“we will act as a watchdog against any development that does not fit in with this vision”
The proposal to build a mall at Princess Vlei was overturned over a year ago by the City of Cape Town. But what has happened since? Rifqah Naidoo visited the site to find out what the future holds for this iconic princess.
In the past few years in Cape Town, the construction of malls, housing and entirely new “cities”, on green space has dominated the urbanism debate. More importantly these debates have made into the mainstream media and have drawn in a wider spectrum of communities, often sidelined in these discussions. One such issue, was the now overturned proposal to build a shopping mall at Princess Vlei wetland.
Cultural heritage of Princess Vlei wetland
Situated alongside the M5 highway in Cape Town, Princess Vlei is a green area, a wetland, a public space, rich in cultural heritage, home to indigenous birds, including the African Fish Eagle and Great White Pelican and critically endangered fynbos. The area is also used by local fisherman for the wealth of fish life it contains. Most notably, “it sits between areas previously designated as white and as coloured under Apartheid, a social and economic division that still persists today” as described by Ralph Borland, an artist and researcher at the University of Cape Town.
My mother fondly recalls her parents taking her to the vlei on weekends for family picnics and the sense of community it fostered for marginalised groups in Cape Town. – Rifqah Naidoo
During the years of apartheid, it became one of the few natural, open space areas that coloured people could visit, after they were forcibly removed by the government to various housing estates on the Cape Flats. While it is loved by many, it has been neglected over the year and became further tainted when Prince George Drive was built through it with little regard for conserving its ecology.
In 1998, the first plan to build a new mall under the guise of economic development was reported. During this time, the vlei had been degraded after years of neglect by the City authorities. According to the website of the Princess Vlei Forum, this neglect began in the sixties, a symptom of “the apartheid city managers’ callous disregard for the living environment of ‘coloured residents’”.
Then in 2002, developers applied for the land to rezoned as commercial and building the mall thus depended on this rezoning, subdividing and selling the land. In response to the mall development threat, concerned community members and environmentalists formed the Princess Vlei Forum to protect the vlei from this development, and to “fight for the right of communities to decide on how our city’s natural resources should be used”.
After various assessments, studies, resistance and repeated appeals to the City to end the developer’s bid— the proposal was successfully campaigned against in March 2014 by the communities around and beyond the area, headed by the Princess Vlei Forum. The decision by the Executive Deputy Mayor, Alderman Ian Neilson came as a surprise to local community and Forum members. “The City of Cape Town has listened to the community and decided that the proposal for a shopping centre on the Princess Vlei land is inappropriate and will cancel the project. As an inclusive city, we urge residents to work with us to develop an alternative vision for this land.” said Neilson.
“Since the forum’s inception in 2012 to coordinate efforts to protect Princess Vlei, the Forum has grown steadily, and now has a support base of 900 people on its mailing list, and an active membership of over 90 individuals and organisations” says Bridget Pitt, secretary for the Princess Vlei Forum. Zimbabwean born, Pitt is an author, art facilitator and founding member of the Princess Vlei Forum serving as the secretary since 2013. She is passionate about community and environmental issues, and has co-authored a book on involving community on urban nature conservation. In the 1980’s she worked as a teacher on the Cape Flats and was a journalist and social activist in the anti-apartheid struggles.
What happened since the creation of Princess Vlei Forum?
Several questions have been raised specifically about the now defunct proposal to build a mall on a sensitive wetland‒ how does it benefit the community as a whole and not just the economic elite? Does it serve to allow for more functionally integrated communities and if so, what is the way forward to implement and sustain these initiatives? But perhaps a question that is as important, while this victory was obtained, what now and who will lead and resource the maintenance and regeneration of this space?
At Princess Vlei, the implementation of the principle of community engagement starts with bringing together the community to recognize the innate richness of the vlei and restoring its natural beauty through litter clean ups. Not only do these clean ups help with the immediate conservation but they instill an appreciation in the next generation through education and fun experience, according to Pitt. They do not however completely address the levels of contamination in the water which require a much bigger and resource intensive process. So how can the community truly leverage the potential of this key public space?
As the sun shimmered off the wings of a Pied King fisher above the waters of Princess Vlei, a group of school children gathered on the side. The children and a group of concerned community members had come together as part of the initiative to celebrate the start of National Water Week. The Princess Vlei Forum has hosted many awareness events at the Vlei to recognize and promote the importance of its preservation also to protect the wildlife inhabiting the Vlei. A ‘cleanup and canoe’ event and ‘The Guardians of the Future: Save the Birds’ took place in March and April this year respectively. This event launched the annual ‘Flight of Dreams’ program, which is aimed at inspiring the youth to understand and value birds and other wildlife at Princess Vlei.
At the Guardians of the Future event, the learners from local schools role-played visitors from a future without birds. “Their task was to go out and observe the birds at Princess Vlei, think about what the bird needs to survive, and come up with the ideas for how we can ensure that we have birds in the future” says Pitt.
“When I heard about how the Vlei was one thousand years ago, compared to how it is today in 2015, I realised that we have to find ways to make a difference now otherwise we will have no birds in the future” says one of the students. Her teacher, Ingrid Solomons, agrees: ‘The whole experience was educational at so many levels a true outdoor classroom. The fact that it was in the form of a game made it that much more interesting for the learners. There is great value in the concept of “outdoor classrooms” which equip our future guardians with firsthand experience of the importance of preserving the environment and contributes to lessons of responsibility and life orientation.”
Gathering momentum for a new plan
More recently in a community hall in Grassy Park, over 20 activists, neighbourhood residents and teachers came together to discuss the progress of the Princess Vlei Precinct Plan with government officials. “The forum has been committed to building a broad-based, transparent and democratic organization that can gather the views of interested groups, facilitate the formulation of a community vision for the space, and act as liaison between the City and the community” says Pitt. At the meeting it was concluded that the City was willing to liaise with the Forum as a “Friends” type of community custodianship group in the transformation and management of Princess Vlei.
The anxiety about the future of the vlei was evident at the meeting, with concerns raised by the members related to financing, safety and security. The safety issues described related to access control for visitors to the Vlei, while the financing concerns related to the lack of an operational budget allocated to the Vlei. The community was curious as to how the City decided on a budget per neighourhod or space as well as the definition for “disadvantaged areas”. “More pressure is needed to be placed on authorities to ensure a more equitable allocation of budget” said Elton Rinquest, local activist and COSATU member, commenting on the standard of services at Princess Vlei compared to other public spaces in the city.
“We welcome ideas from the community in approaching local stakeholders to assist with corporate sponsorships and possibly social responsibility portfolios to aid the transformation of the vlei” commented Philip Bam, chairman of the Princess Vlei Forum. “It is not just about us, the Forum, we are the watchdogs, we are not going to operationalize the intentions of the strategic vision of the vlei but I would imagine we are here not just in our own personal capacity but in the interest of our neighbours and our broader community as well so we must make sure that that interest is represented in the relationship going forward” expressed local resident, Lorna Houston, on honouring the historical and cultural heritage of the vlei so that future generations can benefit from this .
Fay Howa, the Conservation manager of Princess Vlei for the City Parks department of the City of Cape Town indicated that she is “optimistic going forward”, since the decision for Princess Vlei Forum to be the community liaison group enables it to access and ring fence funding from other national and local government sources. She added that “local business buy in is also essential which could work together with the recognized body for the Vlei.”
The People’s Plan was the original spark to develop the vision at Princess Vlei. This has been modified and deepened through several community consultation processes, and was consolidated in a document handed to the City in March last year. The community vision, which has informed the City’s plan, is now entitled Imagine Princess Vlei – A community Vision.
“The Forum has welcomed the City’s willingness to engage with the community on the transformation of Princess Vlei. However, there is concern that the process has been extremely slow, and that the City has still not given clarity on when the plan will be ready for public comment” says Pitt.
At the most recent Annual General Meeting, the City presented the Forum with a framework with principles which would guide any development around the vlei and also presented an example of what sort of activities one could have around the vlei, e.g. markets, jetties, etc. Once this proposal has been approved by the relevant City departments, and considered by the Forum, the Forum will work with the City on enabling a process of thorough and meaningful community engagement. It was decided that the Forum together with the City would initiate a public participation process with an Open Day where the city would make its framework public at a local community venue.
“While the City, as owner of the land, is a key stakeholder, the Forum intends to work actively on the site; to monitor and support the City’s efforts in so far as they correspond with the community vision for the site, and to act as a watchdog against any development that does not fit in with this vision. We will also work to raise funds for infrastructure, and to continue with our active program to make community members aware of the environmental, recreational and heritage values of the site, and to benefit from and make use of it” adds Pitt.
While the bold vision for Princess Vlei has now gained some momentum, some questions are still unanswered and some challenges remain ahead. It is still unclear whether the City’s framework will inspire action from the citizens, community and private sector. In fact, a new model for the upgrading and maintenance of this valuable wetland and public space may be needed. But, with an active and passionate group of residents and activists, having lead the campaign against the proposal for a mall for over 10 years, there is hope that the right ingredients are already in place for this important recreational space celebrating the Khoisan cultural heritage of Cape Town.
To connect and keep updated with the upcoming events, visit http://www.princessvlei.org/ .
- Bold City: A Bold Vision for Princess Vlei
- Defending Cape Town’s Princess
- Bridging communities through design
- Picture 1. @googlemaps2015
- Picture 2. From Princess Vlei Forum website
- Picture 3-8: Photographs taken by Rifqah Naidoo on March 14 2015.