Rashiq Fataar traces his urbanist inclinations to a mid-1990s Kensington boyhood and an unusually early sense – at the age of eight – of the possibilities of metropolitan reinvention.

The stimulus of his expansive imagining was none other than Cape Town’s bid for the 2004 Olympics, and the potential implicit in the hundreds of plans, diagrams and impressionistic renderings of arenas and facilities that came out at the time of dramatically shifting the shape of the greater city.

If his pre-teens response was intuitive rather than analytical, the prospect of the refashioning of space was close enough to home to be genuinely exciting. Who could have dreamed, after all, that, right next door to Kensington, the wasteland of Wingfield could be transformed, not just for the Games – which went to Athens in the end – but forever? He’d pore over every image he could lay his hands on – and there were heaps in the newspapers at the time, as well as a memorable exhibition at the Good Hope Centre.

“That started a fascination-cum-obsession with the idea of what the city could be,” Fataar said this week.

And it didn’t take long – once he’d matriculated at Reddam, completed a degree in actuarial science at UCT, and spent four years in the insurance industry – to return, and give considered form, to that early obsession.

Having started a part-time blog, Fataar took the plunge in 2010 and gave it his full-time attention as founder and managing director of Future Cape Town, an independent non-profit organisation committed to “building a democracy around the future of cities”.

The plural form indicates its subsequent reach to include on its platform Future Joburg, Future Lagos and Future London.

He has lived in the central business district – he now lives in Sea Point – and his familial cosmos incorporates everything from District Six and the Bo-Kaap to Woodstock and Salt River, but his sense of the city is of an indivisible, aggregated whole in which high-rise downtown and fringe informality are inseparable elements.

What impelled Fataar as the progenitor of Future Cape Town – rather than merely a boyhood enthusiasm for the entrancing imagery of blighted sites transformed by design – was that, in the absence of big-event deadlines and hoopla, there was far too little energy, vision, imagination, dialogue, active citizen engagement and big thinking in the public sphere about the metropolitan future.

Without these things, he believed, Cape Town’s immense potential risked being squandered, with the public conversation being reduced to the narrow confines of political rivalry or developer-vs-objector argumentation.

Since 2010, the venture’s following has expanded steadily – Future Cape Town has 78 000 followers on Twitter, and a website readership of about 140 000 a year. It welcomes and shares contributions and ideas.

“Discussion about planning and the kind of city we want should not be defined by Design Capital or World Cup deadlines … it should be ongoing and involve as many people as possible.”

Yet, after “300 years of top-down planning… the whole idea of a participatory civic culture is really very new”.

A consequence is a routinely low level of engagement, even with mammoth proposals. Fataar cited the ambitious and controversial Wescape proposal (which, in its maturity, could potentially house 800 000 people) which, when it was put into the public domain, elicited all of 12 comments.

Because of our history, “people just don’t know they have a right to engage, or that their opinion is valued”.

Without it, though, “we don’t know the potential of what we have… millions of citizens are engaged in civic processes, and enormous change can occur through public knowledge and education and awareness”.

In a sense, it was inevitable that citizens would assume primacy, if one considered “informality in the global south, the fact that half of it is living in a state of informality where the new normal is people providing for themselves, providing their own infrastructure.

“The challenge is to give more people the tools to take part in making the city”.

Fataar added: “That’s the sustainable route that Cape Town and other cities will need to follow because, in the face of urbanisation, the idea that a civic entity can provide sufficient serviced sites and housing has been false for a while. It’s just too overwhelming.

“So having more people being part of the agency of making cities is the only way it’s going to happen.

“That might bring surprises… we don’t know what a more empowered and enabled citizenry across Cape Town would really lobby for or advocate.” Fataar acknowledged there was a perceived political risk in this trajectory: “with it comes the difficult question of the good operation of the city versus spatial transformation, which are not actually separate things. The first, over the long term, requires transformative thinking, which is not easy, as it requires asking why so many people live so far away from the workplace, which impacts on the economy and the environment.”

But changing that in any meaningful way would disrupt “the current operation which in large part keeps the loudest voices happy”.

Change, however, was unavoidable, precisely because Cape Town had so much going for it, and exerted such a strong attraction.

“The prospect of living here is just too good for it not to attract people. When I get on the MyCiTi bus in Sea Point, often nobody else is speaking English. The city is just too nice for more people not to want to set up a life here, and what Cape Town is going to look and sound like 100 years from now will be dramatically different.”

The city had much to boast about: “If you step back you can see the progress the city has made in the 20 years since democracy… it has a viable tourism industry, though an infant internationally, which attracts so many conventions and conferences; it has a strong middle class working population; it has some of the best biodiversity in the world; regardless of high unemployment, crime and among the highest inequality rates in the world, it has had improved governance over the past 10 to 15 years, improved delivery of services to more people and generally improved standards of infrastructure.

“We are at the start of a transport revolution, which is a very positive, fast-paced, well-funded move into future.”

But there were two vital deficiencies: the lack of a clear, widely understood vision for greater Cape Town’s spatial transformation (incorporating social integration, curbing sprawl and densifying suburbs), and the lack of decisive, imaginative leadership capable of tackling this and other kinds of big thinking.

“The lack of spatial transformation is going to impact everything and only stimulate the forces of inequality, unemployment and crime. And urban design and good planning are not enough to do it; it has to incorporate democratic ideals.

“Yet there is no clarity on this greater vision. The reason people push for it is because, compared to other cities, we have immense potential.

It’s not even that Cape Town could be slightly nicer. It could be a great place for everyone to live, yet we don’t see a common platform or vision for what our future should be. And that’s disappointing since we have an abundance of ideas and projects and sites, and so much going for us.

“Where, for instance, are the renders (visuals) of what Khayelitsha could look like, or other parts of the city? People are only expecting basics for the next 50 years, and are not expecting more.

“What does new integration look like? What will our measures of success be going forward when we don’t know what the vision is?”

Fataar’s faith is not dimmed, however. Part of the reason is his conviction that today’s young urbanists – city residents of a certain mind, cosmopolitan, progressive, not just post-apartheid, but post-early-democracy, in their thinking – will within 20 years be the real movers and shakers in Cape Town, less encumbered by nostalgia or political baggage, who will be much less tolerant of “the current slow process, the leadership, the bureaucracy, and will push harder for real transformation”.

See http://future

capetown.com