Understanding natural public green space in Cape Town

Universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible green and public spaces by 2030 is a target contained within the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11: Make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

The City of Cape Town has also recognised the importance of incorporating green spaces into the urban environment for a number of reasons. Socially, public green spaces provide residents with opportunities for nature-based recreational activities, such as walking, hiking, picnicking, bird watching and boating (among others), while also providing for spiritual, aesthetic and educational needs, and meeting the needs of children to have an open and well-managed environment in which to play. Environmentally, these spaces allow for both the conservation of biodiversity and the provision of various other ecological goods and services. Economically, the significance of these spaces is in sustaining Cape Town as an attractive tourism and investment destination. 

The importance of public green space is reflected in various City planning documents. The City’s Spatial Development Framework (SDF) prioritises the conservation of biodiversity and green space within the urban fabric and recognises it as a vital informant of the future development of the city. The SDF specifies that the City’s Biodiversity Network and targets need to be taken into account in future planning and underpins the incorporation of green spaces.  

The City’s Urban Design Policy, approved in 2013, envisions intentionally creating open space that is scaled and configured to suit the functions for which it is planned. The functionality of space also includes combining open-space uses, such as sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS), playgrounds, and allotment gardens, to use space more effectively and increase accessibility to all facilities. 

Through policies such as the SDF and the Urban Design Policy, the City aims to incorporate public green spaces into urban environments through parks, open spaces, playing fields, walkways, greenbelts, nature reserves and urban gardens. This access to public green space is a key measure of a healthy city. 

This report notes that that not all green spaces perform the same functions. Public green space is land that consists of a variety of formally managed land types, including nature reserves and large district parks that are able to support a range of biodiversity, greenbelts and river corridors, and smaller parks that do not have a significant biodiversity function but which provide recreational space. Managed public green space will generally have some measure of basic facilities, such as toilets, picnic spots, parking areas, on-site staff, or security measures, and will generally be maintained. Although unmanaged areas provide important ecological goods and services, these areas do not always provide the same level of service in terms of meeting recreational and social needs and can be identified as undeveloped public open space. This chapter focuses on managed public green space. 

Managed public green space can also be categorised in two further ways: natural and semi-natural. Natural public green space includes protected areas that are managed as nature reserves by the City, provincial and national government and private entities, greenbelts and less-developed parts of the coastline. Semi-natural public green spaces include community parks, district parks and more-developed parts of the coastline. This report focuses on natural public green space.


In 2014 the City updated guidelines and standards for planning its social facilities and recreational spaces. These spaces can be categorised as semi-natural public green space. The standards are to be used for all new developments and city planning as a strategic guide for space allocation at neighbourhood, district, and metropolitan scales in order to facilitate improvement of quality of life for all residents.  The guidelines provide space allocations for semi-natural public green spaces according to surrounding residential population and their accessibility to these spaces. They provide standards for district, regional and community parks amongst other City public open spaces and facilities. 

The guidelines, however, do not provide standards for natural public green space. This is a result of many factors but is particularly due to the uneven geographical distribution of these spaces.  This report makes use of the English Nature guidelines for the provision of managed natural public green space to identify the distribution of natural public green space in Cape Town. These spaces include the coastline, greenbelts, biodiversity areas, district and regional parks. The use of these guidelines is not prescriptive but does provide a simple means to evaluate the access to natural public green space in the city.

The guidelines for managed, public green space are: 

  • At least one accessible 2-hectare site within 300 m of home
  • At least one accessible 20-hectare site within 2 km of home
  • At least one accessible 100-hectare site within 5 km of home
  • At least one accessible 500-hectare site within 10 km of home