I remember my mother speaking of “guardian angels” when I was a child. Though I became sceptical of their existence as I grew up, those stories stayed with me longer than my religious faith. Somehow I had the feeling someone or something was my guardian. Little did I know, it was sleeping inside.
On a recent trip to Colombia, I met real-life guardians, characters who were the epitome of the word. They “looked after” Bogotá’s Ciclovía, where inspiration for our own Open Streets programme originates. On one hand, in our efforts to emulate some of their tricks in Cape Town, I was curious about the job they carried out. But on the other, it came as a surprise that I started to resonate with that guardian figure on a much deeper level.
The role of a Ciclovía guardian is vast. It ranges from ensuring road closures are in place to guaranteeing the safety of the public. As the programme director put it: “They are the heartbeat of Ciclovía.” No small feat. This comes across in the way they speak about their job but is most telling in the way they engage with the public and with each other. They seem to carry an invisible badge of honour; the type I once imagined guardian angels wore on their wings.
Ciclovía guardians are university students who follow a long application process and arduous training to join the team responsible for a programme that runs like clockwork. My colleague Rebecca, who underwent a full immersion into their programme a few months ago, wrote a full account of their role.
Their deep sense of commitment to the cause, despite long workdays, is worthy of deep respect. Part of me was a little sceptical, though, and I was relieved to hear there was at least one disgruntled former guardian who spelled his criticisms in a blog post and that made me feel a little calmer. The idea of a perfectly trained collective seemed almost autocratic. Notwithstanding, it was evident that most people stuck around because they believed in the idea of streets for people, and that they could contribute to the city. They were not policing, but preserving, and defending something what we all take for granted: public space.
The saying goes that it takes a village to raise a child. I would argue this analogy is also appropriate to our growing cities. It takes a team of guardians to nurture the urban realm. In theory, we need no training to take on the role, and getting everyone to take on the responsibility of being a guardian should come naturally. The reality is we are too involved in our own lives and often forget we are part of a bigger reality. Thus programmes like Open Streets provide a practical way to get involved in the type of action that can help us preserve our streets as shared space.
We may not be angels but there is a guardian inside us all waiting to be awoken. I am convinced that the driving force for the hundreds of young people in Bogotá to join the Ciclovía programme is simple human nature. That same force that has inspired hundreds of other programmes around the world –some of them gathered in Portland, Oregon this week. At the end of the day, we all long for belonging and community, and will do what is necessary to protect what Harry Smith accurately defines as “the essence of our cities”: public space.