By Brett Petzer and Rashiq Fataar

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On December 31, 2013, the late Nelson Mandela’s giant face was projected onto Cape Town’s Italian neo-Renaissance City Hall. It was the same building where he first addressed his country as a free man two decades ago. Here and there, people were crying. Mandela – Tata Madiba by his African name – had died that month, and his multi-story image brought it home that it was up to the city now.

As the champagne corks popped at midnight, some of the audience turned to go, eager to beat the New Year’s Eve traffic. The cars with colored families — “colored” being South Africa’s accepted term for people of mixed race — headed home to the Cape Flats. Indian families drove to Rylands Estate. Black families steered toward Gugulethu or Khayelitsha. Whites had the shortest drive, to suburbs just a few blocks away, or to homes perched dramatically along Table Mountain’s towering slopes.

Within an hour of hearing Nelson Mandela speak of unity, we would be turning in, up to 60 kilometers apart, in suburbs mostly segregated by race.

Cape Town, then, is a good place to start if the question is, “Can design create a democratic city?” because it is here that exactly the opposite was achieved during the 20th century. From 1948, when formal apartheid was introduced, to the early 1990s, when its dismantling commenced, social and spatial engineering, as historian Vivian Bickford-Smith put it, transformed the spectacular peninsula from South Africa’s least to its most segregated city. Cape Town’s urban plan was guided by the ideology of the 1922 Stallard Commission, which was tasked with bringing black workers and consumers into cities while still keeping them separate from whites:

We consider that the history of the races, especially having regard to South African history, shows that the co-mingling of black and white is undesirable. The native should only be allowed to enter urban areas, which are essentially the white man’s creation, when he is willing to enter and to minister to the needs of the white man, and should depart therefrom when he ceases to so minister.

The vision contained in this quotation gave birth to Grand Apartheid, a system that was as much an economic and spatial dispensation as it was a political and legal one. In the 1990s, apartheid’s legal barriers tumbled down, but the apartheid city had already been achieved as a physical fact, with 3.5 million people having been forcibly removed from white areas between 1960 and 1983. In Cape Town, a string of white suburbs occupying the best land had been purged of non-white, usually working-class enclaves, whose inhabitants were shunted off to less desirable areas. The end of apartheid did little to return integration to cities, and in fact, two decades after it ended, today’s Capetonians are recreating some of its worst vestiges, moving into gated communities separated from the city by perimeter walls and security guards.

But amid such de facto segregation can also be found bold attempts at unity, and a city striving to use urban design to create democratic inclusivity. Through improvements to the city’s transit systems and upgrades to former slums where gathering and trading can flourish, vibrant new public spaces and infrastructure are reconfiguring the city not just physically, but socially. In the best of scenarios, the very 20th-century relics that were designed by the old regime to keep people apart are now being reimagined to bring those same people together.

Read the full article on the Next City website here.