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Monday, 21 June 2010 02:00

Counter Currents: Experiments in Sustainability in the Cape Town Region

Counter Currents is a beautiful and ambitious book. 

Cased in the garb of a coffee table, haute-design collector's item, Counter Currents, edited by Edgar Pieterse (director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town) has a mission: to provide a compendium of possibilities for sustainable development in the Cape Town region. It asks: 'What changes the city? How do we imagine this change coming about?'

The book is essentially an edited collection of academic and policy essays, punctuated with some visual content, and all wrapped up in the cloak of a sexy coffee table book. Its trendy design and the inclusion of images from well-known Cape Town-based photographers like Dale Yudelman and Mikhail Subotsky seems to suggest that its target audience is the Cape Town art and design set. However, the content tells a different story. It seems to speak most directly with a mixed audience of policy makers, urban planners, government decision makers at all levels, academics, architects and activists. Laypeople interested in urban planning and sustainable development might make up a broader target audience, and it was as a member of this rather shadowy and unquantifiable group that I counted myself as a reader. Coming at the book as a layperson rather than an expert makes for slightly difficult, but nevertheless worthwhile, reading. The experimental combination of, broadly speaking, aesthetics and ethics makes the book quite unique, and combined with the committed focus on 'macro ambitions' and 'micro experiments' in the Cape Town region in particular makes it a very focussed and applied set of interventions.

First, the aesthetics. Despite many annoying typesetting and proofreading errors, the book is beautifully laid out and printed and is a pleasure to hold and look at, testament to the touch of its designer, Tau Tavengwa. Unlike almost every other policy and research tome out there, this one represents a clear effort to integrate creativity at both the level of content and form. At times this has the feel of window-dressing - certain diagrams and graphs might communicate information better without the bells and whistles of three-D shading and fancy colouration, for example. Nevertheless, at times, the hand of a talented and experienced designer is exactly what is needed in order to bring to life for the non-expert an otherwise hard-to-understand, inaccessible map or architect's diagram. It is an exceptionally difficult task to integrate design aesthetics and scholarly content, and overall I think the effort is laudable. To some extent, Counter Currents stands as what may come to be seen as a first-generation attempt at bringing together scholarship, policy and design. I really hope that the trend it has started continues, and that more academic publishers start to look into the potential of markets for books that integrate leading edge design and creative content alongside (and inside) research-led, policy-oriented writing.

Next, the ethics. The book is filled with probing texts that that make arguments for how sustainable development in the region might take shape, putting forward project plans for a variety of areas from the Spier estate outside of Stellenbosch to District Six to the City Bowl to the Kosovo informal settlement near Khayelitsha. It is also filled with expositions on why these projects have not, or will not work (usually due to a lack of political will). Drawing on the experiences, critiques and visions of a wide range of urban planners, policymakers, architects and other experts, the collection of essays takes on what might to sceptics seem an insurmountable task - how can socio-economic rights, particularly with relation to housing and public services, be provided to the poorest of the poor in an environmentally sustainable and humanist way?

Focussing this research question on the unique complexities of the Cape Town region's history, geography, climate, socio-economics and culture, a variety of scenarios are sketched out. Compelling arguments are made about possibilities for low cost-housing, for an arts and culture hub in the Winelands, for sustainable public transport infrastructures, and for educational spaces. But these remain largely visions, scenarios, ideas and proposals. There is a strong sense of 'blue-skies thinking' and creative, innovative approaches to solving the myriad of problems that a city like Cape Town faces. Surely all decent people imagine a more just future, in which every citizen of the greater Cape Town area has access to shared public space, comfortable places to live, work and play, green place and safety? So why hasn't it happened? Critics might argue that much of the content of Counter Currents is nothing but variations on a pipe dream, and that the lack of political will and the presence of corruption make the projects impossible to achieve. Indeed, in many of the chapters, the authors themselves point out how and why the vision is as yet unattainable.

But, as Pieterse argues in the conclusion, the views included in the volume should be seen as ideas that are 'open to be appropriated and deployed by anybody who wants to make a contribution without feeling they need resources or permission to act'. This is a pretty darned optimistic vision. At best, the book could be considered a starting point for an ongoing debate about how sustainable development can be enacted in Cape Town (and beyond, if successful interventions can be appropriated as blueprints for other regions). In this sense it is inspiring. But in some senses it is also a catalogue of political failure. It is full of ideas, many of which may never be realised in material terms. But we can always hope that they will be - and expressing the ideas and sharing them in a lasting and noticeable format such as Counter Currents is perhaps the best possible way of getting started on that journey towards a better life for all.

Counter Currents: Experiments in Sustainability in the Cape Town Region
Edited by Edgar Pieterse
Published by African Centre for Cities, UCT and Jacana Publishing
Read 4514 times
Mehita Iqani

I am a member of the ITCH Editorial Board. I have been involved in ITCH since 2003, when I started the publication. I have a PhD in Media Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences. I am currently a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies in the School of Literature, Language and Media at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Website: www.wits.ac.za/staff/mehita.iqani
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