private sector development industry is not an endless “cash cow”! Make development too risky or too expensive and it simply won’t happen/will happen elsewhere. Why not create fast track planning and building plan approval systems for office to residential retrofits, in the CBD and other key nodes and corridors? Greater private sector planner and architect self-certification should also be allowed, so that planning officials can be redeployed where they are most needed – such as in the spatial planning and property management departments – to enable the rapid release of strategically located City land for spatially transformational development.

I should of course add that all of the above would create a significant number of employment opportunities in the construction industry and related property professions. The construction industry, which is presently almost on its knees, is a massive employer of unskilled labour and we currently have an unemployment and poverty crisis.

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, NIMBY’ism, over regulation and conservative official and political decision making, must be seriously dialed back in our City if we have any chance of a meaningful future. For how much longer are we going to dig our heads into the sand and pretend that the massive poverty and housing crises sometimes not even a few kilometers away from us, do not exist?

Surely, collectively as citizens of “the Fairest Cape in all the earth”, we need to urgently take bold steps to ensure real and measurable progress with spatial transformation. We need strong political leadership; communities willing to be inclusive and who no longer view development as a problem, but rather part of the solution. We need a clear and bold vision and effective planning mechanisms to achieve it.

We need a “New Normal”!

- David Bettesworth

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