Cape Town’s bid story

The City of Cape Town's successful bid for World Design Capital 2014 was coordinated by the Cape Town Partnership, in collaboration with a wide range of stakeholders and supporters.

Just Transitions: Towards a more sustainable city

Mark Swilling and Eve Annecke head up the University of Stellenbosch’s Sustainability Institute, which is housed in the Lynedoch EcoVillage – an experiment in and invaluable test case for a range of sustainable approaches, from mixed-income living to household sewerage composting.Their latest project is a book, Just Transitions, launched in February 2012.

As their home town, Cape Town gets a lot of coverage in the text (and is dealt with in detail in chapter nine). What do they have to say to local designers and urban planners? Mark and Eve warn against Cape Town simply looking at green urbanism – which seeks to minimise environmental impacts through techno-fixes and high-barrier economic programmes – rather than focusing on a truly socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable (or liveable, as they call it) urbanism. They propose a form of urbanism that goes beyond simply minimising damage, to designing systems and cities to actively restore life (both natural and social).

Rising to sustainability challenges

Just Transitions highlights some of the technical, environmental, financial and social constraints Cape Town needs to overcome on its journey to sustainability. As dour as this sounds, Mark and Eve are hugely optimistic about our desire and ability to tackle these issues, particularly when we consider the broad spectrum of life in our approach.

Building an inclusive city

The City of Cape Town has made impressive strides since 1994 to provide all citizens with access to basic services (they have been particularly successful with regard to energy and water, less so with sanitation). However, because the City worked within existing spatial relations, determined by apartheid, this has led to what Mark and Eve call a “uniquely South African” outcome: spatially segmented inclusive urbanism.

The challenge for design professionals and social entrepreneurs is to avoid being seduced into creating products and services for a well-connected elite, and rather to work with a broader range of communities to come up with innovative ways to address their problems. In planning the city, designers must consider ways to connect communities, whether physically or by providing spaces or opportunities for different people to come together.

Weaning off oil-dependence

Almost half (46%) of Cape Town's energy use is petrol or diesel, siphoning about R2-billion a year out of the city and into oil companies, according to Mark and Eve’s calculations. Designers and planners can come up with new ways to move people around the city, and encourage walking and cycling (through, for example, human-scale design of buildings and spaces) – in fact, these kinds of initiatives have become more common in recent years (Cape Town's MyCiTi bus and new cycle lanes are excellent examples).

Every drop counts

While in the Western Cape irrigation accounts for more than two-thirds of water use, in the City of Cape Town itself more than half of water demand is from homes. Considering Cape Town is notoriously water constrained, there are huge opportunities for design responses that could make a significant impact on our water useage. Eve and Mark point out that 61% of drinkable water in households is used for flushing toilets!

Wealth from waste

Just 14.5% of households – Cape Town's wealthiest – produce half of the city’s waste. Rich Capetonians produce 2kg of waste per person per day, compared with 500g per person for poor Capetonians. Half of this waste is easily recyclable glass, plastic, paper, and garden and organic waste. “In other words,” say Mark and Eve, “1.4 million kilograms per day of waste could be recycled and reused.” And there’s your design challenge right there.

They also point out that “the large bulk of existing sewage flow is not converted into reusable inputs” – composting, additives in brick-making and co-combustion in power stations are just three possibilities that have been explored by the City, according to Just Transitions. Fertile ground for design and entrepreneurial innovation!

Designers practicing leadership

When speaking to the role of design professionals in Just Transitions, Mark and Eve emphasise the need for adaptive leadership. In other words, when the problems are complex, professionals must try to avoid falling back on the technical solutions that they ‘know’ work: “new challenges [will] emerge that require niche innovations which are unlikely to be generated from within established knowledge networks.” Being open to debate and learning from a diverse range of people is essential to fostering the buy-in and innovation that will make sustainability work.

Know of designers tackling some of these sustainability challenges in interesting and compelling ways? Tell us about it on Facebook or on Twitter.

Just Transitions by Mark Swilling and Eve Annecke (2012) is published by UCT Press. It retails for R385, and is essential reading for serious sustainability practitioners. Order it online.

Text by Michelle Matthews Photos by Bruce Sutherland, City of Cape Town