The Berg River: Reconnecting the Urban Fabric of Paarl


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With a population of 190,000, Paarl is the largest urban entity in South Africa’s Winelands district. It is blessed with tremendous historic assets and serves as a touristic focal-point for the surrounding wine route. Tourism infrastructure, although not as developed as Stellenbosch, still surpasses surrounding larger towns like Wellington, Malmesbury and Worcester.

Geographically, Paarl has a unique urban setting. Very few South African towns can boast a river of its magnitude, flowing north-south through the urban core. In fact, the town’s linear development is orientated to this axis between Paarl Mountain and the Berg River, forming South Africa’s longest continuous rural main street.

The advent of segregation left an urban blight on Paarl, like any South African town. The river was used as a wedge rather than as glue for the urban fabric. It effectively divides the previously advantaged west and previously disadvantaged east. To further cement this Apartheid-planning divide, industrial areas were zoned along this axis to further act as a racial buffer zone.

The Berg River should be the centre of urban life in Paarl, along with its historic Main Road. Most towns, worldwide, utilise their rivers as an activity corridor for public life. In Paarl, this is not the case and a new project is underway to breathe life back into one of Paarl’s greatest untapped assets. The Berg River corridor development will turn the town’s face around from looking inwards towards the mountain and away from eastern Paarl, encouraging the town to look outward for the first time.

To destroy the Apartheid urban construct and forge a cohesive urban fabric, this wedge needs to be sown back together. Not only must it be developed, it also must act as a transit corridor linking this very north-south linear urban entity. As Wellington and Paarl merge together, so transport pressures will mount along this axis.

Design Overview


From the south, the arboretum will be upgraded. A tremendously rare urban asset, especially at this scale, the Paarl Arboretum remains under-utilised, often unsafe and poorly connected with the town. This will serve as an non-motorised transport (NMT) corridor in the south, linking the Paarl South node with the town core itself.

The town centre requires the most attention. Currently, industrial development and insensitive commercial development from Langenhoven to Lady Grey has left the Berg River poorly utilised for public-life. The area has almost no pedestrian focus whatsoever. It’s proposed that the Bella Vista, Huguenot and Paarlbridge areas be vigorously upgraded. It should be declared an Urban Development Zone (UDZ), with a focus on property conversion to foster mixed-use, inner-town residential densification and smart-tech development; this may include a hub for agricultural and food sciences and associated business.


Streets should also be subjected to “placemaking” upgrades, improving both hard and soft landscaping, improved lighting and pedestrian prioritisation.  An upgraded transit interchange is proposed at Huguenot Station.

Industry may be coerced to find alternative locales due to industrial-to-mixed-use conversion and town core revitalisation; plainly put, relocation should be actively encouraged to less sensitive sites. Heavier industry, logistical services and “placemaking” simply make bad bedfellows.

Poorly utilised industrial land north of the Huguenot precinct is earmarked for affordable housing, to bring the less-affluent economically active closer to the town and places of employment. It is crucial to bring residential activity inward, to forge a vibrant urban core. It’s also vital to destroy the Apartheid urban construct. Across the river, the Zandrift Sports Grounds should be upgraded, providing a recreational node for the Berg River corridor.

Further north, urban infill is proposed. This includes the extension of Berg River Boulevard and the logical inclusion of high-visibility linear commercial development. The Groenvlei node also acts as urban infill.

Anchoring the north end, delineating the recommended maximum urban extent, the North Berg Town Centre is proposed. This blends seamlessly into the fabric of Northern Paarl. Unlike the south of town, the north end is comparatively poorly serviced with urban amenities. This development aims to address this, with the inclusion of additional affluent, mid-range as well as GAP housing, integrated within this small area.

The proposed town centre has a village feel, keeping the rural ambience of the town. It also acts as a node that can serve the growing urban-infill between Wellington and Paarl.

The entire Berg River is demarcated as a greenbelt, should be upgraded and maintained as such and forms the public-activity spine of the entire development. Certain areas are assigned Vineyard Heritage Conservation status, as to not obliterate the Winelands character that makes Paarl unique.

You can download a large format overview of the project concept here.

By Andres de Wet at Future Cape Town – a This Big City partner site.