Transforming the Central Suburbs – Thomas Swana

(This article was published as an editorial opinion in Weekend Argus in March 2015)


There are several parts of Cape Town where communities share a dream of transforming their bleak and broken horizons to clean, landscaped and welcoming residential and business zones. There are a series of catalysts that can fundamentally alter the trajectory of their story, but finding the right keys in the face of the entrenched inheritance of disadvantage is dauntingly difficult, often seemingly impossible.

In Philippi East, a suburb at the heart of the city’s Eastern region, the challenges seem at first glance to be as great as anywhere. It is a poor area, where unemployment is high and opportunity has been constrained by history.

But it is also one of the areas of the city that has a real chance of setting an example for how political, official and private sector commitment to an area’s potential can change its future trajectory. At the heart of the moves that are afoot is an organisation that was formed to promote economic development along what was known as the Lansdowne/Wetton corridor linking Philippi to the Southern Suburbs.

By 2010 when Philippi was still struggling to become an economic hub due to the invasion of land and security issues, the Philippi Economic Development Initiative, known more simply as PEDI, recognised that the transformation of the area would require the kind of vision that has transformed cities in some of the world’s most forward-thinking societies, to facilitate smart urban design that recognises the many facets of life that make localities desirable places to live, work and play.

Such a transformation would require an organic growth of ambition and commitment from within, ensuring that those affected by it would engage with and help to build the dream, and critical engagement from the private sector and from the authorities that hold the urban purse.

The ambition is not just to make it a nicer place to live. The City of Cape Town has identified the area as a pivotal node for development of what it designates as the Eastern sector of the city (which PEDI argues would be more appropriately called the Central Suburbs) and as key to ensuring that the wider economy of the city is better integrated.  This is both a reality in light of the expanding urban footprint, and an opportunity to harness a unique set of catalysts that could have a ripple effect.

It has been widely reported that the Philippi Horticultural Area, the acknowledged 3,600 hectare “bread basket” of the city, has been at the centre of heated disagreement over a decision to shift Cape Town’s urban edge, reducing the agricultural land by about 500 ha. Pro-development protagonists insist that housing demand overrides the argument for food security or agribusiness, pointing to the degradation of the land from uncontained dumping and the poor agricultural quality of some parts. The Save Philippi Horticultural Area Campaign, however, is fighting for a deal that would entail releasing a different, smaller, portion of nutrient-poor land for housing, to be developed in a well-managed integrated urban agriculture setting. The strip that has been given the green light for development by the Provincial Government sits in the middle of the good farming land and the Save PHA Campaign believes its value for food security and for employment has been overlooked. It has asked the Public Protector to adjudicate on whether the decision should stand.

PEDI argues that the value of the agricultural land in Philippi is that it could be a transformational catalyst. At present only 1,000 hectares is under crop, less than a third of the land zoned for farming. Despite this the area produces over 150,000 tons of fresh produce for Cape Town annually. The farmers fighting for the retention of the land believe this figure, and the number of resulting jobs, could be more than doubled.

The initial ambition of the Philippi Fresh Produce Market, which opened in the area in 2006 with state-of-the-art processing and storage facilities, was to incorporate a programme to develop 2,500 emerging farmers for the Western Cape. For a number of reasons this has not happened and only a small number of emerging farmers have been trained, while the Market itself is currently functioning as a tenanted storage facility rather than a trading outlet. But there is new enthusiasm for building farming skills – a tunnel farming project proposed by Renlyn Agritech and the agronomy departments of the universities of Stellenbosch and Pretoria has recently secured funding, and Pedi is busy with discussions with the provincial and national agricultural authorities to secure support for the venture as a first step to developing a training academy for emerging farmers.

There are four broad areas where catalysts can shape Philippi’s window of opportunity. Agriculture, albeit critical, is just one element.  The others are waste recycling, transport, and industry.

Dumped waste in the form of an unrelenting stream of detritus from the recently invaded land at the so-called Marikana informal settlement is a real strain on the area. The dumping of builders’ rubble and other industrial waste on the PHA land is a crime, which the city has promised to punish harshly. The result of illegal waste has been degradation of the land and even some toxicity of the otherwise exceptional water quality.

But even in this there is a silver lining. Informal side-of-the-road business operations have sprung up, with entrepreneurs selling cleaned bricks and other building materials salvaged from dumped construction waste. And a project to recycle green organic waste adjacent to the Philippi Fresh Produce Market, called Waste 2 Food, is creating outstanding quality compost through a worm-farming operation. This will be scaled up with the arrival of a processing unit that can neutralise the risky bacteria in waste such as meat and dairy produce, which will then be possible to process.

Much of the Philippi East area is zoned for light industrial development. That this has been achieved only in limited measure speaks to the constraints under which businesses have been operating –complicated access to the area for customers and employees, the pervading poverty in the area and the consequent challenge of security, especially since the sudden illegal influx of thousands of poor people into industrial-zoned land. Despite this, PEDI believes a number of key infrastructural projects that have already been approved are going to be game changers for the area.

First and perhaps most important is that the expansion of the MyCiTi bus system will mean that seven of the city’s 16 planned routes will be routed through Philippi’s main thoroughfare, Stock Road. Already in the past year, Stock Road has been kerbed on its eastern edge to formalise pedestrian and vehicular limits, making it safer for people and cars. A budgeted upgrade due to start in a couple of months will expand the cadastral into a four-lane thoroughfare, with dedicated access lanes for buses. The next phase will see upgrades to three other key access roads – immediately connecting Philippi meaningfully to the transport corridor that reaches directly to Wynberg and Claremont.

More than that, the Provincial government has begun a process to realign the Borcherds Quarry interchange on the N2 highway that will utterly transform access to Philippi from this primary artery into and out of the city.

Philippi has two train stations, both set for modernisation and upgrade by the Passenger Rail Services Authority in the next few years. It is already the site of a major Golden Arrow Bus Service depot and the Jo Gqwabi long-distance taxi and bus interchange is located at Philippi, with the provincial safety testing station for these vehicles on site.

The appetite for investment is shifting as developments such as the Teguka Industrial Park have shown that the transformation of a bleak and broken landscape to a clean, landscaped and welcoming business zone can be achieved.

The astonishing Philippi Village project is another that reveals confidence in the area with a R100-million reinvention of an old cement factory into state-of-the-art, A-grade office space that is being taken up by a wide range of entities that will be transformational for the area, from a city library to a Leap School, to business and entrepreneurial NGOs that will be able to be catalysts for new life in the community.

The developer who bought the old Eisleben Business Park premises is soon to break ground to start building the new Airport Corridor Mall, adding value to an area that has already shown, with the highly successful Philippi Plaza, that good retail offerings will be supported.

But all of this pales in the face of the possibility mooted for several years – that the area is the obvious location for development to harness the idea of Cape Town as an Aerotropolis city, particularly in light of the planned realignment of the runway. Put simply, the ability to receive bigger planes will mean that more cargo can be handled at the airport, and in the case of Cape Town the natural opportunity will be for the development of significant agri-processing facilities. Philippi is perfectly positioned for this, both as an industrial zone and for agricultural production.

As the city expands, Philippi will increasingly become the hub of the East. It is economically smart to put in the infrastructure that will make Philippi work. And those in decision-making positions are beginning to make this happen. As exciting as this is, it is critical that the reach of an organisation such as Pedi is utilised to facilitate communication between those making and those affected by the decisions. Tapping into the organisation’s long history in the community, and the trust it has built as a non-partisan player that works for the interests of Philippi as a whole, is key to ensuring that this opportunity to unlock the potential of a rare line-up of catalysts is not lost.

Thomas Swana
Philippi Economic Development Initiative
March 2015

Categories: Press Releases.