Sustainable Development for the World Cup is More than Skin Deep

The FIFA World Cup begins on Saturday and when it does, all eyes in Cape Town, South Africa will be focused on one landmark: the newly-constructed soccer stadium. The World Cup has inspired a vast amount of new construction across Africa and my next few posts will take a look at how sustainable this development really is. I'll focus on Cape Town, specifically, because I was recently there doing research on this very topic and because this research provided me the unique opportunity to speak with some very knowledgeable locals about the impact of soccer, foreign investment, and economic globalization on sustainable development in Africa.

The Cape Town stadium, designed by the German GMP Architects, working in collaboration with two local firms, Louis Karol and Assoc. and Point Architects, has become the shining centerpiece of a vast city-re-branding campaign and an iconic symbol for a neighborhood known as Green Point. However, before there was a stadium in Green Point, there was a controversy - a disturbing story of conflicting truths and human remains, and a cautionary tale of development that was, at least socially, remarkably un-sustainable.

Green point is strategically located between Cape Town's central business district and the new Victoria and Alfred Waterfront harbor development. The area is currently undergoing a process of rapid gentrification and the resulting escalation of property values is perhaps most obvious in the 'The Cape Quarter,' a newly-developed few-block-area that is home to Cape Town's gay community. The upscale cafes, shops, restaurants, and galleries display a generic architecture that is eerily reminiscent of an outdoor shopping center somewhere in suburban Southern California - not what you typically think of as green building or sustainable development. However, Green Point is not as bland as it might first appear. Under a built veneer of mediocre architecture, lies a site of historical significance and social controversy.

For much of the 17th and 18th centuries Green Point lay outside of the formal boundaries of the colonial settlement. As a result, it was the site of a number of graveyards, including those belonging to the Dutch Reformed Church and the South African military. In addition to these formal cemeteries, Green Point became the final resting place for a wide range of informal burials for Cape Town's under classes: slaves, free-blacks, artisans, fishermen, sailors, maids, washerwomen, executed criminals, suicides, paupers, and unidentified victims of shipwrecks. In the 1820s, Green Point began its first period of major growth, sub-divided real estate parcels slowly transforming into a densely built urban core. The course of this development continued into the middle of the 20th century and then in the late 1960s and early 1970s, all black and Colored residents were forcibly removed from the Green Point area and relocated to townships in the Cape Flats, under the provision of the Group Area Act, a legislative edict of the Apartheid regime. For more information on the governmental practice of forced removals - a shocking example of un-sustainable development -- check out the story of another Cape Town neighborhood, District Six.

Several years ago, when a large lot on Prestwich Street was being prepped in anticipation of the construction of the Rockwell Building, human remains were unearthed by the excavation crews. This was not the first unearthing of deceased members of the colonial underclass; however, the density of the graves at Prestwich Street was unprecedented. The significance of the site was compared to New York's African Burial Ground at 290 Broadway. What ensued was a messy, divisive, and confrontational public controversy over what ought to be done with the human remains and whether the development of the Rockwell should continue. The public debate raised provocative issues about sustainable development that extend beyond the green-building-preoccupation with energy efficiency, to question notions of heritage, collective memory, and public access.

Despite public outcry, construction of the Rockwell continued. Today the building houses luxury condos and long-term rental spaces, but no indication of the project's controversial beginning. Nor is there any evidence on site pertaining to the questions of socially sustainable development that were raised during the construction process.

As soccer fans walk from downtown Cape Town to the Stadium, they will, whether they know it or not, pass by the Prestwich Street Memorial and the Rockwell Building. While the history of Green Point will, undoubtedly, be overshadowed by the glamour of global sporting competition, hopefully it will not be forgotten altogether. In pursuit of that aim, I'll expand upon this story in my next few posts, offering details and insights from Capetonian academics, activists, and residents.

The research for this story was conducted by Christian Ernsten and Andrea Brennen.

Article by: Andrea Brennen -