Project Overview

The Open Space upgrading project in Khayelitsha’s Site B (Cape Town) is an example of area-wide informal settlement upgrading. Originally, the Open Space comprised a large field functioning as detention pond as part of a storm water management system. The area is surrounded by four settlements. Upgrading included the implementation of a sub-surface drainage system including the installation of an open drainage channel, the construction of two community halls, the realisation of a playing area for children as well as the installation of 120 new flush toilets and eight new water taps. As the first area-wide upgrading project supported by the SA SDI Alliance, upgrading was prepared, planned and coordinated by community leaders from all four settlements who formed a joint steering committee. The realisation of the Open Space upgrading project highlights impacts on the physical and social level. Through reflections by residents (see below), it is evident that upgrading the physical infrastructure contributed to tangible improvements in quality of life. Most significantly perhaps, the open space project presented an opportunity for residents to start building themselves as organised communities, establishing a strong platform to negotiate with other actors and become key actors in discussing the next steps for their communities.


The open space is located in Site B of Khayelitsha Township, Cape Town. It impacts four settlements (UT Gardens, UT Litha Park, TT Section and TB Section) that are located adjacent. To the east and west the settlement is bordered by schools. The area is bordered on the north by Site C, to the northeast by the N2 highway, to the west by a sandy land of the Cape Flats separating it from Mitchells Plain Township and to the south by the district of Khaya. On the east side Tandazo Drive runs perpendicular to Sigwele Avenue marking the north side of the settlement.

As an area, the open space project is integral to the four surrounding informal settlements and not a spatially disconnected island. It is also integral to community life since regular used municipal toilets and taps surround its borders, as well as a network of main pedestrian paths. Due to the structure density in the surrounding informal settlements, the open space is often used as a meeting area by residents.


Location map of the open space in Site B, Khayelitsha

Brief History of Settlements and Population

The adjacent settlements of UT Gardens, UT Litha Park, TT Section and TB Section were established on municipal owned land about thirty years ago. Many of the residents moved from nearby settlements such as Crossroads, KTC, Nyanga East, and as far as the province of Eastern Cape. Drawing on enumeration data collected by residents of UT Gardens, TB Section and UT Litha Park in 2013, both UT Gardens and TB Section are comparable in size, with 355 shacks and a total amount of 955 residents for UT Gardens, and 285 structures and total amount of 900 residents in TB Section. In UT Litha Park, community enumerators counted 409 structures and 1290 residents. As a result, this is a comparatively larger settlement in the area of the Open Space upgrading project. TT Section comprises 272 households and approximately 815 residents. These numbers however, are based on estimations, as no enumeration has been conducted in the section yet.

Challenges experienced in the Settlements

The main challenges for communities adjacent to the open space relate to crime, winter flooding, inadequate services and health hazards. A number of factors explain the existence of crime in these settlements. These include unemployment, congested shacks, narrow alleys and poor visibility. Thamara Hela (ISN Subregional Facilitator for Khayelitsha) speaks about the danger the open space posed to school children who use its surrounding paths to walk to school:

“The reason the community wanted this project was because the open space used to be an undesirable place, it was a neglected and dangerous space. It formed a barrier between four settlements and schools. For school children, it became very tough for them to walk in the afternoon because of crime. It was also difficult to walk to school when it is raining because we had very poor drainage system in this open space.”

Secondly, another problem for communities around the open space relates to insufficient water taps and flush toilets. These communities have a system of public toilets connected to the township sewer and running water that is provided by water taps scattered throughout the settlement. However, most of the flush toilets and water taps were broken and some were often in a very bad state and poor hygienic conditions. Near the water taps there was a lot of dirt and people waited in long queues to access water because of the high number of people using the same water taps.

Thirdly, especially in winter, the location of the settlements on a slope makes the area prone to frequent floods and strong winds. In the most extreme cases community members relocate to the nearby schools, which sometimes are not accessible. The open space also poses a health hazard with many mosquitoes and large rats in the nearby vicinity (if not in structures themselves), which cause illnesses. Many residents suffer from eczema and skin irritations.


Open space before the start of the upgrading project

Community Organising and Representation

The process of community organising in the settlements around the open space intensified when the community of UT Gardens connected with the Informal Settlement Network (ISN) and subsequently profiled and enumerated their settlement in 2013-14. Through the enumeration, priorities were identified around flooding, access to toilets and sanitation, mobile clinic, improved housing structures and a meeting space. Residents then began to engage about how to pursue these priorities. As a result, the community of UT Gardens indicated that they wanted a meeting space and suggested a community hall in the middle of the open space.

The community and ISN leadership engaged officials and the ward councillor about the community hall. However, a conversation with the City of Cape Town about the community hall resulted in the City demonstrating intentions to introduce water engineers to clear the water table, as, at the time, the open space was understood to be a wetland. This was based on tests conducted by the Department of Environmental Affairs which categorised the open space as a wetland that needed to be protected. As a result, it became clear that it was going to be difficult to build a community hall.

The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) conducted a study that confirmed that the open space was not a wetland but actually a detention pond, used as part of a storm water management system. Therefore, the issue of environmental protection fell away and the community was advised that it could make development plans.

As a result, the surrounding communities, supported by ISN, started mobilising through collecting data on their informal settlements and engaging with the idea of a community hall proposed by the UT Gardens community. Consequently, these communities also suggested specific projects such as partial re-blocking of TT section and the TB community hall as part of incremental upgrading of the open space and adjacent settlements. It was also suggested that there should be a structured leadership that represents all four settlements. As a result, each settlement is organised by a leadership committee of 15 members, which makes up 60 community leaders for the area.

The four sections then decided to form a joint project steering committee concerning matters related to the open space, with each section represented by four people. In meetings with external stakeholders, each section would be represented by one person and the Open Space project steering committee. The steering committee would report to the each of the settlements leadership committees who in turn would report back at general meetings, where the whole community meets to discuss community issues.

Learning Exchanges

The community of UT Gardens was advised by an NGO called Environmental Monitoring Group to visit a community hall in Makhaza Park that was built in similar environmental conditions. This was a community hall constructed and maintained by women. An exchange to Makhaza Park provided vital lessons on how an informal settlement community can start and manage the building of its own community hall. In that exchange, participants learned how the community managed to set up a system that enabled members to self-manage their community hall, in terms of maintaining it and ensuring that people have access to a community hall. In this exchange, the communities of UT Gardens, TT Section, TB Section and UT Litha Park also met with a relevant City of Cape Town official, who suggested that it would be possible to do something similar in the open space.

Project Preparation, Planning and Design

After it was recognised that the open space was not a wetland and with the go-ahead concerning zoning and land use applications, the open space steering committee and SA SDI Alliance engaged numerous stakeholders between April and August 2015. This included discussing initial ideas and possibilities for the open space with the four communities and assessing their willingness to become central role players in the incremental upgrading of the open space. It also included engaging municipal actors, councillors and relevant line departments such as City Parks and ensuring sources of funding.

The overall goal for this project was to establish a foundation for the incremental upgrade of the area and to improve access to services for the communities of UT Gardens, UT Litha Park, TT Section and TB Section. The project presents an opportunity for these communities to start building themselves as organised communities and start discussing the next step for their communities. In August 2015, the open space steering committee developed a detailed plan supported by ISN, CORC, Jakupa architects and City Parks. The plan incorporated reduced flooding in the area, ensuring a play area for children (including a soccer area), partial re-blocking in one settlement and improved health and quality of life due to drainage and engineering services.


Community members preparing, planning and designing the upgrading project


Due to its area wide nature, the Open Space upgrading project required multiple parallel and interdisciplinary engagements with various departments in the City. These included the Transport and Urban Development Authority (TDA), Water and Sanitation, City Parks and Solid Waste Management (SWM). As City Parks is the custodian of the open space, the management and maintenance of the open space would be the responsibility of City Parks in partnership with the community. TDA oversaw upgrading the canal and cleaning it. Water and Sanitation placed toilets on a platform, making them more accessible.

In this partnership, ISN and community leaders conducted social facilitation and managed the social aspects of the project. This included supporting the four communities to mobilise and organise through data collection, savings, and learning exchanges as well as to jointly navigate meetings, agreements and plans with the various stakeholders involved. The project steering committee rallied behind the community driven process by organising the energies of communities to ensure that community members actively engage in the process of upgrading. ISN and community leaders established and maintained the relationship between the City of Cape Town, contractors and communities. Thamara Hela noted that:

“Our relationship with the city, overall I could say is on and off, in some meetings things go well and in some meetings things do not really go well. One of the major challenges that we had in this regard is that the City of Cape Town’s departments (City Parks, Water and Sanitation and Solid Waste Management) wanted to do things using their own ways.

They would come to us with ideas that might stop the project – ideas like you cannot do this here – but this is our community we know better about this place because we live here. I think city officials are disagreeing with us because they are not fully aware of the scale of problems that we face here everyday.”

Despite these challenges, the growing partnership between different city departments, the Alliance and the four settlements around the open space is an important success factor. In the Open Space upgrading project, the City of Cape Town played a critical role as it provided both technical and financial resources. The lesson is that partnerships with municipalities are required at both a strategic political level and official / project implementation level.


Growing partnership between different city departments, the Alliance and the four settlements around the open space was a vital success factor of the project.


In the Open Space upgrading project, a sub-surface drainage system was installed to ensure that the water table does not become a problem. TDA guided the process of designing and managing the contractor who did the installation. Moreover, TDA also installed an open drainage channel that collects and channels water out of the settlement. The communities of TB Section and UT Gardens have also managed to build their own community halls (TB community hall and UT Gardens community hall. The communities have also implemented a playing area for children (including a soccer area). In addition, the Department of Water and Sanitation installed 80 new flush toilets in UT Gardens, 40 in TT Section, and eight new water taps.


Playing area for children as part of the Open Space upgrading

Funding Details

Regarding the funding of different projects, the subsurface drainage system was funded through the SA SDI Alliance’s people’s-led finance facility (funded by Comic Relief). The play area was also funded through the SA SDI Alliance’s people’s-led finance facility. Initially, City Parks had intended to contribute by planting trees and grass, but due to the water restrictions and drought in Cape Town this did not take place. The two community halls were financed through the SA SDI Alliance’s people’s-led finance facility, with communities contributing 10 per cent of the costs through their own savings.

In addition, the community of TT Section has started preparing for partial re-blocking through community meetings and engagements with the City of Cape Town. The Alliance has supported residents in terms of measuring structures and discussing different possibilities with the community.

Challenges, Constraints and Lessons Learned


Implementation of the Open Space upgrading projects including a sub-surface drainage system, a drainage channel, two community halls, a playing area as well as new flush toilets and taps.

One of the main challenges encountered in this project was limited interdepartmental integration. In other words, a lack of communication amongst government departments regarding the progress of specific projects was identified. As a result, the Alliance found itself playing more of a coordinating role by bringing different city departments together to discuss the project.

An essential finding from the project includes the necessity of partnerships with municipalities at both a strategic political level and official / project implementation levels. Moreover, it is vital that officials, even those higher in the municipal hierarchy, attend community meetings, to engage directly and establish project plans that everyone can be held accountable to. This is also important to solve project issues that need senior officials. The open space project has also shown that community leaders face the challenge of navigating party political affiliations between different actors in a settlement when it comes to social facilitation.

Nkokheli Ncambele (ISN coordinator) recalls that:

“It has taken a long time to get the project to where it is today. I remember there was time when ISN was even called liars because a lot of expectation had been created and the City of Cape Town did not come on board with certain issues and the process was stuck. We were threatened when we went to a particular group, because they thought we were from an opposing political party.”

Finally, the scale of working in a larger informal settlement was a further challenging factor since people involved in the project are numerous and often the community has to manage different relationships and interests between them, local government, and contractors. In order to avoid rifts within communities, skilful social facilitation by informal settelment residents themselves is critical to navigate these differences and dynamics. Due to strong, community-led social faciliation, the four settlements were able to collaborate.


The aforementioned implementations have had various physical and social impacts on residents’ quality of life. With the Open Space upgrading including sanitation services and a drainage system, existing risks such as health hazards, poor hygienic conditions, but also potential threats through crime could be addressed and counteracted. Thamara Hela describes the impact of the infrastructural development as following:

“The toilets that we have received have improved our lives because before people used to use buckets as toilets and there was no one who would collect the buckets. It used to be a very dirty place that smells, with no one who cleans it. Now that we have people that are responsible for cleaning them the situation has really improved even on health issues, because the situation before was a health hazard. Nevertheless, we still have challenges but they are not like before. Before it was difficult to even cross the wetland, now it is easy for people to move from one side to the other side. And also the water that we have received has improved our lives, although at times it is not clean which is another health hazard.”

A central social impact is the sense of organising and negotiating capacity that residents experience. This is reflected in the words of Gcobani Kaleni (community leader of TB Section):

“The existence of this hall in an informal settlement like this, makes it easy for us to challenge the municipality and tell them that if we can do something like this with FEDUP and ISN what is stopping you from doing more projects with us? People on the ground are motivated and they now understand that you do not have to wait for government for your things to happen. We are now aware that community development only happens for people that work for themselves, if you are sitting at home and you do not go out and demand things there are very limited chances that you will get those things.”

As normally, meetings are held with sub-councillors, for the first time, project engagements took place with officials directly. There the community leaders have taken an active role in the decision making process. Another important achievement is the ability to the leverage government funds, as the project was not included in the prior budget. Furthermore, the mobilisation and self-organisation of the community as well as the reflection on the existing challenges enabled the project to succeed. The open space can be considered, as first step of an incremental development with the aim to strengthen organising capacity in surrounding informal settlement communities to engage respective local government departments around their priorities.

Due to its area-wide nature, engagement with multiple settlements and government departments, the Open Space project can be considered precedent-setting. The successful implementation of TB community hall and other aspects of the open space project, symbolise what is possible when urban poor communities organise: growing a space in which residents start building themselves as leaders and as one community, who identify their priorities and can initiate further projects. In this sense, existing upgrading projects and organising strategies become a building block for the formalisation of a settlement over time.