Verkykerskop: Small-Scale Agricultural Town

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Location: Verkykerskop, South Africa. Small-scale agricultural town

Seventeen years ago, Nelson Mandela announced to all South Africans: “for we must, together and without delay, begin to build a better life for all South Africans. This means creating jobs, building houses, providing education and food, and bringing peace and security for all.” While most South African cities were growing and building a “better life”, small planned and unplanned Towns were becoming depopulated and the visions for their existence became redundant. The same fate befell the plans for the development of the small Town of Verkykerskop.

After ten years of democracy, the previous dogmatic planning ideas had exceeded their lifespan and a new vision for building smart growth Towns was needed. Following five years of Provincial and local debate, the effort to design a socio-economically inclusive small agricultural Town were under way. It was recognised that an opportunity existed for the Town to not only become the lifeline for existing fragile farmer communities, but to also become a vital link in the food support chain for neighbouring “resource hungry” cities. Vision: First proclaimed small-scale agricultural Town for the Free State Province in 100 years, making it the first socio-economically inclusive Town to be established in a significant post-apartheid rebuilding effort.

The Verkykerskop site is located at the crossroads between a historic livestock route and a new tar road on the Free State Provincial tourism thoroughfare, the Moloto tourist corridor. The scenic natural topography with its ancient rock formations, ancestral rock paintings and prominent farming history is now nestled between areas of commercial and small-scale subsistence farming. Rather than spreading the proposed Town along the north-south livestock route or east-west vehicle thoroughfare, careful insertions between farmland, existing buildings with dormant infrastructure, livestock and horse holding areas, historic gravesites, look-out points and watersheds are made. The “uitspanning”, a local word meaning ‘a space of assembly after a long migration with livestock’, is proposed as the main node and public space. Lying at the centre of the 43 hectares [103.7 acres] site, it is destined to be the main congregation, cultural and economic activity space for an anticipated 1500 people. The development’s noble program of 300 mixed-income residences, most with their own intensive home farming opportunities, and the peripheral 35 hectares [86.4 acres] farm/conservation land is matched by a broad complement of civic uses, including two small farm schools with a digital library, a day clinic, meeting halls and pension pay-points, shops, artist’s residences, recreation facilities, farm facilities, police station, retirement cluster and boutique hotel. Adaptive reuse of existing buildings and structures allows the area to re-emerge and once again participate in the regional economy. Capitalizing on the location and its sizable farm labour force, while using the crossroad of activities to revitalize employment opportunities, this vision helps to organise and increase efficiency at the scale of a small Town in the African hinterland. 

The balance of built and open space at Verkykerskop does more than facilitate pleasant communal living; it integrates human development with sustainable agriculture, energy farms and environmental management in a part of Africa where informal and unplanned communities deplete natural resources and destroy the cultural/natural landscape, all with dramatic regional and national consequences. The plan allows built structures, many of them clustered around courtyards for climatic reasons, as well as fabric between open spaces suggested by the natural and cultural landscape. The master plan sets in motion the essential creation of public opportunities to live, work/farm, learn and play in direct response to the natural cues of the location – land, local vegetation and prominent views. 

The master plan allows for a host of transportation options, from private automobiles and public busses to more common farm tractors, bicycles, push-and-pull carts and horses. Verkykerskop will feature a hierarchy of roads, paths and a livestock route to accommodate this diversity, from feeder vehicle roads to pedestrian corridors between the node and other smaller places of cultural and site significance. One prominent spine/visual axis with green open space will link neighbourhoods with one another and with the natural landscape, facilitating public congregation and social engagement. Best of all, the spine/ visual axis is already achieving success. Private investment has been secured to add recreation facilities such as a gymkhana track, the planting of indigenous trees, and the renewal of existing buildings to enhance commuter movement and activity along this prominent line. The newly established community forum, formed by local leaders, provincial government and stakeholders, has secured the property and development will begin shortly.


Response to Charter Principles

1. This small-scale agricultural Town is a finite place with its own geographical boundary derived from topography, watersheds and farmlands. As a revived centre for the Provincial Government’s Maloti Tourism Route, the small Town has its own “uitspanning” [centre] and natural and farmland edges.

2. The Town is a fundamental economic unit of contemporary tourism and farming. With public policy around physical planning and food security of small Towns being rewritten in South Africa, this settlement sets a planning example and informs policy from the bottom up.

3. At the heart of the Town lies its fragile relationship to its agrarian hinterland, and its natural and cultural landscape. This relationship is strongly environmental, cultural and economic.

4. The development, which partly establishes infill between redundant farmland [brownfield sites], existing buildings with infrastructure, and mapped places of cultural significance, also conserves natural and man-made resources. It further reduces economic investment costs and enhances social fabric, while reclaiming not only redundant farmland but also other unused, abandoned sites.

5. This non-continuous development is organized as a Town with its own edges. It plans to provide a balanced mix of agricultural, civic and commercial jobs as well as mixed-income housing.

6. The development of the Town respects historical patterns of movement, settlement and agricultural activities. Heritage studies revealed the palimpsest of places and spaces of importance; these all inform the layout of the built and open space structure. Current precedents of farming Towns in Ethiopia, East Africa, are used to determine the important relationship between built and un-built [agricultural] land.

7. The Town brings into close proximity a broad spectrum of public and private uses such as private residences, individual and communal farm activities, recreation, and institutional and civic functions. The regional economy is strengthened by the reinvention of commercial and small-scale farming that benefits all people of all incomes. Distribution of affordable housing throughout the Town match local and regional job opportunities, avoid concentrations of rural poverty and sustain social grain through the distribution of income and wealth.

8. The physical organization of the Town supports a framework of transportation alternatives. Transit, pedestrian, bicycle and horse-drawn movement systems maximise mobility throughout the Town while reducing dependence upon the automobile. Tree-covered sidewalks and open spaces are designed to maximise walkability.

9. Revenues from communal agricultural activities are used to retain public services such as schools and policing, but also to cross-subsidise the proposed low-income worker housing still to be built.


Lessons Learned


1. Recycling of Towns, buildings and places. Empty and under-utilised Towns blight urban areas and waste resources. Local people are given the opportunity and the resources to improve their Town environment, particularly its buildings and public spaces.

2. Small Towns as drivers for social and ecological change. In the post-apartheid age, powerful drivers are already at work, transforming Cities beyond recognition. Social transformation in small Towns is slow and could be enabled through better lifestyle choices in these Towns.

3. “Active” Green Belts. Green belts play a vital role in averting urban decline as well as securing food for Cities and Towns. There is a need for a more sophisticated approach to protecting and designing green spaces. Spaces can no longer be seen only as green buffer zones but should also be regarded as places for agricultural production, education and recreation. Guidance is provided on how to protect biodiversity, ensure strong urban green space networks, and strengthen the Town edge.

4. “Smart living” compendium: review of planning regulations. Planning regulations should be reduced to a manual which can be understood by all people. This review of regulations could serve as a best practice manual for urban spaces, buildings and resources. Part of the review process would, of course, be to consider how local standards and guidelines can inform national planning guidelines and regeneration strategies.

5. Smart growth = slow adaptable growth. The aim is to promote adaptability through development that can respond to changing social, technological and economic conditions. This includes the promotion of diversity and choices through a mix of compatible land uses that work together to create viable places that respond to local needs.

6. Strengthening the enabling role of government. The public sector’s role in urban development has changed significantly. Many of the changes concern the retention of urban design knowledge in government. Due to this loss and lack of knowledge, the project shows how public and private partnerships can be seen as valuable opportunities to make use of private sector knowledge and skills, and to transfer these skills back to government.

Client – Verkykerskop Township Development (Pty) Ltd and Verkykerskop Tourism cc.

Consultants – LMV (Pty) Ltd. Town and Regional Planners, MDA Environmental Specialists, Cobus Dreyer Archaeologist, PWA Rheeder Land Surveyors, KMA Consulting Engineers (Pty) Ltd.

Main Designer – Bouwer Serfontein from Gary White and Associates. Other team members from Gary White and Associates: Ahmed Alkayyali, Rikus Engelbrecht, Rudie Botha, Christo van der Westhuizen.

Transect Zone(s): T2 rural.
Status: Groundbreaking
Project or Plan's Scale: Region
Land area (in acres): 104
Total built area (in sq. ft.): 12
Total project cost (in local currency):
Retail area (in sq. ft.):
Office area (in sq. ft.):
Industrial area (in sq. ft.):
Number of hotel units:
Number of residential units (include live/work): 300
Parks & green space (in acres): 46
Project team designers: Bouwer Serfontein from Gary White & Associates
Project team developers: .

Previous site status:

Starting/Ending date of construction/implementation: - 2015