Princess Vlei Restoration Project for the Greater Princess Vlei Conservation Area, Cape Town, South Africa

Princess Vlei showing an area before and after restoration (pic: Alex Landsowne
Map showing condition of the vegetation around Princess Vlei
Serruria foeniculacea successfully planted on site (Pic Alex Landsowne)
School learners planting out restoration areas (Pic: Bridget Pitt)
Community members participate in planting (pic Bridget Pitt)
Children write their names on sticks next to plants they have planted to encourage their sense of pride in the project (pic Bridget Pitt)


The Princess Vlei Restoration Project takes place in the Greater Princess Vlei Conservation Area (GPVCA), a wetland in Cape Town, South Africa.

The GPVCA is located in a low income area, disadvantaged by apartheid spatial planning. Racially discriminatory policies led to the area being neglected by authorities, resulting in the degradation of its ecological integrity. A proposal by the City of Cape Town (COCT) to build a shopping mall on site was defeated by community protest action, which included planting fynbos.

The Princess Vlei Forum now works with the COCT to manage the site. The Forum has initiated a five-year restoration project to rehabilitate and restore three vegetation types: Cape Lowlands Freshwater Wetlands (endangered), Cape Flats Dune Strandveld (endangered) and Cape Flats Sand Fynbos (critically endangered). This will enable the conservation of fauna and flora existing on site, reintroduce threatened species that are locally extinct, inspire a new generation of conservationists through practical environmental education, and foster long term community custodianship.  The goal of phase one is to restore 12 hectares. In the first year we have mapped the site, created a restoration plan and doubled the area under active restoration through planting events involving local community members.

Quick Facts

Geographic Region:

Country or Territory:
South Africa


Freshwater Ponds & Lakes, Other/Mixed, Freshwater Wetlands

Area being restored:
12 Hectares in Phase One. The whole site is 96,3 Hectares (including the water body)

Project Lead:
Princess Vlei Forum

Organization Type:
NGO / Nonprofit Organization

Project Partners:
Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW) Kirstenbosch Garden Conservation Programme City of Cape Town Biodiversity Management Department Cape Town Environmental Education Trust (CTEET) Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa WESSA

Project Stage:

Start Date:

End Date:
2024 - 01

Primary Causes of Degradation

Agriculture & Livestock, Contamination (biological, chemical, physical or radiological), Dams & Hydrology, Fragmentation, Invasive Species (native or non-native pests, pathogens or plants), Urbanization, Transportation & Industry

Degradation Description

A habitat condition assessment conducted by the restoration team has established that 80,6% is near natural or degraded and 18% is highly transformed;

Before urban development, the area was used for flower cultivation and as grazing for livestock. Encroaching urban development fragmented the site and isolated it from other systems, and led to interference in the hydrological system, such as canalization of the rivers feeding the vleis; flushing the canals using chemicals; industrial pollutants; sewage leakage; and dredging of the main water body.

In the 1960’s the surrounding areas were declared ‘coloured’ under the apartheid government’s Group Areas Act, and people were forcibly removed there from areas that had been declared white. Princess Vlei was one of the few natural recreational areas that was accessible to people of colour. Because it was not a ‘white recreational area’, it was neglected by the authorities, leading to a degradation of the natural systems on site. This led to a negative feedback loop, which persisted post-apartheid, due to other priorities by the City. For 20 years, the COCT was entertaining a proposal to build a shopping mall there, and did not invest in the area, despite the fact that it was found to have biodiversity value and was declared a biodiversity conservation area in 2012. Fortunately, it is highly valued by local communities for it’s heritage and nature values, and has benefited from community efforts to conserve and restore the vegetation, and the communities sustained and ultimately successful opposition to the mall.

The consequences of this neglect have resulted in secondary causes for degradation such as alien invasive plants; dumping; sand minding; vagrancy and littering.

The degradation of the fynbos has had a detrimental effect in a number of ways has resulted in a low fuel load, leading to inability for fire – this is a problem as fire is a an ecosystem driver for fynbos. Secondary impacts include loss of plant diversity and faunal diversity; erosion and alien invasion.

Defining the Reference Ecosystem

The reference ecosystem is based on diverse sources of information (e.g. multiple extant reference sites, field indicators, historical records, predictive data).

Reference Ecosystem Description

The nearest reference sites used to set our restoration goal were divided into the two main the vegetation types found at the Greater Princess Vlei Conservation Area. A North-South sequence of Cape Flats Sand Fynbos conservation areas where studied: Rondebosch Common, Kenilworth Racecourse, Meadowridge Common, and Lower Tokai conservation areas. A concentration of Cape Flats Dune Strandveld conservation areas are towards the South West were studied: Rondevlei, Zeekoevlei and Zandvlei conservation areas. Matching these habitats, with historical botanical records of Princess Vlei pre-transformation, we were able to fine-scale target which communities should be restored to which niche area.

Where applicable, the above sites will be used for seed collection to restore Princess Vlei with structural and composition elements to the habitat.

Further, GPVCA has mostly, critical ecotonal habitat between Cape Flats Sand Fynbos and Cape Flats Dune Strandveld. The most useful reference habitat can be found at Rondevlei Nature Reserve, South East of the GPVCA. Rondevlei has a unique community of both fynbos and strandveld plants. a small section of Rondevlei Nature Reserve has the most similar ecotonal habitat, and thus it is the main reference site. It is home to the only population of the critically endangered proteaceae, the Rondevlei Spiderhead (Serruria foeniculacea). The test planting of this species on site has been incredibly successful. There are high hopes for its introduction, as well as the Extinct in the Wild Erica verticillata, which has been restored there too.

To the North, Kenilworth Racecourse Conservation Area (KRCA) is the most intact reference ecosystem comparable to Princess Vlei’s Fynbos habitats. It is home to various site endemic species, such as Erica margaritacea and Erica verticillata– both of which could be introduced to the GPVCA. To the West are Meadowridge Common, which is highly degraded, and the Lower Tokai Conservation Area, which has undergone extensive active restoration. To the South Zandvlei Estuary has useful reference habitat of Cape Flats Dune Strandveld habitat.

The Northern parts of the conservation area will be restored to Cape Flats Sand Fynbos, whilst the southern parts will be restored to Cape Flats Dune Strandveld. Ecotonal habitat will be restored in between, based on community plant lists observed at Rondevlei conservation area. There are many degraded open spaces to the north and south of the conservation area that have fragments of biodiversity. Whilst these remnant ecosystems are not viable long term conservation areas, the plant biodiversity found there can be used to rehabilitate and restore Princess Vlei. Where possible, degraded areas within 5kms of the Greater Princess Vlei Conservation Area will be rescued from development and translocated to restore the Princess Vlei habitat.

Project Goals

These are the primary goals:

  • Restore ideal ecological functions and ecosystem drivers across habitat types, and controlled eradicate invasive species.
  • Restore 12 hectares of threatened habitat types (in phase one)
  • Implement long term measures for managing anthropogenic use of the GPVCA.
  • Secure species on site with critically low populations.
  • Implement reintroductions of locally extinct species.
  • Restore ecological infrastructure on a landscape level, so that it becomes a community asset and attracts custodianship by government and community structures
  • Improve capacity for custodianship by involving community members and school learners in planting and monitoring the progress of the plants.
  • To secure long term protection of the site from negative development and degradation by strengthening its status as a provincial heritage site, and ensuring the local authorities fulfil their legal obligations to manage it as a biodiversity site


Monitoring Details:
Yes – using a modified Whitaker plot; Bi-annual monitoring of each node should occur during autumn and spring. This should be complimented with an annual repeat photography exercise, taken diagonally across the node from the North West corner to the South East corner. Depending on the restoration goal, there are up to four key variables which should be tracked during monitoring: 1. Demographic monitoring of target or indicator species. 2. Vegetation cover and structural composition. 3. Alien invasive plant species recovery and removal. 4. Quantity of plants or seeds actively restored.

Start date, including baseline data collection:
2018 -07

End Date:
2024 - 01


Local community:

The Princess Vlei Forum keeps the local community informed of the project  through community meetings and workshops; a regular newsletter; community conservation events such as clean ups, guided walks and planting.

City of Cape Town: The manager employed by the Princess Vlei Forum works closely with City personnel on a daily basis; The PVF has regular scheduled meetings with CoCT officials and ward councilor to discuss aspects of the project.

Local environmental educational  groups and schools: the PVF involves schools and local educators in regular educational events at Princess Vlei.

Scientific conservation community: Members of this community or kept informed through regular meetings, and the participation of the Princess Vlei Forum in conferences such as the Fynbos Forum and National Wetlands Indaba.

How this project eliminated existing threats to the ecosystem:
3 Stars: We are in the ‘secure habitat condition’ phase of the restoration project. We have put in measures to stop and mitigate threats to habitat, and it’s recovery. Areas undergoing immediate restoration, and good condition habitats at risk of damage, have been marked-off. Signage has been erected, and barriers put in place to stop illegal dumping of waste as well as illegal sand mining. All species of alien invasive plants, terrestrial through to aquatic, are being dealt with by species specific management protocols that are being currently implemented. 

How this project reinstated appropriate physical conditions (e.g. hydrology, substrate)",:
3 Stars: The water body on site has been dredged and the shoreline scarified, creating extensive reed beds. Erosion from too frequent fires has flattened sections of the undulating wetland habitat. Work has begun to deal with the shoreline of the waterbody, and reedbeds are now being managed holistically. Terrestrial habitats are in good condition, with the soil profile largely intact. There are low levels of root biomass due to historical devegatation. This will be dealt with whenever a new node is restored.

How this project achieved a desirable species composition:
3 Stars: The habitat condition assessment designed for Cape Town lowlands has mapped areas of species richness. Secondarily, plant species in low population numbers have been flagged during the complimentary plant species atlas on site. The ongoing seed banking will ensure areas restored by reseeding will have a representative community composition. Species in critically low population numbers are being propagated at our restoration facility for ‘bulking up’. Many species that historically occurred on site have become locally extinct. All areas that undergo active restoration will have an element of reintroduction. 22 threatened species have been selected for reintroduction, as flagship species for the project.

How this project reinstated structural diversity (e.g. strata, faunal food webs, spatial habitat diversity):
2 Stars: The habitat condition assessment delineates habitat condition areas based on ecosystem structure. All proteoid overstory species, characteristic of the habitat types found on site, have gone locally extinct. 

How this project recovered ecosystem functionality (e.g. nutrient cycling, plant-animal interactions, normal stressors):
The Restoration areas trialed between 2014-2018 have shown significant outward recruitment of many structural elements of the vegetation type. Two plots have gone from 0% to 80% cover in five years. Firebreaks are being maintained to ensure a proper fire regime is established. In the good condition remnants of habitat, alien invasive plants continue to be removed, to ensure the outward recruitment and passive recovery where possible. Improved reedbed management has led to increased leopard toad breeding sites.

How this project reestablished external exchanges with the surrounding landscape (e.g. migration, gene flow, hydrology):
2 Stars: All the inlets that recharge the two water bodies are canalised. The ‘Source to Sea’ project is in it’s final planning phase and The Princess Vlei Conservation Area has been highlighted as a receptor area for decanalaisation and stream bank restoration. This will improve the connectivity between conservation areas that fall on the various rivers between source to sea. Many species that can move between sites already use the waterbodies as stopping points. The continued terrestrial restoration will encourage terrestrial bird vifauna to visit and breed site. 

Activities were undertaken to address any socio-economic aspects of the project:
The Princess Vlei Forum has an active program to actively involve the community in all aspects of the restoration project. We work closely with school teachers to enable the site to be used in case studies and practical work. We involved school learners in planting, clean ups, alien clearance, and monitoring of species. We have a strong social media presence on Facebook and in our blog posts, and circulated regular newsletters and notices to a database of over 1000 subscribers.

Ecological Outcomes Achieved

Eliminate existing threats to the ecosystem:
Areas prone to external pollution and risk (dumping, sand mining, etc) have been identified and demarcated with signage and physical barriers. A regular routine has been established to monitor the site for litter. Reinstate appropriate physical conditions The shoreline of the water body and reed beds will be sculpted to a more natural bank when areas are rehabilitated. When terrestrial habitats have been cleared, the mildly undulating sands of the habitat have been restored. This has allowed niche communities to establish within the habitat

Reinstate appropriate physical conditions",:
The shoreline of the water body and reed beds will be sculpted to a more natural bank when areas are rehabilitated. When terrestrial habitats have been cleared, the mildly undulating sands of the habitat have been restored. This has allowed niche communities to establish within the habitat.

Achieve a desirable species composition:
Three overstory wetland species have been reintroduced in the 2019 restoration plots. Since the restoration project (2019), plant communities have been restored on hydrological bands, as well as across them. We have done a test planting of of the Extinct in the Wild Erica verticillata.

Reinstate structural diversity:
Low habitat condition areas that also have few aliens have been identified and reseeded with ephemeral, annual species. This has helped the passive recovery of many areas and set a bedrock for more sophisticated restoration in future.

Recover ecosystem functionality:
Fire breaks have been designed, and will be cut this spring, ahead of the fire season. This will allow us to exclude wildfires from areas not ready to burn.

Reestablish external exchanges with the surrounding landscape:
The conservation area is part of the Western Leopard Toad project. Every spring volunteers assist toads cross roads through the conservation area, as they migrate to their breeding ponds. This has been effective at securing migrating populations of this threatened amphibian.

Factors limiting recovery of the ecosystem:
We do not have the resources to implement landscape scale restoration at the desired size due to resource limitations. Restoration will thus operation on a smaller, modular basis across site

Socio-Economic & Community Outcomes Achieved

Economic vitality and local livelihoods:
The project has generated income generating work through the government's Expanded Public Works Project, providing short term contracts for a number of employees in alien and littering clearance; and preparing ground for planting. The Princess Vlei Forum has employed a full time site manager and a part time consultant on the project, and is lobbying the CoCT to create a full time post to manage the biodiversity on the site effectively. The CoCT contracts the services of a security company to assist with managing security on the site.

Cultural dimensions such as recreational, aesthetic and/or spiritual:
The Princess Vlei provides a critical green lung and natural recreational area, which has already been greatly enhanced by the restoration work to date. The Forum is currently engaged in a process to declare the area a provincial heritage site – the heritage values have been enhanced by restoration work. The site has strong cultural and spiritual value for indigenous groups of Khoe descent, and is used for water immersion baptism by a number of churches. It provides an outdoor classroom for local school children, and a rare opportunity for them to learn about and enjoy nature. Its value as a green recreational site in a highly urbanised low income community has been greatly enhanced already by the restoration efforts.

Regulation of climate, floods, disease, erosion, water quality, etc.:
The project ensures the ongoing monitoring of water quality, and clearing the alien growth on the water assists with maintaining freshwater ecosystems; the shoreline maintenance stops erosion; Revegetation enables the area to be used as a carbon sink, and increased ecological function enhances its function as a green lung. Restoration work helps to ensure that the area will be conserved and not paved over in housing or commercial development. The wetland assists in flood prevention.

Has the project had any negative consequences for surrounding communities or given rise to new socio-economic or political challenges?:

Key Lessons Learned

The project has demonstrated the value and necessity of a ‘whole society’ approach, involving government; NGO’s; the Private Sector; community members and experts/specialists. We have established a conservation and restoration committee for all stakeholders and partners to give input to restoration project.  This will not only guide the project, but also help to ensure that it stays on track.

This integrated approach has helped to ensure that for example the City’s maintenance operations such as clearing water hyacinth or mowing are done to minimize ecosystem processes such as leopard toad breeding.


Long-Term Management

After the initial five year phase we will enter a new five year phase to extend the restoration area to other parts of the site. In the long term, we are lobbying the CoCT to employ a full term manager – this has been supported by the local City Councillor; CREW will be deployed to take on long term monitoring and surveying; All data will feed into SANBI’s redlist and conservation planning database as well as the CoCT’s Biodiversity Network. There is a management plan and legally binding agreement in place to ensure that the CoCT manages the site as a biodiversity conservation site, and the Princess Vlei Forum is committed to monitoring and ensuring that this happens

Sources and Amounts of Funding

Funding has been provided by the Hans Hoheisen Charitable Trust managed by Nedbank Private Wealth, and small scale funding by the Table Mountain Fund;

Approximately R400 000 has been invested so far in salaries, plants and transportation fees. It is difficult to calculate the cost per unit restored as we are early in the process, and the funds support other processes as well.

Other Resources

Related Research

Yes – Endangered Western leopard Toad project; Plant demographic monitoring CREW monitoring

Primary Contact

Alex Lansdowne

Princess Vlei Forum

Cape Town

Western Cape

Organizational Contact