Stellenbosch needs a coalition of the willing to plan its future: Professor Swilling

Professor Mark Swilling

Stellenbosch needs a coalition of the willing to tackle its major issues in a way that excite all of us.

This was the view expressed by Professor Mark Swilling, distinguished professor of sustainable development, at the annual general meeting of the Stellenbosch Interest Group last week.

The Rector/Mayor Forum that was established in 2005 unfortunately did not deliver what was expected of it.

The university cannot be separate from the town and the town is the campus. The Stellenbosch University has to articulate its vision for the town. Presently there is not a coherent vision.

There needs to be a rethink what the word urban means and the key to it is governance. Stellenbosch is an urban system under pressure, but it can set an example.

Presently there are three conditions for urbanisation: mobility, densification and energy.

Resources are needed to get everyone on mass transport, not neglecting bicycles and other forms of non-motorised transport.

Over the past hundred years cities have actually de-densified with 2% per year. This was caused by urban sprawl, driven by property developers on the outskirts of cities. This type of development is a threat to the most productive farmland around cities.

Densification is an absolute precondition for the future, but cannot be done with the present use of private cars.

There has been astounding developments in renewable energy and since 2009 investment in renewable energy has exceeded investment in fossil sourced energy. It is also the fastest growing industry in South Africa. It is mostly driven by private money.

All three conditions for urbanisation have potential in Stellenbosch and they have been anticipated in the Shaping Stellenbosch documents.

Shaping Stellenbosch addresses three irreconcilable forces, namely

Property developers who drive urban sprawl

Heritage groups who want to preserve the historic core

Informal settlements where the inhabitants want land close to work.

The answer to these forces is high density multi-storey developments around stations along the railway line between Klapmuts and Lynedoch. This will take development pressure off the historic core and could give a clear framework for property developers.

There are big tracts of undeveloped land within the present urban boundaries such as the Van der Stel sports complex and Nietvoorbij.

Professor Swilling expressed his opposition to the proposed western bypass. According to him there is not much evidence that congestion in town is caused by through traffic. Congestion is caused by the middle class having to drive from outside to work in town. The poor live within walking distance. This is an unique situation.

The real threat of the proposed western bypass is that it will be an incentive to suburbanise up to and beyond the proposed bypass. Property developers therefore encourage the building of the new road. The Stellenbosch town council seems to be a classic profile by viewing developers positively.

Urban sprawl needs very expensive infrastructure and present boundaries must therefore be retained, developing mass and non-motorised transport.

The only way to work with informal structures is to incrementally improve infrastructure and services, off the grid where possible, and through collaboration by all parties.

Professor Swilling is of the opinion that at present there are forces that shape Stellenbosch in the wrong direction.

He proposes that there should be densification around stations, from where there could be public and non-motorised transport to destin ations. For this to happen, the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA) must come to the table, and the Stellenbosch University must come up with a plan for the future by its best brains.

We have to do something special here. Can we build a coalition of the willing?

Dawid Botha is a Stellenbosch resident, and chairman of the NPO, Stellenbosch Fietsry.

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