Commentary: The Princess Vlei Story

Commentary: The Princess Vlei Story

Résumé en français

Historical Background of the Vlei

Access to fresh water has shaped historic global exploration and settlement and fuelled conflict. Cape Town, and South Africa’s history, are a microcosm of this global phenomenon, as is the legend of the Princess Vlei. (A 'vlei' is a South African term for a type of wetland or shallow body of water).

Rich in fresh water, the Cape was historically an important place for mariners to replenish supply. The first contact between Khoi-Khoi pastoralists and Europeans occurred at the Cape in 1503, when Portuguese sailors arrived at Table Bay in search of fresh water and food. During the interleading period up until Dutch settlement in 1652, sailors relied on the Khoi for trade and fresh provisions. At this time, a Khoi princess who lived in the Elephant’s Eye Cave at the source of the Prinskasteel River, was kidnapped by Portuguese sailors while bathing at the Muizenberg vlei, triggering the first recorded conflict between indigenous South Africans and Europeans. It is said that she cried so profusely that her tears flowed down the Prinskasteel River and filled a depression, now known as the Princess Vlei (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Vlei in history

The area surrounding the vlei was used for farmland during the 18th century, before becoming a multi-racial residential area comprised off Grassy Park, Elfindale, Parkwood, Retreat and Heathfield. This however changed during apartheid when the area was classified as a Coloured Group Area, triggering the eviction of non-coloured families. At this time, the 110ha wetland system vlei was one of a limited number of natural recreational areas available to those classified non-White and played (and continues to play) an important part in the community’s collective memory.

The Legend of the Princess came to prominence again in 2012, when the local community successfully opposed the construction of a 3.7ha shopping mall. Community activism pivoted off the heritage and environmental significance of the vlei, in addition to the commodification of public space. Poor management and lack of investment had denuded the vlei’s amenity, leaving the area crime-ridden and unsafe, as well as being a target for development.

The City of Cape Town (the City) approved the sale of the land in 2002, subject to conditions. A land use application process was successfully undertaken, but conditions were not met and the Environmental Impact Assessment Record of Decision lapsed, causing the project to fail.

A Conceptual Development Framework

Having ‘won the war’, the community were faced with questions around how to develop it. The City-hosted 2014 World Design Capital provided an opportunity to explore the vlei’s future and to build a relationship between the City and the community. The Princess Vlei Forum (PVF) formed the year after in 2015 and a memorandum of agreement recognised the role of the PVF as community partner and formalised the partnership between the PVF and the City and established a basis for collaboration towards a vision, conceptual development framework (CDF), co-management and activation. The vlei is developed according to the CDF and managed as a natural wetland park, in collaboration with the community.

The Princess Vlei study demonstrates the powerful role that heritage and community memory can play in managing water resources, building relationships and shaping cities using an incremental approach.

The underlying concept is that an incremental development approach guided by a vision and landscape framework can build trust necessary for community partnership. A champion and consistent project-level leadership can further support progressive implementation centred on heritage, the environment and an engaged community.

The vlei is part of a system of vleis within a natural water system located in the south west of the metropolitan area. The system plays  a number of roles in urban and natural systems. It for example, mitigates flooding and improves water quality, including an urban stormwater management role. It is a conservation area that protects vegetation types such as Cape Lowlands Freshwater Wetlands, Cape Flats Dune Strandveld (rated as endangered) and Cape Flats Sand Fynbos (rated as critically endangered).

As part of the City’s biodiversity network (BioNet), it plays a role in connecting natural blue and green systems, within the broader BioNet network of sites. Because it connects into a corridor that links source-to-sea, it provides safe ‘stepping stones’ for important floral and faunal movement of for example, the endangered Western Leopard Toad (Amietophrynus pantherinus) (Princess Vlei Forum, 2023).

A Vision for the Vlei

The PVF worked with community members to develop a vision, which the City adopted and then prepared a CDF, released in 2016 after public participation, wherein the vlei is recognised as a valuable resource that should be retained and enhanced over time. The CDF sets out development principles, activity zones and land uses surrounding the vlei.

The vision for the vlei is an inclusive, people-oriented, multi-use place, with natural environmental value, diverse opportunities and extensive public activity and enjoyment. Underpinning this is the pursuit of a place that functions as a whole for the citizens it serves.

A number of implementation projects and works packages were completed following the finalisation of the CDF. These include upgrades to the Eastern Shore Entrance Precinct and to the Eco Centre, the larger area being packaged into smaller, western and eastern shore precincts (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Framework Plan

The eastern shore predominantly provides for parking within an entrance precinct, recreation and children’s play areas and the design of a circular trail around the vlei. This contrasts to the western shore that includes upgrading existing facilities at the Eco-Centre, extending the existing building, upgrading walkways, external areas and the existing obstacle course. The upgrade will use a combination of timber and tensile steel elements (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Timber deck element

In 2020 the vlei’s heritage significance was recognised by gaining Provincial Heritage Site status.

The framework plan has been shown to have the following value:

o Prevents inappropriate/inconsistent development

o Allows for incremental implementation through examples

o Allows for experimentation – projects are small, risk is therefore low

o The community forum plays a role in shaping outcomes


Princess Vlei played a key role in historic exploration and settlement, and has become something other than a shopping centre. Wetlands, such as these provide natural capital and enviromental resilience, becoming part of the City's blue-green infrastructure. Princes Vlei is a valuable case study, illustrating the role of the community in shaping development and protecting natural systems (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Community involvement