Monday, June 4, 2018

Designs for peri-urban agricultural settlements

A few weeks ago I was inspired to draw up some spatial designs related to my work with the PHA Food and Farming Campaign (see my previous post for background on the Campaign). This occurred while listening to a landless farmer at a Campaign meeting as she related that people in her community wanted to know for who or what we were protecting the Philippi Horticultural Area. Her concern about potential confusion over ultimate goals of the Campaign prompted me to want to depict one of the Campaign’s primary proposals, which is providing smallholding farms to black landless farmers in the area.

As a basis for investigation I took a roughly 75 hectare area in the southwest corner of the PHA (previously approved for suburban development) and drew what the farms/homes/erfs might look like from several different scales and perspectives, using the existing physical context, the Campaign’s proposal criteria, and a few guiding spatial principles (derived from permaculture and urban/rural development design sources).

This sort of exercise is a really useful process to evaluate certain spatial design proposals and to convey a vision. There are a lot of assumptions built in here that others in the Campaign will have to evaluate and critique, but to me it seems important to be able to start articulating some of the discussed counter-proposals to suburban sprawl, both to test the ideas and to (hopefully!) provide inspiration. Obviously there is a long way to go, but you have to start somewhere!

Friday, May 4, 2018

New PHA Study - Salvation or Political Cover?

It has the best agricultural conditions within 120 km of Cape Town, but it isn’t the vineyards of Constantia or Somerset West. It contains fragments of some of the most critically endangered natural habitat in the region, but it isn’t found at the peaks of Table Mountain National Park. It holds among the best, most stable supply of usable water in the metropolitan area, but it isn’t Silvermine Dam or Newlands Springs. It is the southern portion of Cape Town’s Philippi Horticultural Area (“PHA”), and, unlike these other iconic features of Cape Town, it is the site for proposed and approved developments that would destroy these unique qualities.

That’s what the Western Province Department of Agriculture’s newest study focusing on the PHA confirmed last week. And while it’s findings reflect these key insights, the conclusions and strategy proposed going forward fails to advocate for full protection of this area. Instead, the study defers to land use decisions made by the City of Cape Town to allow redevelopment of nearly a third of this land into suburban development.

The study highlights the PHA’s unique importance as an agricultural and natural oasis within the metropolitan area of the Cape Town. With respect to agriculture, the area’s unique combination of climate, water and soil make it ideal for farming. The area also sits on top of the thickest and deepest part of the Cape Flats Aquifer, which holds billions of litres of water and has largely been untapped.

Within the PHA, the southernmost portion, which abuts the community of Strandfontein Village and False Bay, is the best of the best in terms of agricultural, natural, and water resources. According to the study, the southern PHA contains the best aquifer recharge areas in the City. That is also where the last remaining fragments of the intricate dune system that once covered most of the Cape Flats remain. The study finds that the dune thicket flora located in this area helps provide “an ecological link within the Cape Flats District.”

The study flags that the City’s land use decisions, particularly the approval of two major development applications in the south, has destabilised the policy certainty around the area. The Oaklands City development, which encompasses 470 hectares in the southeast PHA and has been fully approved by the City, and the UVest development in the southeast PHA, reflect the attractiveness of the PHA for greenfield urban development. The fact that the City rezoned the area to benefit these developments indicates that it is trailing developers, rather than leading development decisions in the City. Changes to the City’s spatial planning documents in 2011 and 2014 carved out large chunks of the PHA exactly where these developments were to take place. The City’s most recent Metropolitan Spatial Development Framework reflects this course of action, designating these areas as “urban development” rather than “high potential and unique agricultural land” as is the case with the rest of the PHA.

Given the study’s findings regarding the agricultural, environmental, and socio-economic importance of the PHA, and particularly the southern portion under threat of development, it is unsurprising that its findings conflict with the urban development activity occurring in this area. The study notes that “[t]he southern portion of the PHA has the highest agricultural potential and its loss to non-agricultural-related development is of serious concern and is not supported by the findings of this Study.” Regarding future plans for the city that focus urban development in areas other than the PHA, the study registers its “strong concern over planned private sector development in the southern portion of the PHA as they appear to fall outside of the City’s spatial investment targets and are located far from any planned public transport infrastructure.”

And yet, notwithstanding the contradiction between the study’s findings and the City’s conduct with respect to the southern PHA, the study incoherently states that “[t]he protection of the PHA for horticultural and sand mining purposes is consistent with the spatial development plans of the CCT and the WCG.” How is the City’s decision to allow suburban development of a third of the PHA, and its most agriculturally valuable portion, consistent with the study’s findings?

In public presentations, the Province and its consultants have argued that nothing can be done with respect to developments in the south that have already been approved. As a result, they contend that this area is already, unfortunately, lost. DA Provincial MPP and standing committee chairperson on economic opportunity and agriculture Beverley Shafer, commenting on the Oaklands City development, contended that nothing could be done in a “free market” to stop these developments once approval had been given, and inferred that to suggest otherwise would be to advocate authoritarianism.

This argument reflects the government’s abdication of its regulatory role in urban development for the benefit of its citizens, a core element of its mandate. The City’s poor planning and land use management decisions in the past with respect to the PHA does not mean it or the Province must stay the course. Land use and zoning re-designations, such as overlay zones protecting existing undeveloped land, are one viable option. Another would be conditions on provision of infrastructure, which will inevitably burden the City’s taxpayers significantly if development proceeds.

The City and Province would like you to believe that their hands are tied with respect to protecting and preserving the PHA’s most valuable lands. By stating that the City’s reprehensible conduct is consistent with protection of the PHA, the Province’s study provides cover for the City to continue down the wrong course.

The Province is still accepting comments for the next week, so leave a comment and let them know what you think. And feel free to read my comments to them.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

More on Cape Town's Aquifers

Last week published another article of mine on the Cape Town water situation. This time I focused on the city’s plan to tap the region’s aquifers. Here I’d like to add to and expand upon a couple of points I make in that article:

Not all aquifers are created equal
The Western Cape’s TMG Aquifer is a generally deep and slower recharge aquifer charged from precipitation caught primarily in the area’s mountain regions. These mountains therefore serve both as a sort of net for catching moister brought in from the ocean and as aquifer recharge areas.

In contrast, the low-lying coastal areas around Cape Town contain shallower aquifers that generally recharge more quickly. These areas were historically covered in sand dune formations over the soft Malmesbury shale layer. Nebo, the scientist from CSIR who I reference in the article, estimates that water travels at a pace of around one to two hundred meters per year in the Atlantis Aquifer recharge area. While these aquifers are very complex and variable, it seems reasonable to estimate the same rate in the Cape Flats Aquifer. (Please note that I don’t profess to be a hydrologist, geologist, or any other sort of professional scientist. This is from the literature I’ve read, which I encourage you to read as well if you are interested.)

Incredible biodiversity, unknown impacts
Just to add some numbers, the Cape floristic region, which includes Cape Town and much of the rest of the Western Cape, has the highest concentration of diverse plant species in the world, with seventy percent of an estimated 9500 plant species found only there. That’s why in 2004, in order to protect this unique diversity, some of the remaining natural areas within the Western Cape were designated a Unesco World Heritage site.

The impact of aquifer extraction on this biodiversity is not well understood. Speaking to a local news outlet, University of Cape Town Associate Professor Edmund February cautioned: “I really worry about just tapping into [the aquifer] and drawing down on [it] without actually understanding what the ecological reserve is necessary to maintain those unique species that are sitting on those wetlands.” His university colleague Adam West, agreed, also noting that drilling construction and operation could also have unknown impacts on affected areas. Last month, West and several other scientists submitted a letter to local Western Cape governments voicing these concerns. Jasper Slingsby has a great quote in his GroundUp article from February. “In short,” Slingsby writes, “this is taking the very same water that replenishes our water supply system, feeds groundwater, supports biodiversity in the catchments and supplies the rivers that feed towns and farm dams.” Slingsby argues City’s plan to drill for water in these areas is effectively “cancelling the insurance policy we need since rainfall is predicted to become ever less certain.”

Atlantis could show Cape Town the way
Atlantis’ managed aquifer recharge program, which was born out of a need to serve the water needs of a remote apartheid-era settlement, has provided the City of Cape Town with an ideal template for recycling Cape Town’s water on a larger scale. An isolated near-coastal community with a population of around seventy thousand, Atlantis has benefited from one of the oldest MAR systems on the continent. For over 40 years, Atlantis residents have largely depended on effluent and stormwater that is treated, filtered, and recycled through its shallow aquifer to supply it with potable water.

The regional drought has brought renewed interest in Atlantis’s system as a model for larger-scale extraction for the greater metropolitan area. While lack of investment over the years meant that the Atlantis system’s efficiency had been on the decline, the current drought has provided the City with the impetus to restore its capacity. “The drought actually woke us up,” Atlantis’s wastewater treatment plant manager John Charles notes. Currently one hundred percent of Atlantis’s water needs, around 15 megalitres per day, are being met through its MAR system.

Like many others, I’m concerned about the idea of putting wastewater down into the aquifers. However, in the Cape Flats I’ve come to believe it is not just workable but probably necessary. Given the level of pollution that is already occurring in the Cape Flats aquifer, shifting towards use of this water will work to focus attention on stopping this pollution. The amount of water Cape Town discharges into the ocean is incredible, and should be reused. The Cape Flats aquifer is the only place where we are going to be able to recycle this water on the level that we need. It’s also a much better option than desalination or tapping the TMG aquifer. Granted, the best option by far is to become much more efficient with the water that we use, and better management of the riverine system. A sustainable MAR in the Cape Flats area would be a perfect complement to these actions.

Friday, March 16, 2018


Yesterday I had the honor of presenting a talk about the Philippi Horticultural Area and Cape Town’s water future at the University of Cape Town School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics (“APG”). UCT’s APG is hosting a series on the water crisis here in Cape Town, and invited the PHA Food and Farming Campaign to come speak. After an initial presentation by PHA FFC’s chairman, Nazeer Sonday, my colleague Megan Parker and I presented the work we have been doing to better plan, design, and manage the PHA. Megan and I are part of PHA Food and Farming Campaign’s planning subcommittee, a group consisting of other recent APG graduates. Two other members in particular, Jens Horber and Louise Brukman, helped out tremendously in putting together the presentation.

I’m pretty proud of the work we have done so far, and am hoping we can take it forward and really start persuading the City to do a better job of managing the PHA. It is so vital to our water and food future, as well as to preserving the Western Cape’s unique and diverse ecology. Let’s make it happen!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

PHA and Cape Town's Farming and Water Future

The past weeks have been busy with a number of projects, most prominently with work for the PHA Food and Farming Campaign (“PHA FFC”). PHA FFC is a local grassroots organisation that advocates for the protection of agricultural and natural lands in the Philippi Horticultural Area (“PHA”). The PHA is a large tract of mostly agricultural land set within Cape Town’s metropolitan area. Originally part of a much larger area of dune formations that made up the Cape Flats, this area was mined and farmed, so that the landscape is very changed from what it was 150 years ago. Today it largely consists of farmland, mostly farmed by large scale farms but also by a number of small scale farmers. There are also some remnants of the dunes and natural vegetation on parts of it.

The PHA is a major contributor to the City’s fresh produce. It is also a critical aquifer recharge area. This second attribute has become particularly important given the region’s ongoing drought crisis (although the immediate impending crisis has dissipated a little) and the City’s plans to tap into the aquifers. Housing, sand mining, illegal dumping, and other urban uses also threaten the PHA’s use for agriculture. Contrary to many studies and plans, including their own, the City has approved new housing and sand mining developments in the PHA, which would affect nearly a third of the 3000 hectares of farming land and natural vegetation.

The PHA FFC defends use of the land for farming, but also promotes equitable land redistribution, bringing in black farmers, increasing the number of farmers and farm workers, and better integrating the PHA with the rest of the city. PHA FFC has a strong commitment to sustainable practices, and promotes smallholder farming, permaculture and reduction or elimination of chemical fertilizers. It accepts calls for municipal aquifer extraction (many farmers already do this through private wells), but only sustainably and hand-in-hand with aquifer recharge. Endangering the aquifer could endanger the agricultural, economic, and environmental sustainability of the PHA.

I first attended a site visit organized by one of my UCT professors, Tania Katzschner, and hosted by PHA FFC a few months ago. There I listened to PHA FFC’s chairman, Nazeer Sonday, and its Treasurer, Susanna Coleman. They both spoke eloquently and forcefully for their cause. I was so taken by their presentation that in November I sought them out to volunteer. I’m now part of PHA FFC’s planning committee, where myself and a few former UCT classmates are working on articulating a spatial design and management plan for the PHA that can contest the development plans of developers and lay the groundwork for better and more engaged management by the City.

Last week members of PHA FFC attended a site visit to Atlantis in northern Cape Town to learn more about that community’s innovative managed aquifer recharge system. All of Atlantis’s water is sourced from aquifers that are recharged with treated and filtered water used by the community itself. This system has been functioning for 40 years, and could serve as a template for a larger managed aquifer recharge program for the rest of the City.

I’m really excited about the prospects of closing the loop on Cape Town’s water cycle. While I’m very concerned about the threat of drying up or polluting our aquifer system, I also think that managed aquifer recharge can be done in a sustainable manner, and that doing so is more environmental than the open linear water system we currently have. Piping in water from hundreds of kilometres away, and then flushing it out into the ocean is not sustainable. Managed aquifer recharge may be the solution, if done right.

Excited to share more about my PHA FFC work soon!