Tasso Evangelinos

In the late 1990s, the centre of Cape Town was showing the same symptoms of urban decay as many other large cities. Its streets were unsafe and dirty, buildings looked shabby and companies were moving out. It showed many signs of slipping into a cycle of decay, marked by rising property vacancies and shrinking valuations and rentals.

Today, the central area looks very different to both visitors and property owners, thanks to successful private-public sector partnerships and an efficient Central City Improvement District (CCID) organisation.

The area is safer and cleaner than a decade ago. Properties have been spruced up or redeveloped, and rentals and occupancy rates have soared.

A recent independent survey found that 86% of people walking there felt the city had one of the safest central areas in the country; 88% of them rated it cleaner than other cities and 81% of business owners said they were satisfied with being in the central city. Even more of businesses, 93%, said they were likely to remain in the central city.

Investments in property and other projects in the central city have flowed in, and more are coming. Ten large new developments at a total cost of R5,31bn are being built or are planned. Most are private initiatives.

A café culture has grown. More people also live in the city's centre. Between 2004 and 2007, admittedly during the property boom, more than 40 commercial buildings in the centre were converted for residential purposes, and often this was high-grade accommodation. The buildings contain about 3200 apartments which are occupied by upwards of 6500 residents.

As with any urban renaissance, different causes can be found and many are linked or became synergistic. Cape Town's municipality has been relatively well managed since the early 1990s. The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront has attracted tourists and businesses. The city established a reputation as an international tourist destination. Its international conference centre, now being doubled in size with the aid of a R690m investment, has been a big success.

All of these helped, but the city had another distinctive and important thing going for it. It developed successful collaborative initiatives between public and private sectors, starting with the Cape Town Partnership, launched in 1999. The partnership has diverse stakeholders on its board, and urban visionary and former Cape Town city manager Andrew Boraine heads its management team.

Its operational arm, the CCID, set up in November 2000, followed a model used internationally for more than two decades. It was first tried in Canada in 1970, and then adopted in other cities in the US and Europe.

Cape Town's CCID, a nonprofit organisation funded by a levy on property owners' rates, was the first in a major SA city and, with a R38m budget, is still the largest. Its job is to keep the city clean and safe, help look after the homeless and jobless and communicate what's happening in the area.

It has just 13 office staff members, but employs about 600 people who work on the streets and in other roles. Surveys showed people felt the greatest need was for better security, says chief operating officer Tasso Evangelinos, and the CCID spends about half its budget on that. It employs 240 security officers, who patrol streets in the CCID's demarcated area, working round the clock. They maintain a visible presence, are able to communicate quickly, undertake foot patrols and use branded security vehicles and bicycles.

Some of the CCID's activities are similar to what a commercial security company might do. What distinguishes the CCID's work is its systemic approach and its formal and informal networking. Property companies are represented on its board, so it understands their needs. It maintains a detailed database on buildings, including information about occupancies, tenants and parking areas. It holds monthly security meetings where people swap concerns and ideas.

Many members of the team of several hundred it employs in street cleaning and related activities were previously unemployed or homeless people who wandered the streets, often participating in crime.

In its social development work, the CCID partners with NGOs, the city and religious groups. It helped the city set up a community court and provides work such as gardening, cleaning and maintenance for people sentenced to doing community work. It has helped wean people off the streets and assisted some in finding jobs elsewhere.

It is an arena where success breeds success, and the sharing of knowledge can contribute to urban renaissance in other places. In the past two years alone, crime rates in Cape Town's central city have halved.

The CCID has won local and international awards for its work, including several from the International Downtown Association in the US. It has been visited by Scotland Yard, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and representatives of other cities and urban organisations. It's collaborating with similar organisations in surrounding areas.

The Cape Town CCID drew on former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani's "broken windows" theory, which says that the small stuff matters and urban disorder begets disorder. Evangelinos says the CCID requires great attention to detail and operational efficiency.

Other important lessons were learnt as the CCID evolved. In its early stages critics said it came from a philosophy of exclusivity and elitism, and would benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor. In practice, says Evangelinos, the opposite is true.

The CCID model benefits everyone, but that must be recognised and sustained. He says it also needs a continuing ethos of service and partnership.

Another important lesson has to do with "gratitude and attitude". By that he means that partners should never be criticised in public but must always get recognition for their contributions.