Isandla Institute, Mark Swilling
Input paper for Cape Town 2025.
This paper is less about Cape Town and more about Capetonians. To this extent it differs from approaches that refer to the city as an object to be acted upon by policies and plans to achieve specific objectives, such as 'housing for the poor'. It also differs substantially from mainstream discipline-specific approaches such as urban economics or ecological conservation. Instead lifestyles, the urban system and eco-system services are seen as interconnected non-linear complex systems that are embedded within each other in ways that are rendered inexplicable by the traditional split between natural and social science knowledge systems. Using a complexity approach, it reflects on the inter-relationships between three dynamic flows:
- Capetonian households, expressed most clearly in the location, property values and consumption patterns of households.
- the urban infrastructure which provides the holding spaces for these households and associated lifestyles, specifically the services that Capetonians require to live out their daily lives – the water, sewerage, energy, refuse removal, transportation, land, shelter, data and food supplies that they take for granted.
- the eco-system services at the local and non-local levels that households take for granted and which the urban system requires in order to provide the holding space for daily urban life, with special reference to water, energy (in particular oil), soils and land, food, clean air and waste.
Our primary proposition is as follows: the contemporary modern urban system (namely the spatial layout/form, function, economy, tax base and operational requirements) can be defined as the 'consumption city' model. It needs to be replaced by a 'sustainable city' model that decouples improving living standards from rising (and increasingly unsustainable) resource consumption.
In our view, cities as such don't change. It is neighbourhoods that change. City change is an emergent property, not a determining factor. The transition from the 'consuming neighbourhood' to the 'sustainable neighbourhood' is a story that is emerging across many cities across the developed and developing world, and what is remarkable is that this story tends to reflect a standard repertoire no matter where it emerge. These common features are as follows:
- transition to renewable energy alternatives and energy efficiency;
- zero waste via re-use of all waste outputs as productive inputs;
- sustainable transport, with a major focus on public transport;
- sustainable construction materials and building methods;
- local and sustainable food (especially organic food);
- sustainable water use and re-use of treated sewerage;
- enhancing biodiversity and the preservation of natural habitats;
- valuing authentic cultural diversity and a sense of community via a participatory culture;
- equity and fair trade at all levels (global, regional and local);
- health, well-being and soulfulness.
 This concept is derived from complexity theory which explains a particular phenomenon not via reduction to a particular cause, but by taking into account a wide range of patterned non-linear dynamics whose exact outcomes are not predictable but lie within a given range of probabilities.