Cape Town. 260210. Colummists Rory Williams.

“I am prepared to be proven wrong about Philippi or Wescape, but I am not prepared to accept the lack of debate.”

These words from Rashiq Fataar, of the urban think tank Future Cape Town, reflect a growing unease about the direction that development is taking in this city.

The proposed shift of the urban edge to accommodate housing in the Philippi Horticultural Area is just the latest in a number of development proposals that suggest the need for a fundamental rethink of urban planning.

The urban edge, set by the Spatial Development Framework, will not hold back the tide for more than a few years. Its location was chosen to provide enough vacant or underutilised land to last until 2021. That’s a maximum of eight years, assuming that developers use all of that land before moving beyond the edge.

But this “suitable” urban land is not actually available (whether for sale or agreed for release by government agencies), and it takes time to acquire land and obtain planning approvals – in the Philippi case, five years and counting.

So, realistically, developers must start looking further afield now, even if we adhere to the objective of increasing density within the current urban edge.

But it gets tricky.

Philip van der Berg, of MSP Developments, has stated that no farming has taken place on their land in the PHA since its purchase in 2008; but that is not really a point in the developer’s favour. He is simply highlighting the speculative process that happens at the urban edge: as farming becomes less lucrative than selling to a developer, investment in farming declines, land lies fallow and eventually is developed.

I don’t support this loss of farmland, but the urban edge and the zoning system are inadequate planning tools, resulting in development supporters using fallow land as erroneous justification for development, and opponents saying that the urban edge should be respected. Neither argument succeeds in creating alignment between what the city needs and what the developer wants.

Managing this process of changing land values, and dealing with failing urban systems, is what the city should be focusing on. A more diversified planning toolkit will make it easier to create the confidence needed for appropriate forms of investment, and for resolving a range of challenges.

If water is polluted and land dumped upon, the city should explore the underlying causes, not use this as an excuse to give up on farming.

The planning process is not nuanced enough to capitalise on the positive and discourage undesirable forms of growth – or even to understand the difference. Instead, everything simply becomes an “exception” that must be dealt with outside the “normal” planning mechanisms. And so we see appeals to provincial government, and politicians who ignore their officials.

It is quite ironic that Van der Berg thinks he is contributing to “orderly and proactive planning in the area”, when this initiative was not anticipated by the Spatial Development Framework and catches everyone with their pants down. But this is the real “normal”, and the planning process should be able to negotiate this terrain without becoming political.

What would have happened if there were a legal requirement that a developer buying farmland could not allow it to lie unproductive as he assembled all his land parcels for development? It would make it harder to do, and might be more effective than an urban edge. That might not be the best solution, but we need to explore creative ideas. At the same time, what mechanisms could be instituted to make it easier to assemble land for development within the urban edge? There are all kinds of possibilities.

We need to explore new ways to address jobs, housing, food security and sanitation in one fell swoop. Looking at the arguments for and against this development, it becomes clear that these are all related. And there are integrated solutions that can bring them together.

What disturbs me more than anything else in all this is the deafening silence of the institutes of professionals involved in the planning and design of the city. Consultants seem scared to rock the boat, and even some of the usually vocal thought leaders in this town are silent.

Do we think so little of our clients that we think they won’t respect us for exploring the principles of good urban development?