ENVIRONMENTAL activists, and I count myself among them, are often accused of yearning for a past that no longer exists, of standing in the way of some nebulous thing called “progress”, and of being dreamers who do not understand the realities of modern economic systems.
We are derided by some of the captains of industry and those who see all development as good as being obstructionists who would rather save an obscure endangered frog that, on the surface, has no benefit to humankind, than see, for example, a big shopping mall built that will serve a community of thousands.
We are selfish purists who would preserve a vast landscape that stretches unspoilt to the horizon, rather than see hundreds of drilling rigs erected to frack for gas in the pristine Karoo.
We are romantics yearning for an atavistic past that no longer exists, we are told.
I, for one, am happy to accept all those insults with grace and goodwill. I am a dreamer, an obstructionist, a romantic and a selfish purist.
And I admit, I would rather sit on a piece of scrubby fynbos looking out over a vista of water and water fowl than sit on a plastic chair in yet another KFC, Spur or McDonalds, or walk out of the door of yet another Pick n Pay, Checkers or Spar and see the same view.
And that is what the fight to preserve – and improve – Princess Vlei boils down to: a battle between two opposing value systems which seldom coincide and which are seldom compatible. On the one hand are the conservationists (some, in derogatory fashion, call us preservationists, I quite like the epithet) and on the other are the moguls who do not see the value in anything if it does not turn a profit.
Joni Mitchell satirised the developers in her classic, “Big Yellow Taxi”: They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot/With a pink hotel, a boutique/And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone/They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot
As novelist, Bridget Pitt, wrote on this page in August last year, when talking about the campaign by the Princess Vlei Forum to save this endangered wetland from development, “We live in a divided city. A city riven by history, by class, colour, culture, language, creed. Those who have and those who don’t. Those who are allowed to dwell in the natural paradise of our landscapes, and those forced to live in polluted, ugly wastelands...
“But every now and then an opportunity comes. A chance is offered to those in charge of our interests to show some grace and wisdom and display an ability to see the bigger picture and act in the interests of all; to nudge our city on to a path that offers our children greater hope and greater promise.
“The Princess Vlei story is one such opportunity.”
Pitt wrote eloquently and beautifully about the priceless cultural, ecological and social value of the vlei, and why its preservation is so critical to the people of Cape Town. She wrote of the legend of the Khoi princess who lived in Prinseskasteel, now known as Elephant Eye Cave, and who was raped, murdered and abducted by European sailors, and whose tears rolled down to form the vlei.
“And of course,” Pitt wrote, “the Princess Vlei connects us to our future – either to a future where socio-environmental needs are recognised and honoured; or one that is more divided, more fragmented, one step closer to self-destruction.
“A glimpse of the future has been offered in the unprecedented campaign by the local community and others to save the vlei... The inspiration driving these endeavours is the “people’s plan”: a vision of a socio-environmental development of the vlei that celebrates the Khoisan heritage; inculcates in our children a love of and appreciation for nature; provides a haven of serenity for communities wounded by poverty, overcrowding and crime; draws together the fragmented corners of our city by devising hiking trails from the vlei, linking the Elephant’s Eye cave to Macassar dunes and Khayelitsha; and provides income opportunities for locals through tourism and small, environmentally appropriate retail.
“And a vision that restores the vlei to its natural glory and enables it to do its work of absorbing floodwater, offsetting the damaging consequences of climate change, nurturing life, and purifying our water.”
But it is unlikely that any of this will come to fruition if our local authorities, both the province and the City Council, stick to the rigid, legalistic interpretation of rules and regulations, and decide to allow developers to go ahead and build a shopping mall on the shores of Princess Vlei.
A shopping mall!
If anything symbolises the gross excesses of our modern consumer society, it is the shopping mall.
We have been given the accolade of being appointed the next World Design Capital. If the go-ahead is given for the building of a shopping centre on the shores of Princess Vlei, we do not deserve the honour.
Design is not just about the built environment. It is also about imagining the unbuilt.