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Fixing South Africa’s highway to nowhere

  • Written by  Tess McKain
  • Published in Cities
Fixing South Africa’s highway to nowhere Elyob/Flickr
04 May
Cape Town’s Foreshore Freeway Bridge has been left unfinished for over 40 years. Now, competing plans are underway to make use of this iconic piece of infrastructure

In the mid-morning sunshine of downtown Cape Town, traffic snakes around the Helen Suzman Boulevard. Cars inch forward as thousands of Cape Town residents make their daily commute on the clogged up roads. But one area of the road is thrown into shadow: the Foreshore Freeway Bridge looms above, its smooth surface ending in a precipitous drop above the rush-hour traffic. To the casual observer, it might seem like this freeway is mid-construction – but look a little closer and you’ll notice odd things about this project: there’s no sign of construction workers above or below the site, and the concrete shows streaks of darker colour from weathering.

The unfinished bridge is abandoned, and has been since 1977. After a string of failed initiatives the mayor of cape town Patricia de Lille recently made the call to private developers to submit their plans for development of the Foreshore area, a huge stretch of wasteland that borders Cape Town’s central business district and the harbourside.

Six ideas made it through the initial round, and we ask what could be in store for the unfinished project, an iconic structure designed during an era of apartheid, that has sat unchanged through the upheavals of recent South African history.

(Image: Damien du Toit)(Image: Damien du Toit)

Initial development

The Foreshore Freeway Bridge was constructed in a post-war, mid-apartheid era that saw the cities development skewered towards isolating communities based on race and ethnicity. This was done by creating segregated neighbourhoods, separated by natural and man made barriers such as rivers, train lines and highways. The construction of the bridge began in 1970, and was initially built to alleviate traffic and congestion in the city. Budget constraints meant that building was abandoned in 1977, and the bridge ends have remained at a dead end until the present day.

Local press were quick to speculate on possible explanations for the abandonment, a favourite being that the hugely expensive project had come to a halt because of a single cantankerous shop owner, who refused to sell the land he owned under the freeway construction site.

The area has garnered attention in its own right over the years, and even attracts small numbers of tourists. Occasionally used for fashion shoots, it has also featured in the US TV series Fear Factor and an episode of the UK’s popular Black Mirror series. Tourism guides suggest visiting for the ‘iconic’ views over the city the bridge provides.

(Image: Paul Mannix)(Image: Paul Mannix)

Future plans

Mayor Patricia de Lille has agreed to release six hectares of inner city land alongside the freeway in a bid to encourage new development in the foreshore area. However, developers must incorporate affordable housing into their developments, and the winning bid must also alleviate congestion in the area and increase greenery.

In a full council meeting in March, De Lille said the city ‘will leverage City-owned land and release it to the private sector for development which again, I will stress, must include affordable housing.’

The six proposals that made it through the initial rounds for public consultation in March of this year are:

Plan A

Plan A is formed of 15 key components, and includes demolishing the unfinished elevated freeway and bridge. Developers aim to put this land to alternative use by redesigning the area into an urban park and neighbourhood, and aim to dispel traffic by encouraging alternative modes of travelling, including walking, cycling, and public transport.

Developers say that this plan will cut congestion by 60 per cent, and that they will also create 4,000 mixed-income and affordable rental units. This new neighbourhood will house up to 15,000 people, and will also create 2,000 new parking spaces.

Plan B

Plan B is the most striking of the potential developments – incorporating an eye-catching circle tower into the development mix. This iconic ‘gateway’ element is intended to represent Cape Town’s status as a world city.

The proposal is based on the idea that the elevated freeways are a barrier between the Central Business District and the harbour, and that replacing the existing freeways with tunnels would be the best way to eliminate this problem.

Tunnels would include access to public transport interchanges, providing easy mobility for citizens and tourists to important areas of the city. The plan also includes upgrading current public transport networks, improving cycling infrastructure and creating up to 12,000 parking spaces.

The plan also proposes an ambitious new podcar network generated by solar power, and developers will build 4,400 new housing units. Of these, 1,000 will be affordable, and the proposal will also create 95,000 square meters of commercial space.

Plan C

This plan involves finishing the highway to ease the bottleneck congestion that builds in the area, and putting the waterside viaduct to alternate use.

The proposal involves creating a vibrant, 24/7 urban harbourside, with new public spaces, 4,500 new apartments and leisure and retail outlets to stimulate tourism. Approximately one in three of the new apartments will be affordable, and the proposal incorporates eco-friendly features such as improved cycle and walking lanes and electric car charging points.

The plan aims to utilise the existing infrastructure of the area by converting the freeway into a boardwalk and completing the bridges for car use.

Plan D

This plan focuses on ‘reclaiming the foreshore’ as a space for the people of Cape Town. Developers behind this initiative aim to shape the urban design of the development to the physical environment of the foreshore by creating the foreshore park. This park would link the foreshore district to the surrounding areas, keeping the newly developed area within reach of all Capetonians.

70 per cent of the housing development will be focused on affordable housing options, and the aim of the proposal is to create a people-orientated, environmentally friendly new district focused on opening the area for the benefit of all Capetonians.

Plan E

This plan aims to reconnect the city to the sea, link Cape Town’s green spaces and implement new public transport infrastructure to alleviate congestion. The plan will also join promenades along the coastal areas of the city and include provision for a central plaza.

At the heart of the proposal developers plan to create a new park, opening up one kilometre of continuous green space along the foreshore, which will be bordered by a one kilometre pedestrian-friendly shopping street and promenade. The park will be bordered by new developments, and housing developments will be created to cater for students, families, young professionals and social tenants.

This proposal focuses on knocking down existing viaducts to create a centralised main road at ground level, surrounded the new park and developments. The park will link important civic institutions to public transport links, which will then link back to the Central Business Districts in the inner city.

Plan F

Proposal F aims to create 450 new affordable housing units, as well as finishing the freeways, alleviating congestion by up to two-thirds. The project states that ‘affordable housing is the lego from which great cities are built’ and it aims to increase social mobility by making the foreshore are accessible to all.

Despite the positive feedback that the Foreshore development proposals have received, not everyone is satisfied with the future prospects of the district. According to the IOL, some have criticized the designs as being ‘classist’ and not doing enough to alleviate the legacy of cultural segregation in Cape Town. It’s also difficult to ignore the fact that for all their perceived good intentions, many of the bids for developing the area only incorporate a 25 per cent stake in affordable housing from the total due to go on the market. Guy Briggs also notes that the maybe the ‘hanging freeways have become part of Cape Town’s idiosyncratic character’. Whatever the outcome of the bidding war, the area’s iconic hanging bridges are set to be made over, though whether they morph into an idyllic urban park, are demolished completely or are finally completed after half a century will have to be seen.

A segregated city

Despite becoming a democratic country in 1994, many parts of South Africa remain segregated through the town planning methods used to implement apartheid, with Cape Town as no exception. White neighbourhoods typically have higher educational attainment levels, better sanitation and better infrastructure than neighboring non-white communities. A prime example of this can be seen when comparing the neighbouring Haute Bay and Imizamo Yetho areas of Cape Town. Haute Bay has a white population of 57 per cent, in comparison to the 8.1 per cent of whites that make up the population of South Africa as a whole. The percentage of people going into or having achieved a higher education qualification in this area is high at 45 per cent. Imizamo Yetho has a black african population of 91.6 per cent, and a white population of 0.1 per cent. The percentage of the population going onto or having achieved a higher education qualification is 2.6 per cent. 61.7 per cent of houses have a flush toilet connected to sewerage in Imizamo Yetho, compared to 93.9 per cent in the Haute Bay area.

Despite the proximity of the neighbouring areas, the legacy of apartheid spatial planning still goes a long way in determining the wealth of Capetonians. Although all citizens are now technically free to live wherever they wish in city, the reality is that many poorer non-white South Africans still inhabit the areas on the periphery of town, far from efficient transport links to jobs and employment. With Cape Town experiencing an annual house price inflation of 12 per cent, in comparison to the four to six per cent increases seen elsewhere in South Africa, there is little scope for poor South Africans to move closer to jobs and employment opportunities in the city.

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