After the Athlone Cooling Towers: A historic opportunity?
For a start, let’s consider the strategic and historical significance of this site. It is situated at the point where three distinct urban zones (products of the apartheid city) intersect: Pinelands (middle class surburbia), Langa (our first black ‘township’), and Athlone (a mainly ‘coloured’ residential area, precursor to Mitchell’s Plain and that amorphous expanse popularly known as ‘the Cape Flats’). Neither ‘black’ nor ‘white’, the development of this liminal site holds the potential to bring together what apartheid put asunder.
Almost as significant is the fact that this site is located on the N2, the point of entry to Cape Town for migrants from the hinterland and tourists from the airport. Plus of course the thousands of commuters who stream past on their way to or from work. What an opportunity to open Cape Town up to all its inhabitants and to the tourists whose foreign currency is an important driver of the local economy.
The informal economy
Given the inability of the formal sector to create jobs, isn’t this a wonderful opportunity to tap into and channel the creativity that exists in the informal sector? This country provides us with some stunning examples of what can be achieved. I have in mind in particular the well-documented example of the Warwick Junction Urban Renewal Project in Durban (see the book, Working in Warwick by Richard Dobson and Caroline Skinner (with Jillian Nicholson). Their book is a vivid illustration of the success of this Project, and suggests some of the ways in which one could build on the enterprise and skills that already exist in the informal sector (as a walk through neighbouring Langa will illustrate). Some of the possibilities that come to mind include the creation of the following:
• A fresh produce market
• A clothing market
• A flower market
• A food court featuring traditional township and Cape cuisine (a potential tourist drawcard)
• A fish market (linked to the food court)
• An arts and crafts market (nothing mass-produced or imported)
• A market for herbalists and traditional medicines and treatments
• A recycling centre
• Last but not least, a few shebeens!
Add to this mix a tourist centre and information office that would demonstrate that there is more to this city than just Table Mountain, Cape Point, the Waterfront, Long Street and Robben Island (on a good day when the Ferry is working!)
A project centre with rooms for meetings and workshops would be a necessity – as would a child-care centre.
The centrepiece would be the remaining turbine hall, which surely has great potential as an exhibition space– to supplement, extend and popularise the work of existing museums and art galleries in Cape Town. According to the Cape times headline (5 October) it could become an ‘African cultural centre’ – one hopes the word ‘African’ is being used inclusively here.
Planning would obviously be needed to integrate the site into the city’s transport system (rail, bus and cycle) - essential if it is to become a crucial development node.
Of course for any of this to happen will require some creativity and imagination, and the active participation of the traders and vendors and craftsmen and women who would make this work. It has happened elsewhere; it should not be impossible here.