The Adam Tas Corridor project in the context of current societal challenges

19 August 2020

The Adam Tas Corridor project is a prime project in the spatial and development framework and other policy documents of Stellenbosch Municipality. Furthermore, the project represents collaboration between the three levels of government and has the support of Stellenbosch University, Stias, business and community leaders.

Stephen Boshoff delivered an electronic lecture during lockdown to Stias fellows, who are spread across the globe. This lecture focused on an overview of the Adam Tas Corridor within the context of studies of similar projects elsewhere in South Africa and the world. He wrote a summary of this lecture and included his insights especially for members of the Heritage Foundation.

The Adam Tas Corridor project envisages a mixed high-density development four to five times the size of the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront; a population of more than 50 000; 13 500 housing opportunities; education and other public facilities; an emphasis on entrepreneurial development; non-motorised internal movement and also complementing the older core of Stellenbosch town.

The project – in progress for the last three years and supported by the Municipality, Western Cape Government, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (Stias), Remgro, and Distell – focuses on a large area stretching for 5 km along the R310 and R44 from the Cape Sawmills site to Kayamandi and Cloetesville. This area includes large tracks of land that is no longer required for manufacturing related use and lends itself to intensified use.

The project does not focus on newcomers, but instead aims to help those who cannot afford a residence in town (while working there) and students not accommodated in town. Both groups commute to and from Stellenbosch daily (with a host of negative personal and societal costs). The project seeks to help, making use – where possible – of disused and underutilised land and structures while respecting the natural and built resources in Stellenbosch.

Initial engineering and economic impact studies indicate huge positive benefits in enhanced infrastructure, job, and livelihood opportunity. The town as a whole, landowners, developers, and individual citizens (permanent residents and those in Stellenbosch for a few years while studying) will benefit. Over some 30 years, the project will direct resources across society in a shared direction where the “commons”, benefiting all, is expanded.

The Adam Tas Corridor is in an area where it will not impact on the amenity or perceived property value of anyone as it seeks spatial transformation in our urban planning and settlement management.

The project will address many needs in Stellenbosch. It is relevant and respectful of fear, even if some of these are unfounded or can lead to the very aspects feared. It can work and has found widespread support. It is a platform to maximise the abundant energy and various forms of capital available in Stellenbosch towards common objectives. It is more than a building project; it is an attempt to heal past mistakes and neglect as much as we can, resetting the approach to settlement development.

But, what about the now, the challenges that await post-Covid-19 and its impact on the project? Covid-19 used up much public, and private resources and people and institutions have to focus on survival.

I would argue the opposite. If the project was needed and urgent, it is more so now. To make the case, one needs to – as a start – revisit the underlying motives for the project. What does this mean in the context of Covid-19, a time of profound challenge?

Various case studies illustrate that it is appropriate to advance the project with vigour in the current context.

Significant recent projects in Bilbao, Barcelona, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, and Cambridge coped with profound challenges. Though the individual project agencies had little control over the factors of change, the relationships of power and funding, they eventually achieved urban transformation and immense benefits.

Contextual challenges faced by these initiatives included severe job losses through industrial change, loss of attractiveness for living through extreme pollution associated with past industrial practices, damage to infrastructure through flooding, the wavering financial sustainability of institutions, and rapid loss of competitiveness in a changing global context.

Local case studies, including District Six and the Cape Town 2004 Olympic Bid, illustrate the lost opportunity in not following through on preparatory work and momentum in projects that aim to achieve broad public societal benefits.

In some ways – despite its devastating impact – Covid-19 has assisted in making a case for the Adam Tas Corridor Project. As planners, we often sketch scenarios of likely future contexts to help in framing projects. The impact of Covid-19 has and will be one of projecting us into the future by a decade or more. The Covid-19 Stellenbosch of today and the one emerging is perhaps one where we experience the future without having addressed critical past challenges.

We now have a deepening need for housing and livelihood opportunity, including jobs, education, and the recognition of various forms of cultural expression. We will likely see deepening crime and other forms of social malaise. There will be increased pressure on public and private resources (whether those of most institutions or individual households).

These needs and its consequences impact on all, albeit in different ways. Our ability as individual institutions and citizens to address (or escape) the challenge on our own has weakened.

In other words, the underlying reasons for embarking on the Adam Tas Corridor project remain, and in many ways are becoming more pronounced, more in need of concerted attention. Our challenge, our crises, has broadened and deepened.

Proper city management and good planning are about preparedness: preparing the city and its citizens to deal with the future better.

It is not easy; we cannot predict the future; however hard we try. We cannot manage settlements towards some predictable end state. Not all that awaits us – and the places where we live, work, and protect as nature – are known.

Marcelo Gleiser refers to the search for knowledge as an “endless pursuit”. “When we look at the world around us, we don’t see everything. We can’t… Humans have an urge to explore the unknown, what lies beyond their immediate reach. This may be our species’ most distinguishable trait … Given the very nature of knowledge, every discovery starts in ignorance. New discoveries may answer a few questions but invariably create new ones … Such is the wondrous nature of knowledge, the endless pursuit.” [1] Expanding further, Gleiser refers to an “Island of Knowledge: “As our Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance, the boundaries between the known and unknown. The more we know, the more we discover we don’t know.”

What we do know, however, is that we have options in decision-making. Some actions may prepare us better for the future, while others can destroy existence.

The 1918 Influenza pandemic informed urban planning and management in the Cape Town area. On the one hand, it gave rise to innovation and much needed public action and facilities. It saw the establishment of the Garden Cities Trust and first attempts at government-assisted housing. It also led to the building of Groote Schuur Hospital. Yet it also caused the racial segregation of people, dumping poorer (non-white) residents who were feared as they were most impacted upon by the flu on the outskirts of town. It set in place generations of ill-conceived, discriminatory, opportunity-withholding, and costly urban planning and development.

Thus, there are signposts. We can learn from the past and the efforts of others. We can also observe the consequences of our decisions. In many ways, this realisation makes our task more manageable. At the same time, however, it implies great responsibility, to exercise discretion, to learn from the past, to apply the precautionary principle.

In terms of the present, case studies tell us that urban projects and settlements that succeed are those where the leaders managed both human and financial resources with discipline over time – often through successive governments and leaders – to support an agreed plan. In these cases, the project or settlement leaders have strong visions of a desired future and lead the planning process. Successful process leaders are aware and authentic; they observe and learn from what happens elsewhere but are passionate about local needs and context. Their plans unite and have a bias to the needs of ordinary citizens. They drive the process relentlessly, and they are competent persuaders, sweeping in the contributions of the private and community sectors.

Arguably, in South Africa, we have never had a coherent development plan and strategy of the kind described above. Ironically, the closest settlement management in South Africa got to this kind of planning was the concerted implementation of spatial and social separation of people under apartheid. Despite the devastating and lasting impact of apartheid policies, the truth is that these policies were relentlessly driven, across sectors, over a period. Concerning the aims of apartheid, it’s planning, and management framework was successful. Strong planning was not necessarily wrong; what was wrong was the scant regard for the needs of ordinary citizens.

Covid-19 tells us to reset the way we plan, develop and manage settlements. Resetting requires a strategy and plan, pursuing objectives aimed at healing mistakes of the past and broadening opportunity; expanding the commons.

However well-conceived, the roll-out of such a strategy and plan will face challenges over time. Yet, in pursuing it, we will learn, we will become better prepared for an unknown future and its challenges.

The Adam Tas Corridor provides – in part – a platform for Stellenbosch to reset its settlement development agenda. Ultimately, it will prepare us better for an unknown future.

 

Stephen Boshoff is an urbanist and practising urban planner and urban designer. He is a past Executive Director of Strategy and Development at the City of Cape Town, Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow, and Visiting Fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study. He was part of a core team including Hannes van Zyl, Kelvin Campbell, and Bobby Gould-Pratt, in the early conceptualisation and development of development options for the Adam Tas Corridor. Stephen practices at Built Environment Partnership.

 

[1] Marcelo Gleiser, The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected, 2016.

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