Where have all the people gone? Adrian Frith's map show the low density levels of Cape Town's CBD

Where have all the people gone? Adrian Frith’s map show the low density levels of Cape Town’s CBD

Adrian Frith recently posted wonderful maps of South African cities on his website, showing the spatial distribution of race for Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. What is clear is that South African cities are racially divided – in the map of Cape Town, the blue dots representing black South Africans are clustered in the southern township of Khayelitsha, the red dots for coloured South Africans crowd the south-eastern outskirts of the city, and the purple dots representing white South Africans fill the north and south-western suburbs.  The jump to label these stark boundaries the legacies of apartheid is not difficult to make.

But simply blaming it on the past seems too easy in solving the conundrum. The first clue that the issue is more intractable is that Cape Town (and South Africa) is not unique in terms of racial segregation in cities: Firth’s maps are based on a map of Chicago by Bill Rankin in 2009. Here, in a state without apartheid laws, the racial segregation is even more apparent. And travelling in Europe it is easy to spot the ‘immigrant’ neighbourhoods, even in countries that very publicly opposed the South African apartheid regime a generation earlier. (The argument often is that the immigrants do not adopt the language and culture of their new culture, and therefore remain in secluded communities. But language is certainly not the only factor: consider France, where most black immigrants speak the language but still live apart.)

I wonder what South Africa’s cities would have looked like without twentieth century segregation policies? Perhaps higher levels of income for black and coloured South Africans would have meant greater levels of gentrification in cities. Maybe. We won’t ever know the counterfactual. But, considering the international evidence, maybe we also spend too much time worrying about racial segregation in cities, when racial (or language, or age, or income) clustering is a more general phenomenon. In fact, I think it’s strange to expect a completely random spatial distribution of people, regardless of which measure you’d like to use to differentiate them. Let’s take age: younger people tend to live in (cheaper) apartments close to the CBD, while couples with children want to move to suburban areas with more space. I suspect that if you redrew the map to only include white South Africans, you would find high levels of concentration for those speaking Afrikaans and for those speaking English. People who share similar characteristics like to live with people that share those characteristics. And race is only one of many such characteristics.

What is more striking about the Cape Town map, in my opinion, is not the racial concentration – which seems to be true of most cities in the world – but the one legacy of apartheid which is certainly unique: the low density of the central business district (CBD). Look again at Chicago: the most dense areas are those in and immediately around the CBD. In Cape Town, the opposite is true: if you asked a person unfamiliar with Cape Town’s  geography where the CBD is, the obvious answer would be in the south-east where the density rates are the highest. In fact, these areas are the furthest away from the CBD. This remarkable feature is certainly a result of the discriminating spatial policies of the apartheid regime, and one that urban economists and city planners need to address. Cities are the future of economic growth – and the warped density profile of South African cities may negate the benefits South Africa could derive from higher concentrations in the CBD: greater levels of specialisation which leads to higher levels of entrepreneurship, innovation and thus wealth and quality of life for a greater number of people. And, of course, less traffic. (Ed Glaeser’s excellent research programme proves some of these benefits.) In Cape Town there is a team of clever people thinking about exactly these kinds of questions.

I think we should be less worried about the spatial distribution of race in our cities. As the different racial groups’ incomes equalise over time, you will find more people from all walks of life sharing more of the same characteristics, which will see them move into the same neighbourhoods. What we should be more concerned with is densifying our CBD’s: if cities spell future economic success, we still have a long road ahead.