A Collective Urban Narrative for Cape Town

Density and racial identification

‘We need a shift of metaphors, to one that sees our democracy not as a house to be built, but as a conversation to be had.’ — Barack Obama in ‘The Audacity of Hope’.

For Cape Town, Obama's call to develop new metaphors is important. A collective narrative seems to be missing from the process by which the city will provide for housing, jobs and public services.

Various parties proclaim the need for (and some even try to realize) an overhaul of the urban ‘hardware’ of Cape Town. But this process can be highly conflictive: city planners push their policies, political party leaders seek electoral success on the back of taglines, investors and developers look for quick economic gain and the leaders of the townships call out for better facilities -- often speaking at cross-purposes. The conflicts are particularly evident in the debate on the development of the city. Plans for densification, for sprawl and for unplanned developments intersect.

For the city to develop coherently a conversation needs to emerge from these various strands of narrative.

A Khayelitsha Street, Cape Town, July 2013.

In 2012, the City Council accepted the Cape Town Densification Policy. This is an ambitious plan to increase the density of the existing city. The goal is to reach an average density of 25 units per hectare within the next 25 years, and then continue densifying.

That same year Cape Town also decided to stretch its boundaries to include Wescape, a 'new town' designed for 800,000 inhabitants situated on farmland 25 km north of the city. This is an example of big developers benefiting from political support due to their links with the ruling "Democratic Alliance".

Meanwhile, townships such as Khayelitsha are densifying fast, reaching densities of up to 300 (unscheduled) homes per hectare despite their location on the edge of town and their limited access to infrastructure or public transport.

So what can be bring to the (game)table?
The Dutch reputation for excellence in the field of integrated design is not only due to the talent of individual designers: Dutch planning culture is characterized by a horizontality which makes open dialogue possible between administrative and design professionals, opening up the process to ideas and innovation. By bringing Play Cape Town to Cape Town we hope to offer a means to open up the planning process and treat the question of densification comprehensively, involving the very people who make the city what it is at every level, from the builders to the policy-makers.

Every city could use a tool for public engagement in planning, but in Cape Town – a city so torn by conflicting interests – the need to initiate an open dialogue is acute.

During our visits to Cape Town, in July [Ekim Tan] and October [Jacob Buitenkant], Play the City spoke with many designers, researchers and managers. They were unanimous in their opinion that in Cape Town barriers must be broken to open up the planning process: not just spatial barriers but also social, administrative and political ones.

Progressive officials working in Cape Town´s Planning Department realize that changing this system of politically polarized planning is a prerequisite to making comprehensive urban renewal a success. The creation of an open, or ´horizontal´ culture of planning is a lengthy and potentially difficult process, and one in which Cape Town can benefit from cooperation with planning professionals from the Netherlands. It became clear to us during our visit that Cape Town craves open consultation and decision-making methods, both of which city gaming offers.Through gaming the city and its citizens can reclaim and rebuild a common story about their future, for both the short and long term.

Cape Town earned its title of World Design Capital for 2014 by listening to the ideas of ordinary people, and highlighting the change in complex urban situations that design has set in motion. The ambitions of WDC 2014 will be taken up by Play the City, together with its partners the City of Cape Town and the African Centre for Cities and Future Cape Town, with the introduction of a city game as a platform for open dialogue between stakeholders with conflicting or unexpressed interests. And Play Cape Town will be the beginning a long-term commitment to Cape Town.

With the design of Play Cape Town, Play the City aims to create new connections between existing players engaged in the city´s formation, in order to solve serious urban issues by tackling them collaboratively through an open and playful medium. By continuing to play the city in the coming years, players can make a real difference to their city: negotiating its development within an open platform that allows dialogue between seemingly conflicting concepts and interests.