Integrating Urban Form through Multifunctional Open Space: The Case of Philippi, Cape Town

Integrating Urban Form through Multifunctional Open Space: The Case of Philippi, Cape Town

Résumé en français

La ville du Cap a rédigé un cadre de développement spatial local (LSDF) pour la zone de Philippi East (figure 1) afin de soutenir son développement et de mieux coordonner les investissements de la ville. Parallèlement à l'élaboration de ce cadre, de nombreuses études sont menées par la ville afin d'analyser les problèmes de la zone et d'identifier les interventions nécessaires à sa transformation en un centre plus sûr, intégré et diversifié. La nécessité d'un examen détaillé du système d'eaux pluviales a été identifiée afin de confirmer et de tester les propositions visant à améliorer les performances et le caractère des espaces verts. Il s'agissait notamment de réaménager les bassins de rétention existants et d'aménager les abords avec des logements intercalaires et des aménagements à usage mixte afin de créer des façades actives et de limiter les divers problèmes qui se posent dans la Philippi Opportunity Area (POA). Bien qu'un certain nombre d'études aient été réalisées récemment, cet article se concentre sur l'approche conceptuelle adoptée dans l'étude sur les eaux pluviales de la POA et illustre la manière dont les bassins de rétention des eaux pluviales sont poussés au-delà de leur rôle d'infrastructure technique, en tant qu'outil spatial pour intégrer les communautés locales et améliorer leur qualité de vie grâce à la création d'un lieu.

The City of Cape Town has drafted a Local Spatial Development Framework (LSDF) for the Philippi East area (Figure 1) in order to support its development and better co-ordinate the City’s investment. Alongside the drafting of this LSDF, numerous studies are being conducted by the City in an effort to unpack the challenges in the area and identify interventions for its transformation into a safer, integrated and diverse centre. The need for a detailed review of the stormwater system was identified in order to confirm and test its proposals to improve the performance and character of green open spaces. This included the redevelopment of existing retention ponds and to develop the edges with infill housing and mixed-use development to create active frontages and limit various issues prevalent in the Philippi Opportunity Area (POA). Although a number of studies have recently been completed, the focus of this article will follow the conceptual approach taken in the Stormwater Study for the POA, and illustrate how stormwater retention ponds are pushed beyond their engineering infrastructural role, as a spatial tool to integrate local communities and improve their quality of life through place-making.


The Philippi Opportunity Area (POA) is one of four Metropolitan nodes  in the City of Cape Town. This  node serves as a spatial anchor point that supports and encourages a high intensity, mix and clustering of urban activities, and land uses (COCT MSDF, 2023) in the Philippi East area and surrounds. Although this node has been inhibited from reaching its full potential by a number of urban challenges, such as high crime rates, land invasions and urban management issues, the City continues to invest in the area to encourage economic growth and job creation (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Locality Map of Philippi East in its Metropolitan Context

The POA Regeneration Framework, which also informed the draft LSDF, was the initial study done for the area that highlights the challenges and identifies the opportunities. It presents a development vision (Figure 2), for the transformation of Philippi East into an inclusive, thriving and resilient place. It  identifies a pipeline of cross-cutting public sector implementation projects that aims to  catalyse investment in the area. The project selection and prioritisation process was informed by an integrated approach that purposefully sought to address infrastructure backlogs while also improving the character and quality of living environments in the POA, resulting in an Integrated Open Space and Stormwater Concept (Figure 3).

Figure 2: The POA Regeneration Framework
Figure 3: The Integrated Open Space and Stormwater Concept

History of Philippi’s Community and its Development

In pre-colonial times, the area was mostly used as hunting and grazing land and  up until the early 19th   century, considered undesirable for farming and residential settlement due to its low-lying marshy terrain. The area was only subdivided for farming once suitable land in other more desirable areas of the Peninsula became more scarce. The area played a big role in the apartheid struggle and the rich  history associated with it was erased during the township establishment process in the late 1980’s.

A heritage study was undertaken that identified the location of struggle events, both tangible and intangible, and informed the location of new public spaces and has formed the basis for a public space upgrading programme. Some of these spaces are located at or around existing stormwater ponds, and although the instability of land has resulted in a flood-prone area, Philippi East, has continued to thrive by activating the area with informal trading and community amenities, enabling continued urban development in the area to support better community life.

As a result of its history and development, it is still a harsh living environment that relates to many factors including its poor urban character and environmental performance, which is linked to the manner in which it was originally planned and designed. The separatist apartheid planning ideologies of ‘one size fits all’ engineering solutions ignored the inherent landscape characteristics of the place and its cultural features, which has resulted in a fragmented community.

A serious constraint and inhibiting factor to developing Philippi East as a high density mixed-use community, has been the inadequately designed and poorly-manged stormwater system and lack of basic service infrastructure in the area has a direct impact on community life.

Existing stormwater ponds in the POA are currently treated as dumping spaces for litter, (Figures 4 and 5), and other waste products that inhibit optimal stormwater functions as well as leading to pollution of the groundwater system. The open spaces with stormwater facilities are also dangerous spaces, attracting criminal activity and are unsafe for recreational use.

Figure 4: The Current Public Space Conditions
Figure 5: The Current Conditions of Stormwater Retention Ponds

The ‘one size fits all’ engineering solution is still evident in how the open spaces and stormwater management have been addressed. These open spaces are still typically surrounded by blank boundary walls resulting in poor surveillance, and a lack of activity in these spaces results in  antisocial behaviour, contributing to an undesirable community life. The inadequately designed stormwater ponds and their ill-maintained urban surrounds has had a continued impact on Philippi East being prominently featured as an area of high social deprivation and socio-economic vulnerability as one of Cape Town’s poorest suburbs with some of the highest crime and poverty levels in the city.

Challenges relating to the community and its public environment have been identified as;

· Flooding of streets and open spaces;

· Isolated and poorly integrated open spaces leading to inefficient use of limited available open spaces;

· Unsafe, dangerous and unhygienic open spaces, many of which are poorly defined and have an unclear function leading to antisocial behaviour or inappropriate use;

· Insufficient sporting, recreation and amenity spaces;

· Poor environmental quality of existing green (stormwater ponds) and recreational spaces (parks, sports fields and streets) which are poorly resourced and maintained; and

· Limited availability of vacant or underutilised open land to meet the growing and competing needs of the local community; the need for housing, sustainable livelihood development, and community, recreational and social facilities

With continued changing factors of climate change causing increased urban stormwater runoff, Philippi East regularly floods in winter due to inadequate stormwater solutions for its site specific conditions. The floods decimate large portions of the informal communities that have found places to develop their settlements, in and around the formalised housing and available open spaces. This highlights the level of disparity of the informality in Philippi East and how quickly community life is disrupted.

With Philippi East holding significant economic potential as a result of its central location in Cape Town’s metropolitan area, as well as its close proximity to several established economic hubs nearby, these open spaces and stormwater ponds need to be addressed in a manner that considers the current and dynamic community needs. The stormwater study proposes that; to tackle the poorly designed urban environment and its ill-maintained service infrastructure and landscaping, a shift needs to be made from the modernist apartheid planning ideology to one that addresses the challenges faced by the community in Philippi East, through a contextual and design-principle led methodology.

Rather than applying the ‘one size fits all’ engineering approach to stormwater infrastructure,  a holistic approach presents an opportunity to not only reduce flooding but also improve environmental quality and community life.

A Place-making Approach To Support Community Design

The previous studies, in particular, the Heritage Study, Sheffield Road Review Study and the POA Regeneration Framework, has highlighted these various significant characteristics of the Philippi East community and the dynamics of its ever-changing challenges faced. The contextual attributes and characteristics must be considered in the development of placemaking principles as the understanding of these; social constructs of behaviour, culture, religion, race, gender, and socio-economic dynamics, can determine and contribute to supporting better urban development and a positive community life.

To support place-making and support positive community design means creating a vibrant, mixed-use and active environment, celebrate cultural activity, heritage sites and significant events and identify and protect natural and built elements to provide a unique sense of place and character.

The Stormwater Study aimed to optimise available open spaces to address a range of social and ecological needs within Philippi East. By understanding the contextual dynamics of the area and its community, overarching place-making principles were developed to support community life and urban development growth. These then formed the basis of the conceptual approach to enable connected multifunctional open space and activating the stormwater ponds beyond their infrastructural role (Figure 6).

Figure 6: The Stormwater Study Conceptual Approach

Through a resilient, integrated and multifunctional green network, the overarching principles of place-making can be achieved to support community life and promote urban development in Philippi East, as illustrated in the conceptual design below (Figure 7).

1. Develop an Integrated Movement Network by connecting open spaces via a network of green streets.

Figure 7: An Integrated Movement Network of Green Streets and Linear Parks

2. Create Active, Multi-functional and Quality Open Spaces by adding value and activating all open space (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Identified Active Stormwater Ponds

3. Redevelop Sheffield Road as a Hybrid Green Spine (Living Street) by optimising the existing clustering of stormwater retention ponds and vacant or underutilised land along Sheffield Road to function as an integrated multi-functional movement, stormwater, and activity corridor (Figure 9).

Figure 9: Typical Street Section of Sheffield Road

The Conceptual Approach

As the POA Regeneration Framework has envisioned Sheffield Road as a ‘hybrid green spine’, several stormwater ponds along Sheffield Road (Figure 10) have been recognised as opportunities to implement place-making design approaches with the goal of a near-future impact on the Philippi East community and its growth in urban development.

Figure 10:  Sheffield Road envisioned as a 'Hybrid Green Spine'

When floods in Philippi East occur, some of the retention ponds tend to stay wet forlonger periods than others, resulting in a mix of wet and dry ponds. The iThemba Labantu Lutheran Community Centre is a multifunctional sports and community facility. The sports field is situated on an existing stormwater retention pond that tends to flood periodically, but when dry is used for sports and community activity. The community centre has been well-designed to address a range of needs. It is a good example of the opportunities that can arise from the designing and development of the stormwater ponds and their surrounding open spaces in Philippi East (Figure 11).

Figure 11: Stormwater Study: Wet Ponds: iThemba Labantu Lutheran Community Centre  and Current Site Photos

With precedents such as the iThemba Labantu considered, ‘how’ principles were defined to achieve place-making elements to support community design. These are explained below:

1. Promote clustered & multi-functional green spaces to ensure efficient and multi-functional use of available green space and to avoid stormwater ponds from becoming isolated and disjointed areas.

2. Connect clustered spaces to develop a network of linear parks and green streets.

3. Activate the stormwater ponds by identifying additional functions or uses and broaden their use and value within the community.

4. Celebrate water and use one of Philippi East’s dominant landscape characteristics by integrating the retention ponds positively within the urban environment through better design features and providing access to high-quality and actively maintained natural spaces.

These principles have been used to outline design guidelines for the varying types of stormwater retention ponds in the area and will be addressed in two types of retention ponds found along Sheffield Road: P20 a wet pond and P7, a dry pond (Figure 12).

These proposed conceptual ponds are aimed for implementation along Sheffield Road to ignite economic and urban development along the POA's identified hybrid spine to support positive community life.

Design Guidelines for Wet Ponds – Nature Parks

The stormwater pond, P7, is located at the intersection of Sheffield and Stock Road. It has been identified as a wet pond and thus only the surrounds of the pond and its edges can be designed (Figure 13).

Figure 13: The Stormwater Study P7 Concept

Design principles included the following:

• Deter antisocial behaviour by activating blank edges, through infill informal trading (containers or stalls) and allow opportunity for properties with their ‘backs’ facing onto the pond to open onto it via pedestrian access or permeable fencing. This will promote active and passive surveillance onto these natural urban spaces and encourage activity along and through these spaces, via non-motorised transport (NMT) routes, further enabling spatial integration between the urban open space and what would usually be considered just an engineering solution to prevent flooding.  

• Promote multifunctional activity of the pond to ensure all-year round activation by providing elements within and around the space to promote increased usage and safety including lighting, tree planting, seating and play or picnic equipment.

• Create a defined hard edge to the pond, by means of a sitting or retaining wall and widen the sidewalks around it to allow for positive interaction with the pond. The visual surveillance of the pond, and increased activity around it will discourage the pond from becoming a polluted dumping ground, and rather a place of recreation or community activity.

• Incorporate soft landscaping along residential edges of the site to encourage private owners to open properties onto the pond's edge and have direct access to a new urban park and recreation facilities to foster positive community activity.

• Provide direct access onto the ponds edge, as well as windows to allow for passive surveillance, to keep this edge active and dissuade antisocial behaviour in the area south of the pond identified a housing development.

The stormwater pond, P20, is located south of Sheffield Road, adjacent to the Vuyiseka Sports Field. It has been identified as a dry pond and can therefore be designed in a similar manner to the iThemba Labantu sports field and surrounds (Figure 14).

Figure 14: The Stormwater Study  P20 Concept

• Include a new sports court adjacent to the Vuyiseka sports field to tie-in with existing community activities and create a cluster of community facilities for the area. The terrain should be terraced to develop a level of difference between the sports facilities and the surrounding park, and to accommodate for the expected temporary flooding of the pond.

• A portion the pond has been relocated and designed to be ‘wet’ all-year round to celebrate and embrace the natural features of Philippi East. The relocation to the south-west corner of the site also allows for sufficient space to develop new housing around the edges of the site. This new housing should be mixed-use and designed in accordance with the City’s Floodplain and River Corridor Management Policy.

• All edges of the pond must be activated by allowing for entrances to the new housing developments to be accessed off the pond site edges and include windows on these facades too allow for passive surveillance. These housing developments should not be designed in isolation, but rather seen as a continuation of the new Terminus Road Housing pilot project.

Lessons Learned and the Way Forward

Key lessons learned from this study are the following:

· The need for a transversal approach to infrastructure provision and maintenance which brings together engineering infrastructure with soft issues, like recreation and amenity spaces.

· The need for community dialogue and awareness campaigns around the use of infrastructure & spaces to ensure sustainability and longevity of these spaces. Especially around operational models, such innovation must ideally look to include partnering between local government and community anchors, as these are most of the time trusted and already have extensive networks which helps with community ownership and buy-in.

· An interdisciplinary, as opposed to a multidisciplinary, approach must be undertaken with all disciplines engaged throughout the design process to ensure a holistic design and the improvement of green and engineering infrastructure, to improve safety and contribute towards an improved urban environment in a densely populated urban area, such as Philippi East; and

· The need for innovation around the management and maintenance of public spaces in densely populated, largely informal neighbourhoods is critical to ensure we do not repeat spatial planning ideologies of the past.

A way forward:

· At this conceptual phase, a more detailed stormwater performance model needs to be undertaken and tested before any detailed design is produced.

· A stormwater management plan should be drafted for the POA including a funding and investment plan in order for the ponds to function optimally in the long-term.

· A phased implementation programme that targets key pilot projects must be outlined and used as a guideline (Figure 15).

Figure 15: The Stormwater Study Phase 1 Implementation Proposal


Through the cited studies and concept design, a holistic design approach is presented where green open space is used as the primary structuring element to shape urban form whilst addressing infrastructure challenges. It has demonstrated that it can be used as a mechanism for place-making and improving living conditions. This is achieved by incorporating recreational space, housing development, informal trading and stormwater management in and around a piece of engineering infrastructure. By applying a context-driven approach that integrates urban form innovatively through multi-functional open space, place-making design approaches can support a thriving, resilient and inclusive community and promote responsive and sustainable urban development.


GAPP Architects & Urban Designers, 2023, Sheffield Road Investigation: Conceptual Design Review Report.

GAPP Architects & Urban Designers, 2020, Philippi Opportunity Area: Regeneration Strategy Summary Report.

GAPP Architects & Urban Designers, 2021, Philippi Opportunity Area: Heritage Study.

GAPP Architects & Urban Designers, 2023, Philippi Opportunity Area Stormwater Study: Conceptual Proposal Report


Site photos. Courtesy: GAPP Architects and Urban Designers.

Design Space Africa (Unknown) iThemba Labantu Lutheran Community Centre Site Plan.