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Cape Town’s City Development Strategy and Climate Change

Cape Town’s City Development Strategy (CDS), adopted by the Cape Town City Council in October 2012, presents a vision for the city in 2040, together with a set of goals and strategies. The integration of climate change into the CDS is described in this article in terms of the content and the process and related challenges. The background to the issues of climate change in Cape Town and long-term strategic city development planning is described in a linked article.

How is climate change integrated into Cape Town’s City Development Strategy (CDS) in terms of its content?

Climate change features extensively in Cape Town’s CDS, interwoven into the description of the large-scale challenges facing the city (and the wider city region) and the goals put forward for Cape Town in 2040. In the CDS, climate change is primarily related to concerns regarding food, energy and water security in the city. Emphasis is placed on increasing the resource efficiency of the city over the medium to long-term and the need for research and innovation to support such a transition. This suggested as an economic opportunity for Cape Town, as a place to develop, pilot and test new approaches and technologies that generate climate resilience and low carbon growth, and once proven effective can be exported across the continent.

The CDS highlights Cape Town’s remaining natural resources (e.g. dune cordons, wetlands, wind, solar energy) as a key strength and source of adaptive capacity in the face of climate change, motivating to restore and maintain the ecosystems that underpin these natural assets, in the process creating much needed employment opportunities.

Climate change relates to each of the 6 goals put forward in the Cape Town CDS:

  • A healthy and vibrant life (goal 1) entails keeping risk to an acceptable and manageable level, including climate risks, and encourages non-motorised transport, which has the added benefit of reducing emissions.
  • Being educated and informed (goal 2) involves better understanding the nature of climate change risks and how to address them.
  • Being connected (goal 3) includes being more connected to and in sync with the ecosystems we rely on for water, food, clean air, recreational spaces, etc., as well as more efficient and accessible transportation and information and communication technology (ICT) systems, both with associated mitigation benefits.
  • An inclusive and resilient economy (goal 4) requires infrastructure and activities that are well adapted to the prevailing, as well as expected, local climate conditions to minimize flood and fire damages, limit the occurrence and impacts of water scarcity, build heat tolerance, etc.
  • Building and celebrating Cape Town spirit (goal 5) is linked to being custodians of the city’s unique fynbos ecosystem.
  • Being an eco-friendly city region (goal 6) requires minimizing waste, minimizing the emission of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants, rehabilitating and maintaining ecosystem functioning, limiting water demands, etc. all of which have adaptation and mitigation benefits.

While not all of these linkages between climate change and the six goals are explicitly laid out in the final CDS document, many of these messages feature in related documentation produced by the City of Cape Town and other local organisations involved in the CDS consultation process.

Prior to and in parallel with developing the CDS, the City of Cape Town also developed and adopted an Energy and Climate Change Strategy (2006), followed by a number of mitigation and adaptation action plans (2010/11). The aims of these City documents are broadly entrained in the vision and goals of the CDS, but no clear link exists between the strategies laid out in the CDS and the detailed targets and interventions put forward in the City’s climate change strategy and plans, spearheaded by the City’s Environmental Resource Management Department (ERMD). One of the themes emerging from this ongoing climate change work within ERMD that does feature in the CDS is the need to link climate change measures with the imperative to create work opportunities for the large proportion of the city’s residents that are unemployed, many with very limited education and skills training. The proposed mechanism for doing so is the expanded public / community works programmes.

The main interventions proposed in the CDS that pertain to climate change include:

  • Undertake key interventions around food, energy and water scarcity (e.g. scoping & feasibility studies; research)
  • Create the “MIT of Africa” in co-operation with local and global business, with focus on new energy, biodiversity and zero waste & health;
  • Implement a fully integrated public transport system
  • Initiate a platform to match volunteers with local environmental and social initiatives, earning “goodwill credits”
  • Be a world leader in implementing the Blue Economy across the city region
  • Implement zero waste technologies for farming, aquaculture and agro-processing & manufacturing
  • Source 100% Electricity from natural gas and renewable energy sources

Cape Town’s CDS highlights the need for new financing mechanisms to support households, businesses and public agencies to save water and energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, suggesting the establishment of a city-scale Climate Change Fund.

How is climate change integrated in Cape Town’s CDS in terms of its process?

Detailed climate change work being done by the City, led by ERMD, and local research and advocacy organisations (e.g. SEA, ACC, CSAG, EMG, SSN, SANBI, etc.[see note 1]) has made the inclusion of climate change in Cape Town’s CDS possible. This broader and longer-term set of work had already made significant progress in getting climate change onto the City’s agenda and broadly accepted as a key concern, by building a localised understanding of the problems associated with the global phenomenon of climate change and identifying key areas for intervention. This includes the work that went into developing the Energy and Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, preparing the State of Energy report for Cape Town, developing sector-based Climate Adaptation Plans of Action (CAPAs), setting up the Climate Change Think Tank [see note 2], etc.

Climate change emerged as a set of concerns / challenges and opportunities facing Cape Town both during the literature review, part of the planning phase, and during various expert consultation and public participation engagements. There was an extensive participatory process established, involving focus groups, in-depth interviews, mobile workshops and engagement in City Council meetings. In the planning phase this involved a wide array of City officials, councillors, and city experts / thought leaders from academia, the private sector and the civic alliance. In the drafting phase this was extended to broader consultations with residents, representatives from neighbouring municipalities and special interest groups (e.g. tourism, transport, financial services, creative industries, etc.).

The CDS deliberations and stakeholder consultations took place over the time that the Conference of Parties (COP17) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was hosted in Durban, South Africa. This drew considerable attention to the issue of climate change locally, through news reporting, a public awareness campaign run by the City and the coordination of strong representation from Cape Town at the event. This may well have played a role in drawing attention to climate change considerations when planning the long-term future of the city.

What challenges were faced in dealing with climate change related topics in the CDS process?

The complex, systemic, multi-scalar nature of climate change makes it difficult to think and talk about, particularly across different constituencies. People have different entry points into the problem, use different language to describe it, and propose a wide array of solutions / interventions that are difficult to compare and weigh up. The CDS documentation lists the challenges raised by stakeholders and the mix of interventions that were ultimately incorporated.

The short-term pressures of political appointment mean that the City leadership are heavily focussed on the near-term delivery of public goods and services as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. This significantly undermines long-term strategic planning efforts like the CDS that involve revising legislative and financial frameworks to reorient economic development, spatial growth, land use, etc. Making such changes is perceived as risky and unpopular in the near-term, both with those currently benefiting from the status quo and those that have been marginalised and promised relief and restitution by the state. Significant pressures are placed on government by powerful constituencies in the city, demanding quick wins when it comes to land availability for property development; expanded infrastructure; increased employment opportunities and equal access to traditional, tried-and-tested technologies rather than new alternatives (e.g. access to coal-based electricity off the central grid rather than small-scale solar panels). The threat climate change poses to business-as-usual and the roll out the current development model generates significant resistance despite widespread “pro-green” rhetoric.

From both a planning and management perspective the challenge is how to develop a suite of programmes and projects that fit the functional units, timeframes and operational capabilities of the City while adding up to a “game changer” as envisaged in the CDS. A lack of detailed information on when and where climate impacts are experienced and remedial action is needed and viable makes it difficult to translate the strategic goals and strategies into operational plans. This requires more analytical work, as well as better communication and coordination between sectors, departments and professional groupings.

The fact that the imperative to reduce the risk of disasters and increase capacity to respond in the event of a disaster (climate related or otherwise) does not feature at all in the CDS suggests that who is involved in the drafting process has significant bearing on what is included and what is left out. This points to the need for comprehensive representation when undertaking a CDS process, initially in the drafting phase, but also through implementing, monitoring, evaluating and revising the strategy.

The fiscal constraints that local governments in South Africa work under limit the public investment that can go into implementing the strategies laid out in the CDS. This requires new forms of partnerships and financing mechanisms that are agile and efficient while being transparent and accountable.

Conclusion and next steps

The innovations in the CDS must be given political and financial backing by people within the public, private and civil society sectors, in order to shape the future of the city. Local government is central to realising the vision put forward in the CDS but cannot do it in isolation. Transforming the city towards the future vision stated in the CDS requires not only the work and influence of local government, but also the choices, investments and demands of the private sector, as well as the actions of higher spheres of government that impact the city. New financing mechanisms are required to facilitate strategic cross-sector partnerships, creating and sustaining multi-stakeholder deliberative spaces that are open, engaging and mutually beneficial, such as the Climate Change Think Tank. More analytical work, public deliberation and pro-active experimentation is required to turn the big ideas put forward in the CDS into locally feasible and desirable realities, grounding them in the near-term operational plans and budgets of the City and other influential actors.

A key challenge for the CDS going forward is to address the unequal nature of climate risks (and emissions) within the city. These often exacerbate existing inequalities that underpin widespread safety concerns and social fragmentation in Cape Town.


  1. Sustainable Energy Africa (SEA); African Centre for Cities (ACC); Climate Systems Analysis Group (CSAG); Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG); SouthSouthNorth (SSN); South African National Biodiversity Institue (SANBI)
  2. The Climate Change Think Tank was established in 2009 through a partnership between the City of Cape Town and the University of Cape Town. It is now being extended to the Western Cape Government, the Cape Higher Education Consortium (CHEC) and various private sector representatives.

This article is based on ongoing research being undertaken in partnership between the City of Cape Town and the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, under the Mistra Urban Futures programme. It also contributes to a project led by the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS) at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, in collaboration with UNHABITAT, aiming to learn and share lessons on how climate change has been integrated into strategic planning approaches in cities around the world. In addition to Cape Town, similar case studies were conducted in: San Salvador (El Salvador); Esmeraldas (Ecuador); Kampala (Uganda); Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso); Olongapo City (Philippines); Da Nana (Vietnam). A comparative analysis is being undertaken, by researchers at IHS and UNHABITAT, between these 7 cases to draw out a suite of lessons on factoring climate change into city-wide strategic planning that can be shared through the Cities Alliance network with those in other cities developing a CDS.

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