Trends shaping the design of spaces people live in

Trends shaping the design of spaces people live in

dhk partner and executive director Guy Briggs suggests that there are nine key social, spatial development and environmental trends influencing the design of spaces people live in.

Guy is an expert in regeneration, social upliftment through environmental design, and the design of sustainable cities. He plays a key leadership role at dhk including strategic business development for the practice, as well as entrenching urban design as a pivotal discipline in dhk. Earlier this year he was invited to present an overview of architectural and property development trends in Cape Town for the property industry seminar series hosted by the University of Cape Town’s Urban Real Estate Research Unit (URERU). In contrast to the statistical approach favoured in many of these seminars, Guy promised to provide a subjective, anecdotal and non-statistical view of the way in which the Cape Town property market was shaping up post-Covid.

A common thread in Guy’s view is that property development is no longer about simply providing space. Increasingly, it’s about place and placemaking, essentially providing high-quality environments that have a particular identity. It is this distinction that attracts people and drives value.

Here’s what Guy had to say

To the delight of industry professionals across the built environment spectrum, the Cape Town property market is experiencing a post-Covid recovery. The resulting mini boom is being driven by, and is in response to, three key social trends. At the same time, six spatial and environmental trends are shaping the form of development emerging in the city.

1. Semigration

Cape Town, for all its failings (and there are many), seems to be a beacon of hope and optimism stimulating migration from other parts of the country and fuelling demand for new homes. We’re seeing evidence of this demand from a number of our clients; it’s particular noteworthy that dhk client Balwin Properties, headquartered in Johannesburg and operating across the country, is selling more properties in the Western Cape than in any other region in the country. This trend is not only in Cape Town, it’s manifesting in towns like Stellenbosch and all along the Garden Route too.

Stellenbosch is experiencing a big surge in demand across a wide range of housing types. Demand in this university town is driven by a combination of the general semigration trend coupled with the mini boom in demand for student accommodation that is happening nationwide. Supply in Stellenbosch is frustrated by a shortage of space and stringent development control, which is driving property value to extraordinary levels in this winelands town.

Similarly in George, where we are currently busy with the development of an estate for 300 new family homes, the opportunity to live and work (remotely) in this small but thriving town is proving highly attractive to those fed up with the chronic crime and infrastructure issues of Johannesburg, and other major cities elsewhere in the country.

2. New ways of working

The term ‘new ways of working’ was pioneered through the work of British architectural practice DEGW, where I worked in the 1990s, and encapsulated in Frank Duffy’s seminal publication ‘The New Office’. New ways of working has come a long way since the early days of the open plan office, and the rise of remote working and digital nomads has accelerated a trend towards flexible workspace, occupying smaller footprints with more amenities.

At the same time, the post-Covid workplace has given rise to new attitudes to work, including the ‘great resignation’ and ‘quiet quitting’. In an attempt to persuade employees to re-engage and return to the office, corporate employers are aiming to make work ‘meaningful’, or at least to make the workplace more fun. In response, our interior design business – dhki – has developed an approach to the workplace that mirrors the spaces of a village, aiming to bring the spaces of home to the place of work.

Our current work for a major bank in Namibia encapsulates this, with modular workspaces arranged to create spatial diversity, including private space for focused work, gathering spaces for communal work, ‘mixed use’ social spaces to engage – all arranged around a central plaza, and connected by flexible ‘streets’ and ‘pathways’. This project extends our work for the Capitec Bank headquarters building in Stellenbosch completed in 2020. By optimising internal flow, the design fosters a company culture of creativity, innovation, collaboration and departmental interaction. Similarly, our interior design work for Retail Capital delivered an open and collaborative environment with workspaces arranged around a lounge and café.

So this is the new, new way of working; one in which well-designed workspaces encourage incidental interactions and promote rejuvenation.

3. Travel

At a previous URERU seminar in January we heard all about the great increase in passenger numbers into the Western Cape due to tourism. International air arrivals to Cape Town International Airport between January and February 2024 surpassed the 200 000 mark and exceeded the 2019 figure of 194 058 for the same period, breaking all previous records. This is not just a local trend, but a global phenomenon christened ‘revenge travel’ with tourist numbers exceeding pre-Covid levels as people aim to catch up on trips missed during the pandemic years.

This trend, along with the rise of remote working and digital nomads, is translating into a shortage of hotel rooms, everywhere, especially in Cape Town. As a result, there’s an uptick in demand for new and refurbished hotels. dhk is involved in a number of projects to meet this demand, including refurbishment of the Cape Grace as a Fairmont Hotel (120 beds, reopening May 2024), development of a new Canopy by Hilton at Longkloof (155 beds, opening December 2024), refurbishment of the Cape Town Pullman by Accor, as well as other hotel developments delivering a further 350 beds in Cape Town CBD, and 150 beds in Paarl.

4. Mixed-use

What distinguishes many of the hotel projects mentioned above is that they are all located in mixed-use precincts. Mixed-use is not so much a new trend as an old trend returning – or a ‘new-old trend’.

Cities were largely mixed-use until around 70 years ago when we started separating the different components of cities – industry, office, residential, etc. – through land use zoning. In South Africa, this also became a mechanism to institutionalise the separation of people based on skin colour, giving rise to apartheid spatial planning. In the last 20 years, there has been a major pushback globally against land use zoning and the separation of uses. This is equally applicable in SA, although despite best intentions, we have been much less successful at reversing apartheid spatial planning (I pick this theme up again under trend 6 below).

An example of the return of mixed use is Rosebank in Johannesburg. The newly emerging mixed-use node of Rosebank takes its cue from Melrose Arch, a stone’s throw away down Corlett Drive. dhk designed Melrose Arch phase 2, which wraps a hotel, apartments, offices and retail in a series of perimeter blocks, pedestrian streets and an arcade around a new public space/piazza.

Rosebank seems to be one area that is holding its own in a city in decline and is fast becoming one of the most desirable destinations in the city, incorporating a mix of uses and activities and pedestrian-friendly public spaces – upstaging car-dominated Sandton, just down the road. This is part of the reason we’ve just moved our Johannesburg office to Rosebank. We’ve also recently completed phase one of Oxford Parks for Intaprop – bringing together a hotel, offices and retail uses in an extension of the Rosebank mixed-use node. Residential apartments are included in future phases of Oxford Parks, as well as in adjacent developments such as One Rosebank, which we’re currently taking through construction for residential developer Tricolt – combining to create an integrated mixed-use, pedestrian friendly environment.

In Cape Town we’re delivering a mixed-use precinct at Longkloof for Growthpoint, bringing together a hotel, offices and retail in a pedestrianised environment. In Thornton, near Pinelands, Conradie Park is a predominantly residential development which includes a hotel, offices, schools and a retail centre in the mix. The Rubik is another mixed-use building we’ve recently completed in the Cape Town CBD. This blends retail, residential and commercial uses in an elegant tower on a tight urban site.

At dhk we know it’s difficult to mix uses within a single building but when you can do that and get it to work, it makes for a fabulous landmark intervention in the city!

5. Densification

The three projects referred to above also illustrate another of the ‘new-old’ trends that is returning: densification. This trend is a pushback against late 20th century urban sprawl and its negative societal impacts, including high costs, failing infrastructure and increasing traffic. This is as true for the top end of the market, as evidenced by developments such as The Rubik in the CBD and 5 Dock Road in the V&A Waterfront, as it is at entry level, where projects such as Conradie Park enable more people to live closer to places of work, in decent environments.

Living close to work, whether by short taxi ride, drive or walk, offers a massive advantage. These developments mark the acceleration of a major trend towards higher density apartment living across society, following global patterns seen over the last two decades.

6. Integration

This is one trend where South Africa is playing catch up. We live in an environment that has been completely artificially created through apartheid spatial planning, and to a certain extent needs to be artificially uncreated. Conradie Park, a public-private partnership that has guaranteed delivery of over 3000 housing units, is an example of a development that integrates mixed tenure housing with social, affordable and market housing in one seamless environment.

Conradie Park is a massive experiment in social engineering where social housing for rent is being developed on the same site as subsidised housing for sale and open market housing with no subsidy. What is wonderful when visiting the estate is seeing what an integrated environment it is: socially and demographically, in all sorts of ways. It’s vital for the future of this country that this experiment works and works well enough that it becomes the norm rather than a talking point.

Conradie Park is billed as a ‘game changer’ by its chief sponsor, the Western Cape Government, heralding a new approach for providing social and affordable housing. Policy is shifting in that direction, with inclusionary housing policies adopted by the City of Johannesburg, the Western Cape Government, and the Stellenbosch municipality. The City of Cape Town’s own policy is in development, and, while it remains in draft form, it is already impacting housing provision in the city.

7. Sustainability

The increasing awareness of environmental sustainability is a particularly positive trend. It’s a response to the local consequences of social trends outlined above, including overstretched infrastructure and increasing traffic, and to the national crises of load-shedding and insufficient water supply; as much as it is a response to the global crisis of climate change. It’s another not-so-new trend, but one that is increasing in priority and rapidly evolving. In 2015, dhk’s Portside was delivered as one of Africa’s most sustainable buildings, achieving a 5-Star Green Star rating from the Green Building Council of South Africa (GBCSA), and earning the mantle ‘tallest green star rated building in Africa’. While this was significant at the time, the emphasis is now on a 6-Star Green Star rating as standard, and increasingly a focus on buildings with net zero carbon emissions.

In the mass residential market, dhk client Balwin is consistently achieving 6-Star Green Star ratings on their lifestyle centres. While they are not (yet) looking for green star ratings for the estates as a whole, they’re including solar PV panels, black water treatment plants, tree planting, and pocket parks, among other measures. This isn’t just environmentally conscious – it also makes business sense: their business leaders sit on the GBCSA board. Their approach allows them to secure green bonds for clients at 1% below the prime rate and is a big part of what’s making their estates in the Western Cape successful. It’s a differentiator for Balwin.

dhk is currently working on a net-zero carbon scheme for a client in Century City. It’s all about creating buildings that are net-zero carbon in their construction and ultimately in their operation. That’s going to be the next big shift in the market from a sustainability point of view, over the next five to ten years.

Ellipse Waterfall, a high-rise luxury apartment development in the heart of Waterfall City in Gauteng.

8. Public spaces

Once upon a time public space was central to city-making, but it has long been neglected – principally because the way cities are delivered has shifted to a developer-driven model. Where this is coupled with weak public sector leadership, the result has been a lack of incentive to invest in the public good. Happily, this is changing. We are seeing a resurgence in public space, at least in Cape Town, for two main reasons:

  • Strong leadership from the City of Cape Town, in particular from the spatial planning and urban design branch, including advocacy, policy shifts and implementation of public spaces; and
  • A recognition by those who deliver our cities of the value of public space in development.

At dhk, a high-quality public space is very often at the heart of what we do. It becomes the glue that knits together a development and transforms necessary infrastructure to become something special. At Longkloof Studios we’ve created a new public space in the centre of the development, linked back to the surrounding streets by pedestrian routes lined with shops. It covers a new basement parking garage, creating a virtue of a necessity. Conradie Park creates a mixed-use residential neighbourhood structured around pedestrian focussed streets and public spaces. And Battery Park in the V&A Waterfront caps a four-storey parking garage and creates a focal space for the mixed-use developments that surround it. This space has contributed significantly to fostering inclusivity, connectivity, and integration within Cape Town’s public space network, forming a more vibrant and accessible urban environment for all.

The (re)creation of public space is critical to the creation of a democratically integrated city, in which everyone is a pedestrian some or all of the time. In a typical city, 70 to 75% of the public space is occupied by streets. In South African cities, most streets do not do a good job of accommodating pedestrians – our streets are generally built for cars. But things are changing. The City of Johannesburg has published its ‘Complete Streets’ manual, which takes a more holistic approach to street design, while in Cape Town the activist organisation Open Streets has been promoting a different approach for some time. More recently, the Young Urbanists Forum has established a quarterly Urban Design & Mobility Forum with the Mayor and various senior city politicians and officials to engage around these issues.

dhk is currently busy with developing a public realm strategy for Bellville Town Centre, which will transform the street spaces for pedestrians, trading, cycling and public transport. The fundamental premise behind this work is that public sector investment into public space not only promotes the democratisation of that space, but also demonstrates public sector commitment, which catalyses private sector investment, thus promoting comprehensive regeneration. The City has developed an ambitious vision for the future of Bellville CBD, one that it intends to deliver on over the next two decades. The transformation of the CBD public realm is the first stage of delivering that vision.

9. Art

What is public space without public art? The art sector generally is witnessing remarkable growth globally, and this is another trend that has come to South Africa and Cape Town in particular. There has been an explosion in the international private art market, which has seen a parallel growth in public art, whether formal – such as the ‘Sea Point Sunglasses’ (officially titled Perceiving Freedom) – or informal, with a proliferation of street art across areas like Woodstock and Salt River.

Art has become a major value driver for cities and precincts. Street art drives, and thrives off, a burgeoning tourist trade, which is also seeing a surge in commercial art galleries. In parallel, the First Thursdays phenomenon in Cape Town, where locals explore inner-city art galleries, continues to expand. The Investec Cape Town Art Fair, recognised as a major global art fair, is growing yearly; and private art museums like the Zeitz MOCAA and the Norval Foundation, which dhk designed in 2018, have emerged. All these factors working together drive footfall, activity and vibrancy, becoming an essential component of a successful city or city precinct.


The nine trends outlined above have a common thread that ties them all together. Property development is no longer simply about providing suitable and convenient space. Increasingly, property is all about creating ‘place’ – developing an area so that it has a specific identity, within an environment that is well considered, attractive and of the highest possible quality.