The Politics of Change at Lwazi Park

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The people are excited about the plan that has been crafted with their active involvement. The consultants are angry and adamant that their plan cannot be changed.

What is at stake here is much more than the design of a relocation site for 36 families. The politics of change in any community is closely related to larger city processes.

Will the relocation of Ulwazi Park signal such a vital change – one that can set an example for the upgrading of all informal settlements in our city, or will it just be one more lost opportunity?

Cape Town is heading for disaster. It faces economic and ecological collapse. Nowhere is this clearer than in the dire situation faced by the majority of the city’s residents: the urban poor who are crowded into makeshift shelters of their own making.

The problem is so acute that efforts to turn things around barely have any significant impact.

Take housing for example. The Government builds 12,000 houses for the urban poor every year, but the housing backlog stands at 300,000 households – and the number keeps on growing.

Then there is the problem of storm water drainage. The Cape Flats has many canals that were built over fifty years ago to drain water from the flood plains so that land could be prepared for the families who were forcibly removed from the inner city.

These canals are hopelessly inadequate. They flood every rainy season. They are severely polluted and their banks are entirely degraded.

Just last week the problem of the canals and the problems of inadequate housing ran headlong into one another.

A section of the Lotus River Canal runs along the N2 Freeway in Cape Town. For some time now the Roads and Storm Water Department was planning to widen the canal where it passes the densely populated informal settlement of Barcelona.

When it became clear that 36 families from the  neighbouring settlement of Lwazi Park were to be relocated, the city, as usual, hired consultants to manage the project.

The city and the consultants identified an alternative site, not far from the place where the people were living along the canal. Then they brought in their planners who produced a very uniform, conventional, layout plan for the shacks that were to be repositioned. In every sense it was to be a replication, but on a smaller scale, of the notorious temporary relocation areas that the people of the Cape Flats despise so much.

What is more, their plan accommodated 26 shacks only – meaning that if the plan were implemented 10 families would have nowhere to go.

Of course consultants do not consult the people. They are called consultants because they consult the engineers and planners in the city departments.

That is how most cities work. That is how Cape Town works, and that is one of the reasons why we are heading for disaster. We pay professionals large amounts of money to plan development for the people, not with the people.

This is because we still think that

changing informal settlements is a technical issue, which it is not. That’s just one element of a much larger change process, which needs various understandings.

Fortunately there are people in this city, including some who work for the government, who understand that this conventional city planning process does not work and in fact is one of the reasons why we are in such a mess. They want to see things change.

Most of the people who want to see change are shack dwellers themselves. They know because they deal with the mess that the formal world makes of our cities on a daily basis.

Some of these shack dwellers, who belong to the countrywide movement by the name of the Informal Settlement Network, went to Lwazi Park when they got wind of the pending relocation.

They helped the community to map and measure their land and their shacks. They helped them to survey every family and get useful information like the size of the households and how long they have been living along the canal.

Then they drew in a community architect from the Community Organisation Resource Centre, who helped the people of Lwazi Park design their relocation area – using exactly the same space assigned by the city but also designing the proposed new settlement according to their everyday needs and priorities.

So instead of a simple grid layout they came up with a layout that takes into account the contour of the land and the existing walkways and pathways that the people already use. They created small open spaces for women to gather and children to play. They provided for different plot sizes because different families have different needs. And finally they suggested that the toilets to be provided by the city be moved into the centre of the proposed new square so that they can become a gathering point for the people and can be protected from vandalism.

The people from CORC and ISN know that relocation or upgrading is not only a matter of changing the physical form. They try to understand the politics of change in slums.

Watch this space.