Cape Town can save itself – Counter Currents: experiments in sustainability

From the Global Urbanist – a further review of Counter Currents:

Standing in contrast to the ‘doomful narratives and prophecies’ that surround urban development in Cape Town, Edgar Pieterse’s Counter Currents presents a radical project of optimism, bringing into collision the work of architects, planners, scholars, poets and sculptors to explore new possibilities for the city’s self-image.

MIRANDA IOSSIFIDIS,
Thursday, 7 April 2011

Counter Currents


“How do we manage and navigate our many unresolved tensions? Between the imperative of practice, of having to intervene in the city to make things better and at the same time being conscious that so much of the knowledge that exists about African cities is so reductionist and instrumentalised that it often adds to the problem.”

–Edgar Pieterse, editor of Counter Currents and director of the African Centre for Cities, London, January 26th.

Counter Currents brings together twenty-seven authors in a colourful and heady tome, somewhat intimidating in its breadth and breathless tone. In Pieterse’s words it is a ‘showcase of bold urban development initiatives by the state and private sector.’ It initially incites suspicion due to the emphatic use of the word ‘sustainable’. However sustainability is delineated early on to refer to economic, social, ecological, physical and political sustainability–urbanity, then–and the book engages critically with its different manifestations.

The premise of Counter Currents is anchored in disrupting doomful narratives and prophecies, through exposing inherently local strategies to the unique positioning of South African cities. As Pieterse notes, disaster is looming, but Cape Town can save itself, and the book is intended to exhibit recent experiments for Capetonians themselves to reflect upon, with ‘the aim of shifting public ideas and discourses about the kind of Cape Town we should be imagining and nurturing’.

Coming to this compendium as an outsider is thus a daunting premise, for the array of nuanced voices is intellectually exhausting. This is a reference book on newness, unfinished beginnings and threads of thought, tied together under loose headings of ‘sustainability dystopias’, ‘macro ambitions for urban sustainability’, ‘micro experiments in urban sustainability’, and ’embedding sustainability’.

However there is much to learn for those of us looking in from the outside regardless of the specificity of the content, palms are opened in an accessible way, and many Capetonian desires for alternative visions of the city are revealed that do not shy away from the complexities and tensions inherent in the city’s socio-economic, political and historic genealogy. The book engages with multiple scales in a fashion that does not lend itself to a short review, and as such I’ll look briefly at a few themes that cut across many of the chapters: memory and social justice, changing social values, and the strangeness of the real.

Memory and social justice

Lucien Le Grange and Nisa Mammon’s essay on the redevelopment of District Six looks at the tensions between social justice and the economics of land use in the centre of Cape Town. The authors emphasise the participation of displaced communities in the redevelopment process, alongside their struggle to return to such a prime real estate location with insufficient government subsidy. Since 1994, only 24 families have been repatriated.

The intricacies of this tale are teased out and told alongside the efforts of the government, developers and communities to construct forms of appropriate memorial and conservation on the rich historical site. Contradictions abound, as the collective memory of District Six is wound up not in empty buildings, but in the practices of its former residents, who cannot return.

The importance of place is dealt with in a complete different manner in Luyanda Mpahlwa’s chapter, which focuses on contemporary public housing design. A critical yet practical riposte to Cape Town’s legacy of creating new zones of exclusion through housing, it exemplifies one of the strengths of the book in the juxtaposition of theoretical, empirical, design and artistic projects.

AbdouMaliq Simone points out in his essay on the right to the city that ‘since enormous resources were spent to enforce a fractured urban landscape, ten years is hardly a sufficient amount of time to redo this architecture.’ The vacant plots in District Six are testament to the notion that governance and policy-making alone are insufficient to deal with the socio-economic reality of a large population of contemporary Cape Town, and Simone regards ‘the presence of urban residents themselves and their varied uses of each other as instruments to realise particular aspirations and imaginaries that constitute the most significant form of urban connectivity.’

Barbara Southworth’s piece continues this conceptual thread, tying it to her appraisal of the Dignified Places Programme and Municipal Spatial Development Framework which has implemented 70 projects in nine years. She details the ways it has shifted identity over the years, and has continuously sought to deal with issues of spatial equity and integration through public transport interchanges, public space and community facilities, in varying political and economic circumstances.

Changing cultural values

Alongside the physical challenges of ‘building an integrated city amongst the poisonous political practices,’ David Schmidt’s article on leadership provides key insights into Cape Town’s political history, and highlights the importance of the psychosocial challenge of building an integrated city. He reiterates Pieterse’s call to get to the heart of people’s choices through engagement with their desires–‘the desires of citizens, politicians, entrepreneurs, investors and developers, who are caught in the web of existing reward systems that simply reinforce unsustainable patterns of living and aspiration.’

The thematic circularity of the book is completed through a transcribed group discussion amongst many of the authors, where they reflect on theirs and others’ contributions. Here bold claims are made and tested, and the authors ruminate on their experience with local government and urban projects in a candid fashion, allowing the reader access to an intimate, local debate. Schmidt claims that ‘vision, social dysfunctionality and leadership are the three reasons why we find it quite difficult as Cape Town to realise our potential’, and counterbalances it with a representation of Cape Town whose citizens are inherently ambivalent to one another, caught between a desire for unity and undermining each other.

This viewpoint is taken up and challenged by successive authors, shfiting the focus onto the role of communities, the media, innovative institutions and the ‘we’ that they speak of, consistently interweaved and brought to life through discussion of the concrete. This roundtable serves as a neat allegory for the whole book; the reader is flown about myriad perspectives and empirical glances, flung up in the air and tied down again to realities.

The strangeness of the real

All authors resist recapitulating disaster meta-narratives that are so concerning within literature to be found at a grander scale. The inclusion of artists and poets serves the multifaceted nature of Cape Town that Counter Currents hopes to evoke through its remarkable interdisciplinary nature. Jane Alexander’s sculptures reveals ‘the necessity and grotesquerie that is hope’, and Ashraf Jamal’s consideration of her work makes appeals to the reader to think about the “real” lived Cape Town, through her ‘monstrous dreamscapes’. Alongside more practical or theoretical essays, they ‘assist us in understanding the strangeness of what we deem the real.’

Complementing more generic urban planning appraisals, Jamal argues that Alexander’s work expresses a Cape Town where–

‘the worlds of night and day, id and ego, the clandestine and the transparent, menace and glitter, are inseparable, folding one within the other … Alexander’s inhabitants of that city … remind us that we are actors in passing, paushing perhaps to ask “Where to?” while never truly expecting an answer, for the simple reason that there is none.’

Similarly, Counter Currents does not offer answers to the city it shadows, but is a fine accompaniment to a Cape Town in flux, as ever, as all cities are, proffering much in the way of insight and analysis. This city–the ‘Cape of Storms and the Cape of Good Hope at the same time’–is a uniquely complex case study from the perspective of local thinkers and practitioners presented in a well-designed and richly illustrated manner. Perpetually probing for glimpses of possible alternatives, the book avoids stagnation through an innovative multidisciplinary approach, combining poetry, photo-essays, and policy analysis alongside practical and theoretical essays, creating a rhythm of careful optimism.

Counter Currents: experiments in sustainability in the Cape Town region
Edited by Edgar Pieterse

Jacana, 272 pp, £24.95, March 2010, ISBN 978-1-77009-795-7


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