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A Visit to Cape Town

Like all South African cities, Cape Town is a city with a complicated history.  But the city’s natural setting is breathtaking.  Its central district declined along with most other cities, but, under the leadership of Andrew Boraine, Chief Executive of the Cape Town Partnership and former city manager, it is making a big comeback.  Andrew toured me through the district Wednesday after I spoke to the National Business Initiative and Accelerate Cape Town.  (More on Accelerate Cape Town and its leader Guy Lundy tomorrow.) 

The most striking part of the central district is the take back of space from cars and converting it to pedestrian space.  Andrew has been heavily influenced by Copenhagen-based planner Jan Gehl, the champion of pedestrians, who advises cities to take away space for cars by stealth over time.  We saw multiple streets that have been closed in very simple ways --  gates dropped at half blocks to prevent cars from going farther, turning the remaining street into a pedestrian space. Cape Town has also removed parking from at least one square, converting it back into public realm. 

One result of the increased pedestrian activity is a boom in coffee shops.  Two hundred of them have sprung up in the central district.  To accelerate pedestrian activity, new buildings are required to use first floor space as retail shops or restaurants.

Informal markets are thriving in downtown Cape Town.  There are 1400 informal traders in the central districts.  The markets are encouraged – “We want to promote life on the street” – but Andrew would like to see more authentic Cape Town crafts available in the market. 

To promote the city’s culture, Andrew has produced a CD of Cape Town music that is being distributed to clubs worldwide and he is hoping to take over old City Hall – a beautiful building – to convert it to a music venue.

Andrew is pushing more aggressive densification in the city, making sure, though, to preserve view corridors.  It was interesting to hear Andrew quote Gehl on density exactly as Melbourne chief architect/planner Rob Adams quoted Gehl to me last summer.  People don’t like density?  Refer them to Barcelona.  That’s what appropriate densification looks like. 

Andrew even refers to Cape Town’s St. George’s Mall, the street that ran from sea to mountain until the sea was pushed out a mile, as “our Ramblas.”  Andrew hopes to tear down the freeway that separates the central district from the ocean.

As in Jo’burg, the 2010 World Cup is being used to speed development on transit and, of course, a new stadium.  “2010 realigned the politics on transit in the city,” according to Andrew by moving the city (in addition to the provincial government) into transit.  

Turns out that FIFA host city agreements are powerful motivators for action.  Even an accidental conversation with someone attending a meeting of South African and Botswana security officials pointed to 2010 as the reason for the gathering and increased security concerns.    

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