One of the most frequently cited characteristics of a sustainable city is high-density development, where buildings are multiple storey rather than single storey. This means that one city block can contain many more people and businesses, thus avoiding urban sprawl, habitat loss, high transport costs and emissions, time wasted in traffic and commuting, and reducing the amount of service infrastructure required (water piping, electricity cables, etc.)
While the advantages of high-density development are pretty clear, spending this festive season at home in Cape Town has made me ponder over some of the cons. The city’s population has practically doubled over the last month as local and foreign tourists come to see the Mother City at its summery best. I know my temper has been pushed to the limit with traffic congestion, long queues, clogged up shopping malls, crazy neighbourhood antics and loud parties till the wee hours of the morning. Can humans really live in such close proximity to one another? How can we balance the earth’s needs and our need for personal space?
Of course, some of my grievances exist not because the city’s development density is too high, but because it is not high enough. Cape Town is moving towards high density development, but we are certainly nowhere near as compact as we could be. Beyond the CBD, the suburbs of greater Cape Town sprawl more than 40 kilometres up to the outer border of Eastern Strand, and are dominated by single storey dwellings. Meanwhile the highest population density can be found not in the sky-scrapered CBD but in the informal settlement of Khayelitsha, which is home to over 8000 people per km2. In contrast, the suburb where I live contains about 700 to 1000 people per km2. Public transport is slowly being improved with the arrival of the first phase of the Bus Rapid Transit system in 2010, but many areas are still only accessible by private car, irregular buses and minibus taxis.
Where long queues and congested shopping malls are concerned, I suppose I could have avoided them by doing my Christmas shopping earlier in the year (duh). Or by ordering online, or simply refusing to do traditional gifts at all…? But I am beginning to realise that living sustainably in general requires you to do some research and plan ahead before you buy. (This is especially true where food is concerned. Buying organic, seasonal produce from a box scheme that delivers once a week means that you have to plan meals or see that food go to waste.) As a fairly spontaneous person I feel a bit constricted by this planning at times, and have to remember that the sustainability and quality of life gains are far bigger than my “losses” in freedom.
Back to high density living. With better city planning and personal planning being the answer to some of my grievances, what about the proximity issues? How can we cope relationally when we are all quite literally living on top of one another?
Sound-proofing apartments and creating more public parks big enough to allow us some alone time, are a good start. I don’t think being constantly surrounded by other people is healthy – there needs to be a quiet place for prayer, reflection and renewed perspective. This is supported by scripture. During his ministry, Jesus would get up while it was still dark and go to a lonely place to avoid the crowds, and pray to his Father uninterrupted, returning refreshed and with renewed purpose (Mark 1:35-38).
But for the majority of the time when we are around others, I’m pretty certain that the key to coping is the lost art of manners. If we are going to survive this new habitat of ours, we need to become much more aware of others and consider how our actions could impact them. However, this is a tall order for a multi-cultural society in which neither a solid family unit, nor an education, nor even a common language, are a given. Is there anything that can transcend these barriers to communicate and equip us to live out this other-person-centredness?
I can’t think of anything that can – except for the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is a deep-seated change of heart that we need if we are to live peacefully amongst one another. Laws will not do. Education can help, but cannot ultimately conquer selfishness, which is a problem of the heart, not the mind. Only God can change us, and refine us to become more and more like his Son, who gave up everything for other people – not because we deserved it, but because he loved us.
I think then that the church has a very important role in the creation of a sustainable city. Urban church communities should be living examples of Christ’s sacrificial, serving love, showing that by God’s grace it is possible to not only live at peace with one another but flourish in high-density areas.
My population density stats are from a book called “Counter Currents: Experiments in Sustainability in the Cape Town Region” edited by Edgar Pieterse. Highly recommended for those interested in Cape Town’s sustainability journey.