Mercy Brown-Luthango

Realising the social value of the Tafelberg site for the public good

Dear Premier Zille,

It is a well-known and often stated fact that Cape Town is one of the most unequal cities in the world. Cape Town’s spatial organisation is characterised by fragmentation and separation between residential and employment spaces as well as low density urban sprawl which is socially, economically, and environmentally unsustainable.

Persistent spatial inequality imposes a considerable cost on the state, environment and increase the socio-economic burden and marginalisation of poor households and individuals.  According to the African Green City index; at 1500 people/km2 Cape Town is the least dense out of 15 African cities, compared to an average of 4600 people/km2 for the 15 cities surveyed and an 8200 people/km2 average for Asian cities.  This translates into an average of 30% additional spent in terms of infrastructure provision and maintenance.  Public transport subsidies for Cape Town is more than double the amount dedicated to housing, with an amount of R696 236 000 budgeted in 2013 for public transport by the Western Cape Department of Transport.. A recent report which discusses the carbon footprint of Cape Town and Sao Paulo states that Cape Town’s carbon emissions of 10.21 CO2 per capita is higher than the national average of 9.91 CO2 per capita, which it attributes largely to a lack a connectivity in the city.

Poor households are disproportionally affected by spatial fragmentation; not only in economic terms, but also in terms of social costs.  A survey comparing travel times between private car and public transport in Cape Town found that average travel time in Cape Town is 90 minutes, significantly higher than the global average of 70 minutes. The average for public transport, which is what the majority of low-income households in Cape Town make use of, is 110 minutes.  Long hours spent traveling to and from work impacts negatively on family life and leaves little time for any other social activities.

Another cost not factored into land management decisions is the burden on the public health system, individual households and society at large of endemic violence and unhealthy living conditions. These are inextricably linked to exclusion resulting from unequal spatial patterns and experienced daily by the majority of Cape Town’s residents.  A report by the Mexican Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice ranks Cape Town as the most violent city in South Africa and 14th in the world in terms of homicide rates.  

Cape Town’s highly inefficient spatial design is underpinned and reinforced by a financial logic which preserves well-located land for higher-end private developments in order to ensure maximum revenue from property taxes. This means that poorer households are forced into badly located dormitory housing developments on the urban periphery where land is cheaper or they end up in unhealthy, unsafe, under-serviced informal settlements.   It is also maintained by a mind-set which holds that poorer households do not belong in the city, but should remain out of sight and out of mind. This logic fails to take into account the actual costs of continued spatial fragmentation and hardly considers whether the revenue generated does in fact off set the huge social, economic and environmental costs incurred through unsustainable spatial patterns.

What is argued for here is a different logic to inform land management decisions in Cape Town, one which takes into consideration the social value of land. Currently, land management decisions are driven by a market-centred logic which insists that the market will decide the highest and best use of land and if left free from regulation will automatically allocate land to the poor.  This approach favours the economic function of land which conceives of land value purely in market terms. The market value of land refers to “the estimated amount for which a property should exchange on the date of valuation between a willing buyer and a willing seller in an arm’s length transaction after proper marketing wherein the parties had each acted knowledgeably, prudently and without compulsion” (The International Valuations Standards Committee).  In contrast to this market-centred logic, a more rights-based approach argues for a social role for land in society and promotes the use value of land over its exchange value to ensure that land fulfils its social function and contributes to broader socio-economic and spatial reform.  Favouring the use value of land over its exchange value means that “urban space should be produced to meet the everyday needs of those who inhabit it”. This it is believed, is crucial for the construction of the “just” city and key to human flourishing and requires a fair distribution of and equal access for all city dwellers to the resources and benefits of the city, irrespective of race, class, gender or any other factors. The World Charter on the Right to the City (2005) defines the social function of the city and property as follows:

As its primary purpose, the city should exercise a social function, guaranteeing for all its inhabitants full usufruct of the resources offered by the city. In other words, the city must assume the realisation of projects and investments to the benefit of the urban community as a whole, within criteria of distributive equity, economic complementarity, respect for culture, and ecological sustainability, to guarantee the well-being of all its inhabitants, in harmony with nature, for the present and for future generations. The public and private spaces and goods of the city and its citizens should be used prioritising social, cultural, and environmental interests.”

Latin American countries like Colombia and Brazil, both of whom have faced similar pressures in terms of fast paced urbanisation and spatial inequality, have recognised the need for reform in land and property rights in order to effect urban transformation.  In Colombia the legal recognition of the social function of property has enabled the government to address social and economic challenges stemming from the unequal distribution of land. Similarly in Brazil, the courts pronounced that the City Statute of 2001, “is an instrument directed at the correction of distortions brought about by unruly urban growth, at the promotion of the full development of the functions of the city and at the application of the principle of the social function of property”.  The City Statute of 2001 makes several instruments available to municipalities for the management of land and land value in order to improve city finances and to advance spatial, social and environmental sustainability. Whilst the implementation and application of the social function of land and property in Brazil and Colombia have not been without challenges, significant advances  have been achieved in cities like Medellin and Bogota in Colombia and Sao Paulo in Brazil in terms of restructuring urban spaces.  

This means that the twin goals of raising own revenue whilst promoting socio-spatial transformation and inclusion do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. Both these imperatives can be achieved if municipalities use the fiscal and regulatory tools at their disposal to make land use decisions which recognise the social value of land and captures increases in land value derived from municipal actions like the provision of infrastructure, rezoning and granting of planning permission.  As a first step, all levels of government have the opportunity and duty to use the parcels of land which they own in a responsible manner. This means not selling it off to the highest bidder, but to think carefully and strategically about how these land parcels can be utilised to enable greater social integration, promote mixed-use development, and bring the poor closer to services and economic opportunity. In fact the draft outcome document for the New Urban Agenda specifically calls on cities and human settlements to “Fulfil their social function and the social function of land, ensuring equitable access for all to public goods and services, livelihoods, and decent work, prioritizing the collectively defined public interest.”

There is an urgent need for a complete shift in mind-set, not only amongst local authorities and other spheres of government, but the whole of South African society, about the value of land. At the moment the distribution of land, land value and the burden of unsustainable land use are unequally distributed, so that poor households bear the brunt of inefficient spatial patterns whilst being excluded from the benefits of city life.   This results from a system which allows those with power and resources to internalise the positive externalities produced by city growth and externalise the costs to the public realm.  Promoting the social function of land on the other hand entails a more equal distribution of the rights, benefits and responsibilities of citizenship and city life.

A business as usual approach will continue to perpetuate Apartheid spatial planning and increase informality and exclusion. It also contributes to violence, crime and social disruption which impacts on the well-being of all South Africans.

The decision on the Tafelberg and other well-located parcels of land provides the Western Cape government with an ideal opportunity to take a bold and innovative step to defy the financial logic which has up till now dominated urban land management decisions. By recognising the social value of these parcels of land, it can ignite a process which can start to reverse current unequal, unsustainable land use patterns for the public good.


Mercy Brown-Luthango


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