Friends and Neighbours - a community nature project

Cape Town, South Africa

The project aims to reconnect people with nature, build social capital and maintain and enhance ecosystem services.

Friends and Neighbours is a pilot project that aims to connect the informal settlement of Village Heights in Cape Town with the adjacent False Bay Nature Reserve.The focus of the project is on understanding the needs and desires of the low-income community of Village Heights and improve their relationship with the surrounding ecosystem. Engagement with the community resulted in the development of the Friends and Neighbours initiative. The project  contributes to urban sustainability by improving the surrounding environment, cultivating a sense of pride in the community, and will help in alleviating poverty.
Originally published by the International Community of Practice for Sustainable Urban Development CONNECTIVE CITIES:


City information
Cape Town

Size and population development
2011: 3,552,000; 1990: 2,155,000; 2025: 4,388,000; 2010-2015: +1,75%/year

Population composition
80% of the population described themselves as coloured or black African ; about 20% of the population live in informal settlements

Main functions
second largest city in the country ; seat of the national parliament

Main industries / business
tourism, food, IT, media, fashion

Political structure
a 221-member city council, an executive mayor and an executive city mayor

Administrative structure
8 districts, divided up into suburbs

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Background and objectives
Village Heights is an informal settlement near Lavender Hill in Cape Town, South Africa, situated on the western boundary of the False Bay Nature Reserve. The community faces a variety of challenges, including insufficient access to public services, unemployment, drug and alcohol-induced violence, exposure to extreme weather patterns and environmental degradation. These negative conditions often spill "over the fence" into the neighbouring reserve, emerging as issues of illegal access, illegal harvesting of resources, illegal dumping, criminal behaviour and land invasion. 
In 2012, in light of the national strategy on buffer zones around protected areas, which encourages positive relationships between nature reserves and their surrounding communities, the "False Bay Ecology Park" Steering Committee introduced an initiative, 'Friends and Neighbours', which sought to build these relationships in order to integrate the park into local landscapes, for both the conservation of the park and the benefit of those living adjacent to the park. This Park has now been consolidated into the False Bay Nature Reserve, protected under national legislation. In 2014 the reserve was approved as a Ramsar Site, under a United Nations convention protecting wetlands for migratory birds. 
The project is motivated by the need to increase awareness of and appreciation for nature and its conservation. Initially it began with the objective of creating stronger lines of communication between the Village Heights community and the Rondevlei section of the False Bay Nature Reserve, located just 100m from the settlement "on the other side of the fence". 
Realizing the need for a people-centred approach to nature conservation, the project strives to understand the needs and desires of local dwellers to ensure community buy-in to the programmes and projects run by the nature reserve, and improve environmental literacy among community members. In strategic alignment with the city of Cape Town's Integrated Development Plan, "The Other Side of the Fence" promotes the relationship between the community and their surroundings, builds social capital, and maintains and enhances ecosystem services. 
Due to the initial activities being focused on the environmental aspect, many other social programmes were identified by the community, which have in turn attracted other organizations, volunteers and community participants to participate.
The City of Cape Town through community consultation elicited five specific projects which could be achieved in the short to medium term: clearing illegally dumped waste, removing alien invasive vegetation, building a children's play area, developing food gardens and planning and implementing a nature garden between the Nature Reserve fence and the informal settlement.  
With registration of the community centre as an Non-Profit Organizaiton (NPO) and ongoing administrative support by Zandvlei Trust to teach community members the formalities of successfully managing an NPO, and with substantial input from Projects Abroad, many other activities have been initiated. These activities range from community library, child care, homework help, surfing for different age groups to the community vegetable garden; youth and adult development programmes, including an eco-buddy programme for after school hours involving recycling and environmental initiatives for learners (coordinated by Cape Town Environmental Education Trust (CTEET); crochet knitting and sewing classes; assisted feeding programme; catering for small functions and more. 
Several Arbor and Mandela Day celebrations have been run, during which community members and external volunteers were involved in a variety of activities including planting trees and vegetable gardens as well as educational activities for children. 
There are plans to build a  "kickabout" field for soccer and netball, although funds for the project are still being sought. A community garden promises to contribute a much-needed greening aspect to the community, which has little opportunity to access the many benefits that offered by open green space and a fully functioning natural environment.
All these activities have contributed to the development of a project, which adds value and resources to the lives of some of the people at Village Heights. The success of this project is heavily reliant on community engagement as well as strengthening the feeling of belonging and harnessing of existing social cohesion among the community members.
Financing and resources

The lead agency for the project is the city of Cape Town in partnership with Cape Town Environmental Education Trust (CTEET), Zandvlei Trust, Projects Abroad and civil society through a number of registered volunteer non-profit organizations and individual volunteers.  

Results and impacts
This project demonstrates that reconnecting people to the biophysical environment has socio-restorative potential, which can be seen from the socio-ecological performance of the project. For instance, clearing of invasive exotic vegetation along the periphery of the community has transformed a site previously used for criminal activity into a positive functional open space, mitigating environmental threats and reducing the risk of fire hazards to the community and nature reserve. 
Responses from the community have influenced the priorities, structure and expected outcomes of the project. These include supporting environmental education initiatives; increasing economic opportunities through skills training; and the development of sustainable business models and green jobs.
Barriers and challenges
Four initiatives, clearing illegally dumped waste, removing invasive vegetation, building a children's play area and developing food gardens, have been successfully implemented although resource constraints have created challenges with regard to maintenance of the projects. 
Funding for the nature garden was initially delayed, however, funds from the national government enabled the project to proceed through to design stage (which flowed from a co-design workshop with community members) to the start of implementation in early 2017, since then a number of social and logistical challenges have slowed progress. 
Through the various aspects of the project, challenges related to waste management and recycling, human settlements and ecosystem services will be addressed sustainably.
Regular community meetings and workshops are held to collaboratively develop solutions to existing challenges.
Lessons learned and transferability
The Village Heights/Other Side of the Fence initiative has the potential to improve ecological literacy, create innovative and effective partnerships, bring many different benefits to local people and enhance the functioning and attributes of protected areas. 
To enhance community engagement, care must be taken to ensure that all relevant community stakeholders are represented and involved in the project design and implementation process. 

External links / documents