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Cape Town’s Mayor on using design to transform a City, and build its future

If we had to reflect for a moment on what the City would look like if we had to design and build it from scratch, it would probably look very different. Gone would be the dormitory towns that were the signature pieces of Apartheid planners. We would probably have more dense, more clustered areas near commercial centres. These might be at different nodes around the city.

Those commercial centres might include the harbour area and airport, both of which would be working around the clock as major regional transport hubs. Our neighbourhoods would be more integrated, our homes built with environmental sustainability in mind. We would be able to get from one part of the city to another by rail, bus, taxi or even sea.

We don’t live in that city. Not yet anyway. We live in a city divided by Apartheid spatial planning, built with only a recent concern for urban sprawl. We are replicating transport links to make up for the failings of nationally-controlled State enterprises to invest in rail infrastructure.

We live in a city divided by Apartheid spatial planning, built with only a recent concern for urban sprawl.

It is only in recent years that we have moved from building box houses for the poor to live in in the middle of nowhere, to more integrated community-centred settlements. And we have only recently taken the lead in planning for city-sustainability in recent years.

We know we are moving in the right direction to get to our ideal. Or at least, we are designing our city, in as much as we can, working with what we have, in order to do so.

For me, this is the central thesis of the City of Cape Town’s approach to the World Design Capital 2014: Excellence in design is using what you have to realize what you want.

It is designing the change we want to see in our city using the very building blocks of which our city is comprised. It is these realities that help us focus on the outcomes we want to see for 2014.

I thought about these themes on a recent trip to Lagos in Nigeria, where fellow African mayors and I strategised with academics, developers and others to contemplate the future of the African city.

It was there that I realised that the key to our success in becoming global leaders in terms of sustainability and adapting to the pressures of the twenty-first century was rooted in what we had to work with. By using design, we could transform housing developments into desirable homes that hold value for the poor, as home ownership does for the middle-class. We could provide a level of service to those who are living in informal settlements because they moved to Cape Town to find a better life. And by that I mean creating vibrant, liveable spaces which can be extended as needed.

We could be smarter about how we use the space in our urban centres. We could adapt future developments to be more environmentally-friendly. We could do all of these things and more. But it goes back to my thesis: We use what we have to get to what we want.

Naturally, I take a special interest in the design of cities because of my role. But this is a very macro-view. And it is not a view of design from some grand central point that believes we should plan absolutely for the future and absolutely never allow deviations.

We don’t build cities in the ideal mode and expect them to remain that way.

Cities don’t work like that. And neither does design. Humanity and all of its variety happens in between.

And what is design but the application of our humanity, and the search for excellence, elegance and solutions, to the problems that we face?

Cities grow organically. Deliberate design complements that organic growth and becomes a part of its make-up, so that the city and design become part of the same DNA. This is what we mean when we work towards the ideal: We combine our natural energy and growth with the deliberate purpose of design. We change the inevitable by combining with the aspirational.

Design is not about central planning. It is about networks that jointly make up an attitude, an approach and a direction. The product of those networks combined is what will transform this city.

This is where we stand, ushering in that great transformation that, I believe, will have a real impact on the lives of our citizens. The City of Cape Town is proud to act as the facilitator of this moment, signing the agreement that will bring the World Design Capital to our great city in 2014.

We have partners across sectors in this undertaking. The task of transforming the city is one that requires the energies of as many partners as possible, within our borders and without.

We sign on behalf of those partners. And we sign on behalf of the people of Cape Town. Above all, we sign for a new way of thinking, one that sees opportunities not obstacles, challenges not dead-ends, and the roadway for other cities to follow in building a better future.

The following is an extract from a speech delivered by the Executive Mayor on the occasion of the City of Cape Town signing the host agreement for the World Design Capital 2014.