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An Ecological View of the History of the City of Cape Town

Pippin M. L. Anderson, Department of Environmental and Geographical Science and African Centre for Cities, UCT
Patrick J O’Farrell, CSIR Natural Resources and the Environment


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Rapid global urbanization and the knowledge that ecological systems underpin the future sustainability and resilience of our cities, make an understanding of urban ecology critical. The way humans engage with ecological processes within cities is highly complex, and both from a social and ecological perspective these engagements cannot be interpreted meaningfully on the basis of a single timeframe. Historical analyses offer useful insights into the nature of social-ecological interactions under diverse conditions, enabling improved decision-making into the future. We present an historical review of the evolving relationship between the urban settlement of Cape Town and the ecological processes inherent to its natural surroundings. Since its establishment, the people of Cape Town have been acutely aware of, and exploited, the natural resources presented by Table Mountain and its surrounding wilderness area. An examination of this pattern of engagement, explored through an ecological process lens, in particular drawing on the terminology provided by the ecosystem services framework, reflects a journey of the changing needs and demands of a growing urban settlement. Ecological processes, and their ensuing flow of ecosystem services, have been exploited, overexploited, interrupted, reestablished, conserved, and variably valued through time. Processes of significance, for example water provision, soil erosion, the provision of wood and natural materials, and the role of fire, are presented. This historical analysis documents the progression from a wilderness to a tamed and largely benign urban environment. Evident is the variable valuing of ecosystem service attributes through time and by different people, at the same time, dependent on their immediate needs.

Key words

ecological history; ecosystem services; City of Cape Town; social ecological systems

Copyright © 2012 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087