The Evolution of Cape Town's Open Space System

The Evolution of Cape Town's Open Space System

Résumé en français

Ce document se penche sur la progression des idées relatives aux espaces ouverts urbains au fil du temps, où la conception et l'opportunisme ont joué un rôle dans l'évolution du système d'espaces ouverts et du réseau piétonnier du Cap. Lors de la préparation du projet ‘Greening the City’ dans les années 1980, la ville s'est inspirée de l'expérience de plusieurs autres villes.

Ce document tente de suivre le fil conducteur de cette évolution organique de l'aménagement paysager urbain, dans laquelle le rôle des architectes paysagistes, ainsi qu'un certain nombre d'autres disciplines de conception, ont contribué à la création de l'infrastructure verte du centre-ville du Cap. Cette évolution a commencé avec le projet ‘Greening’, suivi au fil des décennies par le programme de piétonisation du CBD, le projet Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, et enfin le projet Green Point Park and Stadium pendant la Coupe du monde de football qui s'est déroulée au Cap en 2010.

Cet article tente d'illustrer comment la conception et l'opportunisme ont contribué à créer un réseau évolutif d'espaces ouverts urbains et d'environnements piétonniers afin d'améliorer la qualité de vie au Cap grâce à l'aménagement paysager.

The paper reflects on the progression of ideas relating to urban open spaces over time, where both design and opportunism played a role in the evolution of Cape Town’s open space system and pedestrian network. In the preparation of the 'Greening the City project' in the 1980s, the City drew on the experiences of several other cities. The paper attempts to follow a thread running through this organic evolution of urban landscape design, in which the role of landscape architects, along with a number of other design disciplines, have helped to create Cape Town’s inner city green infrastructure. This evolution started with the 'Greening' project, followed over the decades by the CBD pedestrianisation scheme, the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront project, and finally the Green Point Park and Stadium project during the Soccer World Cup held in Cape Town in 2010. This paper attempts to illustrate how design and opportunism have helped to create an evolving network of urban open spaces and pedestrian environments to improve Cape Town's quality of life through landscape development.

Origins: From the Walled Garden to the Urban Park

Throughout history, the philosophical approach to open space or park design can be traced back to two main traditions – the formal geometrical Persian Garden as a walled oasis versus the informal Assyrian hunting park carved out of the natural forest. These two traditions have been played out in many forms, such as the geometric renaissance gardens of Europe versus the informal pastoral approach of English landscape design. This tension between the formal and informal approaches can be seen even today in recent urban open space design, often overlaid with the later environmental tradition based on ecological principles, including native planting.

In the layout of many cities, particularly in colonial times, the classical approach often consisted of a central square and four geometrically arranged squares. This approach contrasts with the pastoral tradition of park design in England, such as St James Park in London. The Englische Garten in the middle of Munich is on a similar grand scale based on the notion of bringing the country into the city, which was also central to the work of Frederick Law Olmsted in America.

Boston’s park system, in particular, developed in 1896 by Olmsted and Charles Eliot, is a model in the way it creates an integrated “series of parks, each possessing an individual landscape character and special recreative functions, united by a chain of drives, rides and walks, forming a grand parkway of picturesque type five miles in extent, reaching from the heart of the city into the rural scenery of the suburbs.” (Albert Fein, 1972).

The advantage of the linked park system, developed by Olmsted and others, is that it provides ecological corridors, accommodates flooding of rivers, creates opportunities for market gardens (urban agriculture), various forms of recreation, continuous walking and cycling routes, contact with nature, a filter for air pollution and a sink for urban stormwater runoff – a useful strategy for dealing with today's issues of climate change.

From these landscape traditions, an open space system has been fashioned in Cape Town over time, taking in the mountain wilderness, the pastoral park, and the formal square. However, the challenge in recent times has been to knit these pieces together to create a more comprehensive, diverse, and connected system of open spaces to meet the environmental and social needs of a developing African city.

Cape Town’s Early Open Spaces

Since early times, the morphology of Cape Town has been dictated by the topography - the Table Mountain massif on the one hand and the coastline on the other. These two dominant open-space features shaped the layout and eventual spread of the city (Figure 1).

The original settlement consisted of the 'Company Gardens', which supplied fresh vegetables to the growing colony and the passing ships of the Dutch East India Company, along with the Grand Parade and Greenmarket Square, could conceivably be described as the town’s first open spaces, the one ‘soft’ and the other a ‘hard’ urban space (Figure 1).

The layout of the Company’s Garden, dating back to the 1600s, was influenced by the garden styles of Europe, particularly Holland; the Garden was divided in rectilinear fashion into four squares, later becoming more of a Baroque leisure garden, but still with its central avenue forming a strong axis. With the British occupation of the 1800s, the Garden took on elements of the English picturesque landscape tradition, which was less structured and more informal, eventually becoming a botanical garden. In the early 1900s, the pier at the end of Adderley Street formed part of a promenade on an axis extending up to the Company's Gardens.

Figure 1: A plan of Cape Town in 1770 showing the early grided settlement in red and the farmed Company's Gardens in green. (Source: Pinterest, 2023)

Besides the Grand Parade, other town squares, such as Greenmarket Square and Church Square, were formally designed as part of the street grid pattern typical of Dutch and later British colonial settlements. The town squares were seen at the time as isolated set pieces for gatherings and were not connected. The town's oldest public park, De Waal Park, opened in 1895, is still largely intact, reflecting the Victorian era of white perimeter walls, an Art Nouveau gateway, a cast iron bandstand, and shade trees.

Many of the squares were turned into parking lots after the Second World War to accommodate the space demands of exploding car ownership, but they have rightfully been returned to the people since the 1960s and 1970s, providing essential ‘stepping stones’ in Cape Town’s evolving pedestrian network.

The period after the Second World War saw suburban sprawl and the construction of motorways dramatically changing the nature of the city, the latter improving travel times but playing havoc with the urban fabric. The ‘Foreshore’ had been filled to create a deep-water harbour for the city, effectively cutting off the pedestrian from the shoreline, which up to then had been a central feature of the city, including promenading on Sundays. During those years, the Foreshore was a sad, windswept place - one immense gravel parking lot on weekdays.

Greening the City

The 1970s and 1980s seemed to be the turning point when numerous cities around the world, including Cape Town, embarked on greening strategies and pedestrian schemes to upgrade their central business districts when the emphasis changed from roads being seen as the main structuring elements of the city to that of open space systems. An interdepartmental team, including landscape architects, was established to prepare the ‘Greening the City: An Open Space and Recreation Plan for Cape Town' (City of Cape Town, 1982) -   the first time that a comprehensive open space and recreation plan had been prepared for the City (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Open Space and Recreation Plan for Cape Town showing the open space 'framework' and 'web'. (Source: City of Cape Town, 1982).

In the ‘Greening’ study, two levels of open space were considered: the 'landscape framework’ at the larger city scale, such as river corridors, and the 'landscape web’ at the neighbourhood scale, such as small play areas and squares, forming an integral part of the urban fabric. The Greening Project and the City's Pedestrian Network project provided a springboard for the many urban open space developments that were to follow in the next three decades (Figure 3).

Figure 3: The city's open space and pedestrian system developed by linking existing open space resources. (Source: City of Cape Town)

The Pedestrian Network

The ‘Pedestrian Network for Central Cape Town’ Report (1985) recommended that St George’s Street become the central pedestrian spine, along with several lateral street closures, such as portions of Church, Castle, and Lower Waterkant Streets. St George’s Mall provided an important pedestrian link between the Company Gardens, Thibault Square, and the Foreshore.

These pedestrian precincts and the city's tree-planting programme contributed to the larger pedestrian network jigsaw puzzle (Figures 4 and 5).

Figure 4: The City of Cape Town's proposed pedestrian network in 1985, most of which has been implemented. (Source: City of Cape Town)
Figure 5: St George's Mall as it is today with many more vendors and needing maintenance after 40 years. (Photo: B. Oberholzer)

The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront

It took nearly a decade of negotiation for the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront Company (V&A Waterfront Co.) to be formed, but after that, the transformation of Cape Town’s waterfront took place at an unprecedented pace. The historic Pierhead precinct set the tone and theme of the landscape design language for future phases. In time, a complex web of intimate pedestrian spaces became part of a sequence of more purposeful linear connections to the broader city. This project resulted in the waterfront being opened to the public, having been largely inaccessible before, while the flooding of the oil tank farm created considerable additional water’s edge for residential marina development (Figure 6).

Figure 6: An early urban design concept for the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, intended to restore the City's link with the sea, including a canal. (Source: Victoria &Alfred Waterfront Company)

The V&A Waterfront project re-created a link between the city and the sea, which had been lost with the Foreshore development 50 years earlier. It enabled the decaying docklands to be rejuvenated and conservation-worthy buildings to be restored, and it provided an extraordinary amenity for both residents and tourists.

The development of the Cape Town International Convention Centre provided an opportunity to create a linking canal navigable by water taxi between the waterfront and the foreshore. The canal passes the site of the historic Amsterdam Battery on the old shoreline and provides a valuable form of access between the City and the sea—a type of blue umbilical cord that has increased waterside public access to some 4 kilometres (Figure 7).

Figure 7: The canal today, linking the city with the Waterfront lined with residential and hotel accommodation. (Photo: B. Oberholzer)

The landscaped outdoor spaces can be described as the glue that holds the numerous precincts of the Waterfront together. The next challenge was to extend the urban open space system to the west of the city to link up with the Green Point Common and the Sea Point beachfront promenades (Figure 8).

Fan Walk and the Green Point Common

A major impetus to the City’s open space system came about fortuitously with the construction of the 2010 Soccer World Cup soccer stadium. Although controversial at the time, the stadium's location became the catalyst for the transformation of the Green Point Common, which had become fragmented and run-down over the years.

As part of the 2010 Soccer World Cup event, a fan walk was created linking the Cape Town Station with the Green Point Stadium, following, where possible, pedestrianised historical streets with shops and restaurants to provide a safe and active pedestrian route. The route, a legacy of the World Cup, passes through St Andrew’s Square, which is designed as a memorial garden and forms a vital pedestrian ‘knuckle’ with links to the V&A Waterfront and the Green Point urban park.

At the termination of the Fan Walk, a generous pedestrian underpass was created to give access to the stadium forecourt and a new 12.5-hectare urban park that serves both metropolitan and local population needs (Figure 8).

A central feature of the park is the 700-meter-long axial promenade, which focuses on the historic Green Point Lighthouse. A re-configured golf course, recreational play areas, a biodiversity garden, water features, and a created wetland are all fed and irrigated by an original and forgotten water source—the City’s natural mountain springs at the foot of Table Mountain (Figures 9 and 10).

The park, which includes formal sports facilities, an amphitheatre, and a Sunday market, constitutes a major open space lung in the city’s open space system, on a scale with Olmsted’s ‘Emerald Necklace’ in Boston.

Figure 8: The expansion of the City's open space framework via the 'Fan Mile' and Green Point Park, linking with the Mouille Point and Sea Point promenades. (Source: City of Cape Town)
Figure 9: Landscape Concept Plan for Green Point Park (Source: OvP Associates)
Figure 10: Aerial view of Green Point Park showing the range of family recreation facilities.

New Life for Old Parks

Over time, parts of the City's open space network have become rundown or redundant, requiring upgrading to serve new uses for the changing city. The Company Gardens, mentioned earlier, have been through periods of renewal, including the establishment of a small food garden around 2001 to represent its historic use (Figure 11).

Figure 11: Landscape Plan for the upgrading of the historic Company's Garden. (Source: OvP Associates)

The Oranjezicht City Farm, also established in response to the movement for growing food in the City, is located on a small portion of a historical farm that covered a large part of Table Valley.

Another open space, the Molteno Reservoir site, once an important water storage facility for the city, has outlived its usefulness, and plans were prepared in 2020 to meet the community's current needs. This included a residential component to provide 'eyes on the park' to add security and counter vagrancy—a perpetual problem in an African city. The emphasis, however, is on its role as a link between the adjacent De Waal Park and the Company Gardens leading to the city centre (Figure 12).

Figure 12: Landscape plan for the disused reservoir site involving new urban uses. (Source: Boogertman & Partners, OvP Associates)

Plans were also prepared for Platteklip Park at the upper end of the city as a gateway to the mountain wilderness area above, part of Table Mountain National Park, which is also a UNESCO Heritage Site. The redevelopment plans, initiated by a Community Trust in 2016, were a further step in creating an interconnected open space network.

Reflection: looking back and looking forward

Cities are sometimes planned through large, ambitious projects, such as Green Point Park, while others develop incrementally and organically over time, seizing on opportunities as they present themselves. The advantage of the latter process is that there is time to make adaptations and refinements as conditions change. Experience shows that both methods require a visionary approach to identify and create opportunities.

The severe water crisis in Cape Town during 2015-2016, requiring restrictions in household water use, is playing out in other South African cities, along with deteriorating water quality, and could become the single-most critical issue in the years ahead.

The Covid epidemic in 2020 reinforced the increasing need for recreational outdoor spaces, pedestrian precincts, and safe and comfortable walking and cycling routes, to ensure the physical and mental wellbeing of the City's residents.

Going into the future, new imperatives facing landscape architects and related planning disciplines include the following:

• Adapting to climate change, wildfires, and drought

• Controlling environmental degradation, including water resources

• Including biodiversity in designs and minimising the spread of invasive alien species

• Managing the influx of migrants and homeless people into the city

• Renewal of redundant and run-down parts of the city. (A general observation is that most projects need upgrading after about 30 to 40 years); and

• On-going maintenance involving the community.

In particular, the move towards densification in the face of urban sprawl means that a green network is crucial to guide the city’s future form.


Looking back to the early beginnings of Cape Town’s open spaces, a picture begins to emerge of how the synchronicity between design and opportunism has contrived to create an evolving network of urban open spaces and pedestrian environments, essential in both environmental and social terms for a civilised city.

Cape Town is presently formulating a  Green Infrastructure Program, underscoring its commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. An interconnected open space system forms part of this goal. The City of Cape Town has been at the forefront of this endeavour, but a great deal more needs to be done to achieve a healthy, liveable, and sustainable city of the future.


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