The city where I live colours the experience I have on this planet and it frames my future, not just my present. The lack of opportunities to truly connect with others has swiftly removed my ability to understand this city, and in many ways, this country. Though a foreigner to start with, I thought that with time I would become closer and not further to understanding my “adoptive home” by the type of spaces I inhabit. I am speaking of public spaces, or better put, their dysfunctional state in Cape Town. It is almost as though we are all foreigners.
Yes, there are some strong exceptions to the rule, and I, not unlike many Cape Town residents, fill my lungs with fresh air and joy when I step onto the Sea Point promenade or into the Company’s Garden. It is a refreshing reminder of what the city could be like; people of different backgrounds sharing the same space. But these are mere instants; they are limited, not only by geography but also by design.
A few weeks ago, during a twitter chat aptly entitled #TheCityWeNeed, I was reminded that we can and should expect more from our city. We should not be shy to imagine places where people interact freely and where memories are constantly being made because human interaction that is nurtured and encouraged. The theory is out there and an abundance of ideas exist, not to mention the many individuals and organisations eager and ready to put them into practice. So, how to rally the (citizenry) troops? What will it take to get there? Or at least to get closer to that vision for the future?
I often hear people say that there is no culture of public space in this city — unless of course there is entertainment –which by default takes away individuals’ agency in the space. Ironically, it seems the only places where public life truly thrives is where public space lacks and therefore people occupy the streets. Though the latter is true of not just Cape Town, but all cities where poverty rules; I don’t believe there is a lack of ‘public space culture’. I believe that humans are drawn to each other and, therefore, any gathering opportunity that’s presented to us, we will take; unless of course it’s not safe or welcoming. And I think this is where in Cape Town we can do a lot more to create the type of environment that is likely to attract people, and to create more moments like those we can experience at the Sea Point promenade.
Someone recently asked me what the Cape Town CBD of my dreams would look like in 5 years. First and foremost it is obvious that without people there can’t be vibrant public spaces and the first image that came to mind was a CBD full of people who lived close to their work, school, shops and other amenities. I imagined a network of car-free streets (aka Open Streets) on Sundays, people sitting along the green spaces that separate the two lanes of Adderley Street having lunch on a Tuesday afternoon; buskers at the Cape Town taxi rank, a pianist performing inside the Cape Town train station, musical swings at one of the small alleyways and a whole lot of pedestrians walking confidently and safely throughout the city centre. Admittedly I have borrowed some ideas from images I have seen in other cities or on social media; but the rest I have imagined because I go past these places and it pains me to see how empty or under-utilised they are.
There is an agenda on public space some of which is being addressed by interventions by government and civil society. Nevertheless, creating an enabling culture might require a small dinner-table type of revolution; a naked conversation about the ‘abnormality’ of our city. Perhaps the urgency can be created in our private spaces. By acknowledging what a strange city we live in and by creating the type of outrage that might propel us to take over squares, parks and yes, streets!
It seems the time has come to create, not just demand, a better city. One idea is to start by identifying a park or plaza nearest to your office and next time you bring lunch from home invite a colleague or two and sit out there. Observe others in the space, or at least walking by. Take note of how you feel and if you are inspired, write down a few ideas of how the space can be improved; talk about it with your colleagues, your family, don’t be afraid to dream of a better city. It is said that public spaces are our urban living rooms; and so the logic follows; we should aspire to have a better home!