Using a diagnostic indicator assessment to understand sustainability transitions towards Water Sensitive Urban Design in the City of Cape Town

Master Thesis


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Cities globally are progressively becoming hotspots for water related risk and disaster mainly as a result of the cumulative effects of rapid urbanisation, population growth and the impacts of climate change. South African cities in particular are faced with the dual challenges of meeting demand for scarce water resources, as well as mitigating urban flooding. A shift towards adaptive and sustainable approaches has been proposed in order to address these complexities whilst ensuring the satisfactory delivery of water services to citizens. To support this change, local authorities are tasked with restructuring policy to include climate change adaptation strategies in order to adapt more adequately and proactively. In this regard, Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD) has gained importance in terms of guiding cities around the world in transitioning towards becoming water sensitive. WSUD aims to ensure that urban planning and design is undertaken in an interdisciplinary way and minimises the hydrological impacts of development on the surrounding environment. Sustainability transitions literature recognises that infrastructure and technologies are highly intertwined with institutional structures, regulations and social practices. For this reason, transitions towards sustainability-oriented technologies typically involve significant changes along assorted dimensions of the socio-technical system. Accordingly, this project aims to understand and identify the fundamental institutional conditions necessary to support a transition towards WSUD, using the City of Cape Town (CoCT) as a case study site. In order to achieve this aim, the City Blueprint Approach (CBA) was applied to the CoCT based on in-depth interviews and publicly available data. The CBA was developed by the KWR Watercycle Research Institute in cooperation with Utrecht University, The Netherlands and has been tested on various cities globally. It is a set of diagnostic indicator tools comprising the Trends and Pressures Framework, the City Blueprint Framework and the Governance Capacity Framework. The CBA assessment was followed by a thematic analysis to understand the context of transitions to a WSUD approach in Cape Town. The results of the research indicate that the CoCT has had some success in its efforts related to the sustainable management of water resources through the implementation of policy, action plans and a range of learning opportunities for city officials and local stakeholders. Despite these efforts however, issues of financial viability, implementing capacity and political will have hindered progression towards WSUD in the City. In conclusion, the research has emphasised that sustainable water management and a transition towards a WSUD approach requires more than just redesigned infrastructure; it has also highlighted the different institutional aspects that make transitioning towards WSUD possible both in Cape Town, as well as for other cities in developing countries with similar socio-economic contexts to South Africa.