Last Thursday Cape Town achieved a major milestone in the democratisation of this city with the launch of Transport for Cape Town, the city’s new integrated transport management agency. At the launch, the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Professor Francis Petersen, announced a partnership between the University and the City of Cape Town (CoCT) to examine the future of the incomplete foreshore freeways.
On the face of it this is good news; the future of the Foreshore Freeways has been hanging in the air – much like the freeways themselves – ever since the full elevated city ring road concept was abandoned in the 1960s (largely due to lack of funding rather than a damascene change of heart by the city authorities or rumours of shopkeeper resistance).
A partnership between the CoCT and UCT will harness some of the brightest young students in Cape Town to develop an international design brief for proposals to complete the unmade sections of the freeways, creating a project that could be a centrepiece of Cape Town’s status as World Design Capital 2014 (WDC2014).
But before we start slapping ourselves on the backs and popping champagne corks, closer examination of the details in this proposal leave room for some considerable concern.
Principle amongst these is the implicit assumption in the proposal as currently drafted, that completing the foreshore freeways would be a Good Thing To Do. But on what basis is this assumption made? Has sufficient (or any) work been done to determine this? And why are the terms of reference so narrowly drawn?
This project will produce design concepts to be showcased as part of WDC 2014 – surely the first step in any responsible design process (especially one embedded in a pillar of the academic establishment) is to ask: Why? Closely followed by: Who for? Nowhere in the terms of reference (TOR) is there any suggestion that such an investigation will form part of the process, instead these terms are particularly narrow, including (and I quote):
- “The economic, technical, structural and design viability and integrity of the potential completion of the unmade freeway
- the investment and development potential
- the infrastructure capacity
- financial modelling for a turnkey investment”
This rather suggests that a decision has already been made that the freeways should be completed, and the role of the students is simply to find the best (engineering) solution for their completion.
Which brings me to a second concern. UCT’s Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment (EBE) is overwhelmingly an engineering establishment. The vast majority of the student body, teaching staff and leadership are engineers. Don’t get me wrong – I have no issue with engineers. Some of my best friends are engineers (maybe). But this a question of approach. At the core of the Engineers approach is to ask: How? And when that is the right question to ask, then engineers are the right people to be asking it. But I’m not convinced that it is the right question, at least not yet, and not on its own.
But the EBE faculty also includes the School of Architecture, Planning & Geomatics. At least nominally it does. Sadly, the interaction between staff and students in this school and the rest of the faculty is minimal. And with a total complement of only a few hundred students, the influence of this school on the rest of the faculty is equally slim. Yet it is the approach of architects, planners and urban designers that is needed here – an approach that asks: Why? Who for? Who benefits? How do we create the optimum benefit? But from the way in which the proposal is written, the School of AP&G is unlikely to get a look in on this one.
To return to the overall purpose of this proposal, which is:
“to review and consider existing proposed conceptual design reports of the incomplete sections of the Foreshore Freeway and to draft innovative design proposals for the incomplete sections of the Foreshore Freeway taking into account its importance and critical function not only in improving access to the City, but also improving living and working conditions for people in the CBD and surrounds”.
Surely such a study needs to begin with an open and honest appraisal of transport needs – in terms of individual drivers versus those using public transport; the need for strategic versus local connectivity; the requirements of wheeled transport versus those of the pedestrian; and the requirements of transport in general versus the quality of the streetscape and public realm?
And even from a vehicular transportation point of view, surely it needs to consider how effective the completion of the freeways would be? It has been demonstrated in transport and urban planning studies in the UK and USA that creating more road space does not alleviate congestion, at least not for long – instead it increases demand leading to equal congestion only by more vehicles (with consequent increased carbon emissions, worse pollution, etc.). Increasing vehicle capacity for private vehicles also undermines the viability of public transport – to do this at precisely the time that Cape Town is introducing one of the best public transport systems in the country is simply madness! Consider too, that the worst congestion is not actually in and around the CBD. What is the point in increasing capacity on the Foreshore if bottlenecks remain at Hospital Bend (the N2/M3 junction), on the M5, at Vanguard Drive, and etc.?
In cities the world over, elevated ring roads are coming down (see Madrid Rio Park, or Boston’s Big Dig); road space is being re-prioritised in favour of the pedestrian, cyclist and public transport; redundant transport infrastructure is being reinvented as public parks and open space (as at New York City’s High Line); and citizens are rediscovering the joys and benefits of inhabiting rather than simply moving through the spaces of our cities. Now is not the time to be revisiting and completing a relic of apartheid and modernist utopian planning, at least not without an overwhelming body of evidence that demonstrates the necessity for it.
What this research proposal requires are bold ideas, uncluttered thinking and innovation. There is little in the existing TOR that suggests we will get much of that: and a great opportunity for remaking this city to serve the majority of its citizens will be lost for another couple of generations. If the EBE Dean could bring himself to drop in on the Centlivres building, and spend some time with my 3rd year architectural students – he would find a ready made laboratory of ideas for the future of the Foreshore Freeways; from parks and urban farming, to skate-board and cycling highways … And that’s before he’s spent time with the many other talented architectural, planning, landscape architectural and urban design students in the building.
Most importantly, the realisation of any proposals that come out of this process shouldn’t burden the city with an albatross around its neck, cutting off the city from the harbour and waterfront – and creating a massive headache for future generations: consider the lesson of Boston, which has spent billions of dollars over the last 10 to 15 years taking down their existing inner city elevated freeway system and burying it underground. I’m not suggesting that’s the right solution for Cape Town, but if it is it would be far simpler to do it now while there is still relatively little development in, around and under the freeways, than it would be in future.
Finally, has anyone stopped to consider how much the hanging freeways have become part of Cape Town’s idiosyncratic character? A totemic, Ozymandian landmark to the misguided efforts of those self-appointed heroes of the modern movement, who sought to impose their will on the city. Unlike the scar that is District 6 – this is perhaps an historic mistake that does not need to be healed …