NEWS / Blog / Diversity in Design – from apartheid to gentrification

Cape Town, South Africa.

22 NOV 2022


Labieba February (Ramboll) shares how living in South Africa influenced her views on design


y first appreciation of the vibrant communities in Cape Town’s inner city was through the first-hand accounts of family and friends on life before and after the razing of places like District Six. It was only after taking a course in Urban Planning at College that I realised the huge power of design, and how it could be used as a force for good or bad - sometimes unintentional, and other times with intent.

I often wonder whether we have learnt the lessons from the past in how modern-day inner-city development is managed with careful consideration and minimal impact on disadvantaged communities.

I am a principal engineer at Ramboll. I am South African and a naturalised British citizen. I have been fortunate to live and work in several countries as an infrastructure engineer with a huge personal passion for design. In the context of this thought-piece, the racial classification on my South African identity document reads ‘Other’, by choice.

In simplistic terms, urban planning is the form and function of the environment we interact with on a daily basis. The dictionary describes urban planning as: “the design and regulation of the uses of space that focus on physical form, economic functions, and social impacts of the urban environment and the location of different activities within”.

Apartheid, “the policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race”, was institutionalised in South Africa in 1948. A cornerstone of apartheid was the Group Areas Act and Population Act, legislated into South African law in 1950. This paved the way for the government of the time to forcefully segregate vibrant and diverse, often mixed-race, inner-city communities along racial classifications for relocation elsewhere. As an example, if classed as ‘white’ living in District Six, you were relocated to nearby homogenous communities close to the inner city such as Sea Point. If you were considered ‘non-white’, you were relocated to government-built townships on the Cape Flats.

I often wonder whether we have learnt the lessons from the past in how modern-day inner-city development is managed with careful consideration and minimal impact on disadvantaged communities. Labieba February, Ramboll

Sea Point is within walking distance of Cape Town city centre, and located on the Atlantic seaboard, with ample local amenities, schools, shops, and places of worship. It has good accessibility to the nearby tourist hot spots, V&A Waterfront, Table Mountain and Camps Bay. The community has the building blocks of good urban planning which encourages positive community growth and development. Sea Point can be considered a vibrant, prosperous and healthy community.

Cape Flats was first populated with the forced relocation of people of colour as early as 1927 to the township of Langa – even today it is a sprawling informal settlement. The defining characteristic of the Cape Flats are the deep sand and wetlands.

Located more than 20km from District Six, the government-built townships lacked key urban design principles. Adequate and safe transport links were poor or non-existent with a heavy reliance on private transport, local amenities were scarce, as was general service provision. Even today, and despite the abolition of apartheid in 1994, communities living in these townships experience high levels of poverty, inequality and crime, with few opportunities for upliftment. This demonstrates the damaging legacy of poor urban planning and its destructive impact of entrenching inequality within communities.

Looking ahead, how can urban planning in modern times encourage more inclusive design? Are the key urban design principles – context, character, choice, connections, creativity, custodianship and collaboration – applied to modern day redevelopment to encourage community growth and inclusiveness? Is any thought given to existing communities so they can continue to flourish in areas undergoing regeneration and not fall foul of gentrification?

The British sociologist Ruth Glass first used the term gentrification in 1964 to describe “the displacement of the working-class residents of London neighbourhoods by middle-class newcomers.” and used Islington as an example. The local council website today describes Islington as a “borough of stark contrasts” with areas of wealth and deprivation.

Gentrification is often ascribed to poor or neglected inner city areas of settled communities with established local amenities and transport links. The benefit of these established local amenities and transport links draws an influx of affluent residents bringing with them much needed economic growth and regeneration. Very often this much needed economic and regeneration improvements are at the expense of lower income residents who may be displaced because of rising living costs.

The examples given highlight the intentional and unintentional consequences of urban planning, if improperly applied, enforcing cycles of inequality, poverty, and crime, that are difficult to rise above.

Admittedly there is no easy solution. However, if we can identify the markers of gentrification early and engage in constructive, inclusive community discussion, and design with considerate intent, the result may just be a vibrant and diverse inner-city development that promotes community growth for all.

With supportive local planning and urban heritage policies, as well as a commitment to promoting considerate redevelopment in legacy inner-city areas, urban planners and designers are well placed to champion and lead cohesive and inclusive design.

Engineering is a super power – please use it responsibly!

Labieba February works at Ramboll and is a member of ACE’s Emerging Professionals.

This article forms part of a series released following Black History Month and is shared as part of ACE’s Building Inclusivity campaign.

Labieba February

Labieba February

Principal Engineer - Development, Ramboll

Labieba is prinicipal engineer at Ramboll and grew up in South Africa.