Local architect and urban designer Matthew Gray gave a very thought provoking talk at the quarterly meeting of the Fish Hoek Valley Residents and Ratepayers Association meeting on urban densification and the development of urban areas that are attractive, safe and community orientated.


“We want compact, efficient, environmentally friendly and secure urban areas without traffic jams and crime,” he said. Creating such areas is a matter of using common sense and the common knowledge of thousands of years. We need to restore that common sense and common knowledge to help save Fish Hoek and our cities from urban blight. Safety and security are central to our being – without them we can’t speak of quality of life.” He added that this does not mean that we have to be surrounded by high walls, barbed wire, electric fences etc. which “dumb us down into smaller and smaller boxes.”


Medieval buildings in Europe and the Middle East were built with a continuous frontage onto public spaces. Photo: Karl von der Heyden

Medieval buildings in Europe and the Middle East were built with a continuous frontage onto public spaces. Photo: Karl von der Heyden

He described pre-modern, modern and postmodern ideas about urban development. “In pre-modern times the prime function of buildings was to create privacy. This was done by building in a continuous front close to the edge of the street or alley, with the private areas being at the back of the properties. Neighbours would have full view of what was happening in the street and the continuous frontage made it impossible for would be thieves to get through to the back.You will see this in all the old cities of Europe and the Middle East.”


In this respect much of old Fish Hoek is “intact” with the older houses built towards the front of streets, garages and carports adjoining neighbours’ properties and low front walls. Matthew showed various photographs of the avenues which illustrated this.


In contrast he showed high continuous walls surrounding “gated areas” in other parts of Fish Hoek, the breach of which by criminals amplify the pickings. “ The main source of information for the criminals are the poorly aid low-end security guards. Statistics from studies done show that there is as much as an 80% correlation between high walls and the incidence of burglaries and street related crime.


Modern man thought of me, myself, I with no concept of the other. He built his house in the center of his plot, and then had to add other security measures to protect his property which was invariably hidden behind tall trees and high walls. In the postmodern world we are still stuck in the modernist way of thinking which is bad for us in terms of cities.”


“Modernist middle-class suburbia, the garden city, is based on the absolute wastefulness of the American Dream. It is –

  • Premised on cheap land, which, with the pressure of a rapidly growing population is no longer the case.
  • Premised on cheap energy which is also no longer the case. Because of the urban sprawl created by modernist and post-modernist development people have to travel much further to their places of work, a costly exercise in terms of both time and fuel. .  This has already reached crisis point with many people already spending as much as two, three and even four hours each day getting to and from work. The World Bank rated South African cities as some the most inefficient in the world.
  • Premised an affluent, crime free society.


The apartheid city – separate development and suburban nodes, were a tweak of the modernist plan.


According to Matthew the new zoning scheme has recognized this and now allows you to build our house against your neighbours. “Densification if done right is positive but if done wrongly is negative.


“Densifying by blowing up suburbia creates slums such as those in Lavender Hill. Squeezing up buildings in the middle of the plot creates just 2m of sound and visual privacy and less light and outdoor living. The buildings also become indefensible. What we should be doing with densification is retro-filling suburban buildings with granny flats and garages shoulder to shoulder with the main buildings and the neighbours. Such Perimeter Block Urbanisation creates a win-win situation with the residents of the buildings being safe within their homes, having space and freedom of movement without the unsightly and costly barriers that we create to keep criminals at bay. People would also get to know their neighbours!”