Marcela Guerrero Casas
Marcela Guerrero Casas

Mitchells Plain: Making the road as we walk

“Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.” Antonio Machado

My dad, though still sceptical of social media, has increasingly warmed up to Facebook and recently left a comment on my timeline referencing Machado’s poem (above). He said: “It seems you and your friends … are making up ‘the road’ as you go.” This was in response to an invitation I had posted for a “walk and talk” in Mitchells Plain.

Machado’s words echoed throughout my early years on this planet. That life is what you make of it and that you can be the architect of your own path is the type of notion that can set any adolescent in motion. The poem, which also became a popular song, is something I still sing when I’m feeling low. It is a bit of a self pep-talk you could say. Of course, I am now older and wiser – or perhaps just more cynical – so I no longer hear it as a romantic depiction of one’s journey on earth. In fact, I’ve come to think that the road was completed a long time ago, that it is circumstantial and predetermined, and that all we are doing is clearing out the branches that have fallen on it.

Be that as it may, I find my dad’s words very powerful at this moment in my life: The organisation I help run, Open Streets Cape Town, has engaged with local government in rolling out a programme of temporary car-free streets (or Open Streets Days) with the aim of challenging how we think about mobility in the urban realm. To date, we have successfully tested the concept in four different areas of Cape Town – Bellville, Langa, Observatory/Salt River and the CBD). The next stop is Mitchells Plain and last week’s walk and talk was the first step in the planning process for the upcoming Open Streets Day in Merrydale Avenue on April 3.

Mitchells Plain. (Photo by Alex Ramsey)

Mitchells Plain. (Photo by Alex Ramsey)

Creating a network of car-free streets in Cape Town is like building a road for the first time. On one hand, the concept, though simple, is still foreign to most people. On the other, the layout of the city, which during apartheid very deliberately kept people apart, makes it virtually impossible to connect certain areas of the city using its streets.

When we first organised Open Streets in Langa in 2015, a group of cyclists rode there by taking the many detours that were required to avoid getting onto a highway – normally the easiest way to travel to Langa from the Cape Town CBD. Similarly, getting to Mitchells Plain by bicycle will not be a straightforward matter. In this case, in addition to highways being the most common way to travel, the number of barriers preventing people from traveling there at all (let alone by bicycle) are many. They range from safety concerns to physical distance and the cultural disconnect that exists in this city. Most people who do not live in the area show apprehension and even scepticism in the roll out of Open Streets in Mitchells Plain.

Clearly, the road to Mitchells Plain will have to be made as we walk (and cycle), philosophically and physically. The process started months ago with presentations to local government, and continues this week as our team knocks on every door along Merrydale Avenue to explain the concept of Open Streets, hear people’s suggestions and concerns and get them to take part in the planning of a day that celebrates community and public space.

This road is not unique. It is the “road” needed to connect with many other parts of Cape Town. It is a road we must make as we walk, as we talk, and as we question our perceptions of who we are and what constitutes our “community”. In Cape Town, though distance and other spatial barriers do indeed keep us apart, it is our attitudes and beliefs that most successfully maintain the status quo. Getting on a bicycle and riding down what used to be known as Lansdowne Road with a bunch of other people might not be revolutionary, not even much of a physical challenge (the total distance is 26km), but it will be a concrete way to make inroads into one of the biggest challenges this city faces, human connection, by using one of its existing assets: its streets.

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