South Africa’s apartheid regime deliberately designed cities to divide communities, creating a legacy of poverty, racial fragmentation, and criminal behaviour. Cape Town is no different from other South African cities, and the impacts of apartheid’s legacy are apparent in Khayelitsha, a Cape Town settlement where only 52 percent of residents are “economically active.” Furthermore, the town must deal with a challenging environmental and planning legacy: In locating the settlement on the Cape Flats sand dunes, barely above the water table and in a winter wetland, the apartheid regime shaped a community around water detention ponds. For most of the year they laid vacant and were well-suited to criminal behaviour.
Studies have found a relationship between crime and unemployment. High levels of unemployment result in high levels of crime. It therefore follows that with almost half the community employed, crime will be high.
The Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading Program (VPUU), a partnership between the City of Cape Town and the German Development Bank, adopted criminologist C. Ray Jeffrey’s Crime Prevention Through Urban Upgrade approach, which is based in the belief that “proper design and the effective use of the built environment will lead to a reduction in the incidence of crime and the fear of crime.” Khayelitsha’s design intervention seeks to respond to the community’s needs — by creating children’s play areas but also a social development fund that looks into women’s empowerment projects.
Community workshops were held to understand perceptions of crime and to identify where criminal behaviour was prevalent. High-crime areas were then mapped and layered with existing uses and movement patterns to create a framework. A pedestrian area, high trafficked, yet undefined, connecting the Khayelitsha train station and the Khuyasa Centre was identified as the most affected area.
Both new landscape architecture and architecture were used to create safer, more positive environments. Defining the spaces, adding hard landscapes, and then creating buildings with elevated viewpoints helped expose criminal activity and consequently reduce it.
Small shops on the ground floor generate foot traffic round the clock, while homes on the upper floors provide eyes on the walkway below. Towers animate the otherwise flat roofscape, orientating and guiding inhabitants towards the safe walkway.
The landscape design reinforces these routes and offers pedestrian-scaled elements such as low walls, planters with seating, bollards, and trees. Materials vary, but notably include the use of calcrete, which is removed from foundation excavations. Smooth floor finishes eliminate hazards and facilitate the movement of people away from potentially dangerous situations.
Simple landscape construction technologies were used so that the community could participate and the project could improve their skills.
Community workshops, attended mostly by women, explored their experiences with crime. Images created were then turned into mosaics and added onto litter bins. The personal, colorful results diversify the hard landscape material palette while giving the community an opportunity for creative expression.
The sports fields, one turf, the other gravel, have replaced a detention pond previously used for dumping bodies. These well-used facilities offer almost constant activity. According to the project landscape architect Tarna Klitzner, resident soccer teams are reluctant to share their facilities with a neighbouring club, which is sign of a healthy sense of ownership.
Rundown areas create the impression that they are not owned by the community, a phenomenon known as the “broken window syndrome.” Conversely, well-maintained areas are viewed as high risk to criminals and are therefore avoided. As such, the project team identified maintenance as key to establishing safe environments so, as part of their work, community management structures are being set up, funded by a budget generated through the rental of community facilities.
For South Africans, exposure to crime is a part of our lives. Staggeringly, 56 percent of Khayelitsha inhabitants are afraid to leave their homes during the day and 90 percent are afraid to leave their homes after dark. For those whose homes are small and shared by large families, the public realm could offer welcome additional living space, but fear is confining them indoors. In a documentary recently screened, an earlier VPUU (Harare) project was said to reduce crime by 40 percent. It can only be hoped that these statistics will translate into tangible results for the Khayelitsha community. This project is a welcome reminder that it’s never too late to have hope in the power of design.
This guest post is by Tamsin Faragher, a landscape architect who lives in Cape Town and works for the Western Cape Government’s Regeneration Program, bringing heart back into the city.
Image credit: (1-4) Tamsin Faragher, (5-6) Tarna Klitzner