“hundreds, if not thousands, of working-class, urban South Africans are robbed, murdered and raped in open fields”
Sean Dayton questions a disturbing phenomenon in Cape Town: nowhere spaces designed to help serial killers get away with murder.
In December 2014, a few days before Christmas, Cape Town police made the disturbing announcement that the bodies of six women had been discovered over the course of a few weeks in a large, open field near the Century City train station. The victims were believed to have been attacked while crossing the field on their way to or from the station.
While much fuss was made in the media about whether these murders were the work of a serial killer or whether they were unrelated incidents, not one report emphasised the role of the physical environment in facilitating these murders. None of the articles questioned the bizarre fact that a vast, open field separates the Century City station from its closest residential neighbourhood, a 200m gauntlet that rail users are forced to cross daily on their way to and from the station, as early as 5:30 in the morning and as late as 7:30 at night.
Sadly, for these 8 000 pedestrians, through a fluke of geographic bad luck, instead of passing right through, or under, the shopping center, the Century City train station had to be built on the existing rail line – on the opposite side of the major N1 highway
Completed in 2008, the station was built to serve its namesake – Century City – Cape Town’s adolescent, master-planned community that has, over the last 10 to 15 years, burgeoned into a mammoth mixed-use precinct of office blocks, condos and “Cape Venetian” architecture. The economic heart of this neighborhood is the colossal Canal Walk shopping center, Africa’s third largest. Every day, 8 000 commuters walk between Century City and the train station, mostly on their way to spend their time indoors at the mall working, shopping and being entertained.
Sadly, for these 8 000 pedestrians, through a fluke of geographic bad luck, instead of passing right through, or under, the shopping center, the Century City train station had to be built on the existing rail line – on the opposite side of the major N1 highway. Pedestrians trying to get to the mall have the unenviable choice of first walking across a shadeless, windswept overpass before trudging past a number of bleak parking lots, or having to wait for a bus to take them the last kilometre or so to their destination.
So, a national highway and a few hundred metres of parking lots creating spatial disconnect to the north and west. What of the south and east? On the same side of the highway as the station are the established residential suburbs of Windermere, Kensington and Acasia Park. All that separates them from the station is the big, open field where the grizzly discovery of 6 bodies was made late in 2014.
The morbid existence of a South African urban pedestrian
Every year hundreds, if not thousands, of working-class, urban South Africans are robbed, murdered and raped in open fields just like this one. Characterised by nowhere places such as this, our urban environment gives people little choice but to walk through fields like this every day on their way to and from public transit interchanges, to catch a train, a taxi, to get to work. These barren, desolate spaces are scattered throughout our cities, a common feature in every single South African metropolitan area. And strangest of all is that much of this land is well-located and often situated right next to transit infrastructure.
Whether it be underutilised military bases (think Ysterplaat or Wingsfield), or the spaces around so many of our train stations (Langa, Bonteheuwel, Lavistown, Somerset West and Century City stations to name a few), a common feature of these unused spaces is the fact that they are all owned by government (whether directly or indirectly through state-owned enterprises such as Transnet). And yet despite this fact, while much is said by our government policy-makers about the urgent need for well-located land for affordable housing in our cities, about the need for transit-oriented development and about how we must densify our cities, we are currently sitting with acres of prime real estate right on top of our railway stations within minutes of our downtowns – and we are doing nothing with this land!
Have we as South Africans become so accustomed to our sprawling cities that we have failed to grasp exactly what this land has to offer? We have the opportunity to build compact, vibrant urban environments right on top of our train stations. We have acres of empty land just waiting to be filled with a mix of mid-to-high rise buildings serving an abundance of uses – offices, residential, retail – multiple uses to ensure a steady flow of human life at all times of the day and night. As the Masters of urban design candidate, Azraa Rawoot, puts it, “these spaces offer infinite opportunity for creative infill and urban development”.
The problem is that in South Africa for decades the state was so obsessed with using railway lines (and other infrastructure) to separate and created buffers between communities. Instead of building neighbourhoods around train stations, we built our stations on the edges of our neighbourhoods, and surrounded them with wide-open spaces, uninviting and devoid of any life.
Rawoot, who is passionate about creating places and cities that are socially and sustainably attractive places to live in, says that these spaces are typically physically degenerated or derelict and commonly formed as the result of the South African history of segregation and sprawl in Apartheid planning and urban development, as well as the dominance of mass private vehicle ownership at the forefront of city space making. Today our suburban train stations (and those that use them) suffer as a result – instead of walking out of a station to find shops, flats, offices and civic buildings that support and create life, the rail user must navigate through a windswept, barren wasteland – hot and dusty in the day, and dangerous at night. Busy for a few hours in the mornings and afternoons and desolate for the rest of the day and night.
What is this urban environment telling pedestrians?
“Get a car!” As soon as you can afford it, buy a car so you can free yourself from the menacing journey on foot and from the villains lurking behind bushes waiting to rob you of your hard-earned cash (or even worse). While our automobile manufacturing industry would love every South African to own their own vehicle, are we not trying to move away from gridlocked streets and from the pollution caused by the congestion of tens of thousands of cars idling in rush-hour traffic? Should we not at least be trying to do everything we can to create walkable cities that are safe for the pedestrian? Unless we do something drastic soon, in the next twenty years as the South African middle class grows, we are going to witness an influx of private motor vehicle ownership on a staggering scale.
If we get our urban environment right and encourage people to be out on the street – make it compact enough and really give effect to transit-oriented development – we can make our public spaces safer. And the evidence is unquestionable – just look at the abundance of “broken window” and “crime prevention through environmental design” studies which demonstrate just how impactful our urban environment is at either encouraging or discouraging crime.
So what can Transnet do to make our train stations safer for its users?
It can start by developing the land that surrounds them, and doing so in a way that encourages the “eyes on the street” that Jane Jacobs famously referred to.
Fortunately for the Century City site, it looks like development plans are in the pipelines, and rail users from Windermere and Kensington may be provided with a safe walking route to the train station in the not-too-distant future. Eddie Seaton, senior manager at Transnet’s Corporate Real Estate division, confirmed that Transnet does have plans for the future redevelopment of this site, which is earmarked for mixed use development with “an emphasis on residential categories”. According to Seaton, it’s hoped that on-site development will become possible before 2020. What is required, he says, is municipal bulk infrastructure from the Voortrekker road side of the property.
For the local ward councillor and a longstanding Kensington resident, Lisa McBride, the vacant site has become a real headache for her community in recent years. In her view, the whole area should be reimagined. Let’s hope that Councillor McBride can mobilise her community in coming years in, firstly lobbying the city council to provide the bulk infrastructure that the site needs for redevelopment, and secondly, to engage with Transnet on the details of the development plans for the site. In this way, we can at least start giving effect to our politicians’ promises of increasing density close to the economic opportunities of the inner city, in a way that will also make public transport safer for our communities.
- How Bree street in Joburg reveals potential for new forms of urbanity to emerge?
- South Africa’s hopes of planning better cities and communities
- Planning a Sustainable Transportation System
- Cover picture: https://runningthecape.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/img00363-20120217-0953.jpg
- Images (all highway areials ) : Etienne du Plessis
- Trancik, R. Finding Lost Space: Theories of Urban Design. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1986.
- Trancik, R. Finding Lost Space: Theories of Urban Design. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1986.
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- 3 SA initiatives giving Cape Town a run for its money – June 25, 2013
- Transport for Cape Town: A new era for South Africa – October 19, 2012