Envisioning a new city: the Two Rivers Urban Park ambition


If the vision for Two Rivers Urban Park is realised, this complex but promising concept will showcase a new, integrated way of building cities.

Almost 22 years into democracy, South African cities are still mostly segregated by race and class. The affluent neighbourhoods are on the most beautiful and fertile pieces of land, and poor townships in the most vulnerable, uninspiring and inconvenient places. One project that aims to counter this spatial legacy of apartheid in Cape Town is the Two Rivers Urban Park (TRUP).

This proposed mixed-use, large-scale urban development is a partnership between the Western Cape Government and the City of Cape Town, assisted by local and international experts. The TRUP precinct lies north-east of the Cape Town CBD, at the confluence of the Black and Liesbeek rivers. The South African Astronomical Observatory, Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital and Oude Molen eco-village are some of the existing features of this largely undeveloped tract of land. In view of its social, historical, environmental and economic importance, the municipality prepared a comprehensive spatial development framework for the area. TRUP is surrounded by the suburbs of Athlone, Pinelands, Rondebosch, Observatory, Maitland, Mowbray and Langa, all of which are still largely segregated by race.

It is anticipated that around 20 000 people will eventually live in the area, if TRUP is developed in line with the current vision. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) international telescope project and Western Cape Emergency Medical Services are headquartered in the precinct. The Cape Health Technology Park (CHTP) already houses the BIOVAC public-private vaccine development partnership; a project set for expansion in the near future. The National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) has shown interest in moving to the CHTP as well. These are some of the economic activities that will provide work opportunities for the residents of TRUP, one of the key components of the live-work-play model.

Creating space for the river

Because it is located between two rivers, TRUP has unique ecological features. Both rivers experience a degree of pollution due to the overflow of storm water, open sewerage and street refuse. The total size of the precinct is about 250ha, and a large proportion lies in a floodplain. About 120ha of land has development potential.

Henk Ovink, special envoy for International Water Affairs of the Kingdom of The Netherlands, is providing expertise on large, innovative water management projects for TRUP. “The TRUP precinct is a great location, literally at the intersection of both waterways and railroads. Close to the city and the coast, it is an internode in the city. It is a complex situation, but if you get it right, it will literally serve the city and become a great example for the country and the rest of Africa,” he says

Francois Joubert, senior manager special projects at the  Western Cape Transport and Public Works Department, explains the project is currently in the exploration phase, trying to understand how the rivers behave.

“It could be that the river will have to be realigned in places, as it is now all over the place, and not healthy,” says Joubert.  “We could plan to have some of the buildings close to the river in a waterfront type environment. If that is possible, we could reclaim 10 or 15 hectares from the river for that. That land will be hugely valuable. We will need to put in water purification systems, reed beds, and we are considering biomimicry to guide design approaches to managing the river. We told the designers to go beyond preconceived ideas of managing flooding risk and explore the widest range of possibilities, even if this means passing enabling provincial legislation and municipal by-laws. At the moment nothing really keeps us from dreaming. We are not seeing anything as a stumbling block. We are looking at the opportunities the area presents.”

Bulk infrastructure and transport

Bulk infrastructure for TRUP is currently under investigation. The current available bulk infrastructure will not be sufficient to serve the envisaged development. A conventional approach to providing roads, water and sewerage would render the scheme unaffordable, so a paradigm shift is necessary.

According to Tamsin Faragher, principal professional officer in the Development Facilitation Unit, Office of the City Manager, achieving the TRUP vision requires using alternative technologies to fill the gap between currently available bulk infrastructure and what is needed. The TRUP precinct will largely have to function off the grid.

Going off-grid requires enough critical mass to make this technology viable. Initial proposals for one portion of the TRUP site envisaged such an approach, but the project team was advised that going off-grid would not be feasible at that scale. Now that the potential catchment area is much bigger, there may be enough critical mass to allow TRUP to function partly and substantially off-grid. “We concluded that it actually is feasible to (a) develop in this area, and (b) go off-grid, hopefully to the extent that we want to,” says Faragher.

Transport infrastructure also needed innovative thinking, particularly because conventional developments focus on facilitating road transport. Instead of building a new road traffic intersection, the design team realised that seven existing railway stations lie close to the edges of the TRUP precinct and are a short walk away. These stations provide a link to three major city train routes – the Bellville (northern suburbs) line, the Simon’s Town (southern suburbs) line, and the Cape Flats line. Paths are thus envisaged that would allow pedestrians to quickly traverse the site, something that is currently not possible. “That was a very important shift in the process,” says Faragher.

“Our vision is to limit car use to 22%, down from the usual 60%. This is hugely ambitious, but if we don’t try, we’ll never get there.”

Joubert says going green with current technology appears to be 10% more expensive. All buildings built in TRUP would have an energy efficiency equivalent to a five or six Green Star rating. “Our aim is not so much to get recognition from the Green Building Council South Africa, but rather to find solutions and ways of managing the limited resources available to us efficiently and effectively without increasing capacity,” says Joubert.

Local examples, buy-in and partnerships

All partners agree teamwork is imperative to the successful realisation of a project like this. Partnerships between government spheres, designers, engineers and residents are essential. The development has a projected timeframe of 20-30 years. In order to make it sustainable over this time, it will be underpinned by formal agreements between the Western Cape Government and the City of Cape Town, led by a manifesto to be signed by all participating stakeholders.

Prof. Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town (UCT), stresses the importance of creating a broad support base. Pieterse says: “Public participation on the project is limited and inevitably there will be people and constituencies who will feel left out. More public engagement is needed and should be budgeted and planned for in order to sufficiently engage and enrol the public.”

Development within TRUP boundaries is currently governed by the Two Rivers Urban Park contextual framework and phase 1 environmental management plan, Final Report (2003). The framework was the culmination of a seven-year public participation process done in partnership with the landowners and stakeholders within the TRUP boundary (then excluding Ndabeni). TRUP Association acting chair, Louise Badenhorst, says the TRUP Association was established by the City of Cape Town at the time, with the purpose of implementing the framework. “The TRUP Association seeks to rehabilitate, protect, secure and enhance the intrinsic ecological qualities of the area, to conserve the unique cultural landscape, to encourage environmental education, to maximise opportunities for all people, and to promote sustainable development,” she adds.

Another concern Pieterse has, is the management of the programme and the financial architecture. “Ideally, there should be a dedicated development agency to drive the planning and confirm the agreements between all the role players as the process unfolds. Government departments are not well suited for that kind of work.”

Mixed use urban developments

Ovink sees mixed-use urban developments such as TRUP as a global trend where it is possible to create high quality urban space, combining all aspects of the city, including ecology. “The combination is very complex as you are dealing with a mix of interests, at a crossover of public and private entities. Whether you are in New York or Vietnam, in Cape Town or Singapore, this mix is an arduous task to get right. It is also subject to insecurities such as climate change. However, all these dependencies also ensure opportunities to really add value. TRUP is not totally unique, but if you get it right, there is a lot to be won for the city and its people,” says Ovink.

Joubert does not see mixed-use urban developments as a trend but as a necessity. “Government owns large pieces of land and should be using its properties on correcting the legacies of the past. At the same time, land is becoming very scarce,” he explains. “We have all the ingredients here; if we are unable to do it at TRUP, it will be difficult to do it anywhere else. But we have to do things differently. If we keep on doing things the way we have always done them, we will not solve the issues we face. We have to change the way we build cities in this country.”

Shifting the mindset

According to Joubert, there are many preconceived and entrenched ideas on how cities should be put together. “Where we find traffic congestion, we should improve transport systems. But this treats the symptom, not the cause of the problem. The problem is that people do not work and play where they live. At TRUP we envisage a place where you live, work and play in the same place. Let’s build it in a way that does not create any new demands on any type of transport.”

He says developments should move from land allocation to space allocation. “And we have to densify. We have to bring people to live, work and play in the same area, closer to the city, in the same place, in the same building; no separation. We should be led by answers to the question: ‘What does this community need to make it whole and sustainable?’ People should not have to get into their cars,” he says.

Joubert says land owners also often have preconceived ideas on what will happen on their land. They are not always open to other uses, especially if it means mixed use, and densification. “But if you want to add an extra 20 000 people onto an area, you have to adjust,” he says.

Considering global rates of urbanisation, particularly in Africa, the cities of the future will need to be planned radically differently to the way South African cities are currently operating.

By Femke van Zandvoort

For the full article, see earthworks magazine Issue 29, December 2015/January 2016.