A Landscape of Healing on the Cape Flats

A Landscape of Healing on the Cape Flats

Résumé en français

Ces réflexions discutent des processus impliqués dans la conceptualisation et la réalisation d'unpaysage hospitalier, intégré dans un biome menacé. Des stratégies de propagation des plantes, de protection de la faune et de collecte des eaux de pluie ont sous-tendu la conception des paysages. Ce projet a servi de prototype notable pour le travail ultérieur de l’architecte paysagiste dans l'environnement de Cape Flats.

Reflections presented here involved the conceptualising and making of a hospital landscape embedded within a threatened biome. Strategies for plant propagation, fauna protection and stormwater harvesting underpinned the design of the landscapes. They have provided a valuable prototype for the landscape architect's subsequent work within the Cape Flats environment.

Situated within the Cape Flats on a previously disturbed landscape adjacent to a remnant nature reserve, the site of the new Mitchells Plain Hospital near Cape Town presented the opportunity to simultaneously create a therapeutic landscape for the hospital and to develop a strategy for the healing and restoration of the disturbed endemic landscape.

The role of a hospital as a place of healing within the community is understood. In the case of the Mitchells Plain Hospital within the City of Cape Town, the very construction and imagining of the hospital and the therapeutic gardens became an act of healing the landscape.

The conditions within the Record of Decision as prescribed by the botanist Nick Helme required that all plant material used within the new hospital landscapes be grown from seeds, cuttings and bulbs sourced from the adjacent Nature Reserve.

The act of searching for suitable plant species for harvest made us acutely aware of the variety of textures, scents and sounds nurtured within the Cape Flats Sand Plain vegetation. Our first visit revealed habitats for chameleons, lizards, snakes and small antelope situated within rocky calcrete outcrops. This motivated us to proposition the client for animal rescue and the salvaging of the calcrete rock unearthed on the site during the construction process.

Healing through Landscaping

The design of the landscape required us to address issues of cost and maintenance, as the primary role of hospitals is to benefit the health of the community, and therefore the long-term landscape maintenance could not be onerous. We then decided that we needed to find ways of making ‘working landscapes’.

The thinking was that each landscape zone would have several functions and in this way become self-sustaining. The intention was to ensure that the landscaping was seen as being essential for the well-being of the hospital. This was achieved through engagement with the hydrology, geology, flora and fauna on the site.

For example, engagement with water enabled the development of strategies for gathering and filtering stormwater within the landscaping, reducing the negative impact of large volumes of water being discharged downstream of the site, while at the same time facilitating the recharge of the depleted Cape Flats Aquifer.

The design process and on-going engagement with the client and project team enabled the development of a project which demonstrates the value of creating a water-conscious landscape.

Working with the hydrological cycle was part of the design. Swales in the parking area were engineered to capture stormwater runoff from paved areas, with crushed calcrete stone layers forming the base of the swales, thereby increasing infiltration. Overflow was captured via linking-pipes into stormwater detention ponds during high rainfall periods.

Planted swale to collect stormwater runoff from the parking area

The seasonal nature of this water landscape makes its way through the Hospital precinct, collecting water from the surrounding areas, and in turn supporting a variety of habitat sand plant communities.

Plant communities were propagated from parent plants grown from the harvested material from site. Literally thousands of plugs arrived on site, nurtured in the plant nursery, and then planted out between the calcrete rock clusters. The calcrete boulders were in fact used as a ‘rock mulch‘, sheltering the plants from the wind and capturing moisture in their shadows.

The social and economic layer of engagement was around communicating the wonder of the landscape through the mosaics which adorn the signage pylons. Lovell Friedman trained artists in the community on the art of mosaic-making with the intention of transferring skills to others in the community.

Mosaics in the signage formed part of the skills training

Lessons from the MitchellsPlain Project

Measuring the healing value of the landscape without scientific data, that quantifies the potential increase in diversity of habitats, plant and animal species, is difficult. Interviews evaluating the role that landscapes play in the mental health of the patients are needed, as this would help us better understand the role that landscaping can play in our practice.

One of the primary roles of the making of new landscapes within the Cape Flats environment is one which encourages habitat diversity through the reintroduction of endemic plant species and the application of sustainable water practices within barren urban landscapes.

The Mitchells Plain Hospital landscape project has been pivotal for our office in forming the basis for future planting lists, as well as strategies for sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS), towards healing the urban environment.

The use of sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) in maintaining a healthy environment

Similar projects include bus depots where the rehabilitation of dunes required mass propagation of plants to stabilise wind-blown sand and reintroduce Cape FlatsDune Strandveld vegetation. Training centres are another area where the landscape functions as a passive recreational space involving the SUDS approach, helping to recharge the Cape Flats Aquifer.

In housing estates, small plugs have been planted during the rainy season, to take advantage of natural precipitation and reduce the need for irrigation, using lessons from the Mitchells Plain Hospital project, and generally contributing to the healing of the broader urban landscape.

On reflection, key  lessons learned from these projects include :

·    The role that Policy plays in embedding environmental concerns within the high level approvals process, which can have a positive impact on the resultant landscape.

·    The engagement of the Landscape Architect at the commencement of the project facilitates environmental and social possibilities, providing an opportunity to engage with  both the site and the design process.

·    The benefit of working as an interdisciplinary team (inclusive of the client, consultants and contractors) encourages the adoption of integrated landscape solutions. This results in projects that promote sustainable environments contributing to the health of both the environment and the community.


Article in LANDSCAPE Design and Garden Western Cape Issue 10, Spring 2013.


Client:                           Dept. Public Works, Western Cape

Project Managers:       Stauch Vorster Architects (SVA)

Architect:                     Munnik Visser Architects

Civil Engineer:             Goba Engineers

Landscape Architect: Tarna Klitzner Landscape Architects (TKLA)

Mosaic Artist    :         Lovell Freidman

Search andRescue:   VULA Environmental Services

Landscape Contractor: Cape Contours

All photos and drawings by the office of TKLA