What happens when you block traffic from entering an urban road for a day and turn it over to pedestrians to walk on, skate on, cycle on, sing and dance on? Central Cape Town got a taste of this on Sunday, when the Open Streets initiative turned Bree Street into a rollicking party – just a day after the city’s roads had played host to the riotous celebration of the Cape Minstrels Parade. REBECCA DAVIS checked it out.
Something strange happens when all the cars leave an ordinarily busy road: you start looking at it in a completely different way. Many visitors to Open Streets Bree Street commented that it was almost surreal to see the road’s cycle lanes being used in the manner in which they were intended. Others admitted that beforehand they had hardly noticed that the cycle lanes existed. One said she’d never realised that Bree Street boasted such beautiful trees. Without the cars, it was possible to appraise the street’s ecosystem in a totally fresh manner.
“Cape Town’s streets could be much more than they are.”
That’s the manifesto of Open Streets Cape Town, which lobbies to “actively change the way streets are used, perceived and experienced”. The group believes that Cape Town’s streets should function as far more than mere conduits for motorised traffic – that they can foster a sense of community, play host to good clean fun, and boost local businesses.
Open Streets now happen all over the world, temporarily setting up car-free zones to create a safe public space in which citizens can experience their cities in a new way. The movement originated in Bogotá, Columbia, in the late 1970s. Today Open Streets – or ciclovias, as they call them – take place in Bogotá every Sunday and are frequented by millions of residents.
Cape Town’s Open Streets movement owes its existence to a Columbian – Marcela Guerrero Casas, who has lived in Cape Town for the past four years and is passionate about the idea of opening up the streets of this racially-fractured city in an inclusive and welcoming way. Casas succeeded in persuading the City of Cape Town of the merits of her vision, and since last year, Open Streets Cape Town has been funded by the City.
The event that happened in Cape Town on Sunday is the fourth over the past two years. Two such events have been held in the suburb of Observatory, and one in Langa.
On this occasion they chose Bree Street, Casas told the Daily Maverick, because it is “relatively important but not a major artery”, so the disruption to traffic would not be too intense.
“It has a nice mix of businesses and residents, and it’s long enough – it’s important to us that the street be more than one kilometre long,” Casas said.
The entire of the 1.4km Bree Street stretch was transformed almost unrecognisably by the time the Open Streets event opened to pedestrians on Sunday morning. Parked cars and grumpy motorists made way for a jumping castle for children. Two different forms of yoga classes were on offer, with mats laid out on the side of the road. Young boys grimaced with concentration as they took each other on in a chess game with giant pieces.
A small goal had been set up for games of handball. Couples swing-danced together mid-road, with tango classes in hot demand. Teams of cyclists undertook a scavenger hunt. Material wrapped between trees became the canvas for graffiti, spray cans waiting for would-be artists. Frisbees whizzed overhead.
Down the length and breadth of the street, artists performed: breakdancing, rapping, singing. Skateboarders and rollerbladers continuously looped the street, weaving between pedestrians. People lounged on inflatable couches, or sprawled on patches of grass imported for the day.
Others used the space for more sombre purposes: a group stood in silent solidarity with those killed in the latest Boko Haram attacks, wearing T-shirts saying “I died in Nigeria”. A group of anti-abortion activists struck a slightly incongruous note with the air of the rest of proceedings.
There was no charge for any of this, though most local businesses were open and appeared to be doing a thriving trade.
There were points during the day where the street was packed, though the foot traffic ebbed and flowed. At its peak, Casas said, between seven and eight thousand people were passing down the street. Thirty volunteers kept things flowing smoothly, with 50 marshalls and 15 security staff.
The day’s major expenses were the costs to do with road closures: cones, barriers and the necessary safety team. All the artists and activity providers gave their time for free. The bill for the day came out at around R150,000, Casas said.
One day earlier, Cape Town’s streets had also been thronged with people and music, for the delayed annual Cape Minstrels Parade. Some will say that the two events represented two faces of a polarised city: though the Open Streets event attracted visitors of all races, it was impossible to avoid the impression that many of them were fairly affluent by South Africa’s standards.
“We tried really hard to make people aware that it was a community event – we really want them to be events where everybody feels welcome,” says Casas. The next scheduled Open Streets is taking place in Langa in March.
Casas says that her favourite moments from the day came from hearing the Cape Town Opera perform, shortly after watching an energetic capoeira performance. “That summed up the amazing diversity of talent we have here,” she says.
“We are hoping that people will go home and say: Bree Street looked different…I wonder what could happen in my neighbourhood,” Casas says. DM
- Open Streets website