Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

Changing the way we use public space in Cape Town is vital to the city’s response to Covid-19

Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

The easing of lockdown measures brings issues of personal safety and personal space to the forefront of the public psyche. Cape Town, like so many cities around the world, will face challenges when it comes to public space. From the need to ensure physical distancing, to the limitations in our non-verbal communication curtailed by masks, the way we interact with each other in public might never be the same.

The challenge will be to ensure safety without exclusion. Given Cape Town’s geographic and social fragmentation, safety means being both physically safe from harm and illness, as well as feeling socially and emotionally at ease in a city where many people often feel unwanted or even threatened. 

For example, many people who commute into the city centre on a daily basis share stories of how they are often made to feel unwelcome in their own city. Who is seen to belong, and more importantly, who is seen not to belong, is rooted in historical injustices that could be further exacerbated by the Covid-19 response. Clearly the city’s public spaces present a conundrum: how to achieve inclusive physical distancing in a city deeply divided by race and class. How we choose to harness this moment is likely to determine not only the shape of our epidemiological curve, but also the future shape of our city.

Infrastructural changes to enable physical distancing could also be socially beneficial in the long term. Widening of pavements, additional street ‘furniture’ and signage will serve long-standing needs, as well as make room for Covid-response activities such as testing centres, soup kitchens or community care centres for people affected by the disease. 

Current lockdown restrictions necessitate thinking about neighbourhood level solutions that are possible, and bottom-up public space interventions have demonstrated the power of community-led solutions. While there is an opportunity to support these practical (and arguably more human) responses at the neighbourhood level as part of our Covid-19 response, it is also time to start imagining how public spaces can galvanise practical, community-led social support initiatives in the long term. The opportunity is for renewed thinking about streets as public spaces, and for building on existing urban infrastructure for the public good.

The risk-averse tendency of local government and residents will be one of the many hurdles to overcome. More importantly, the challenges which prevented people from cycling before (affordability, safety and cultural acceptance) will remain untouched unless deliberate projects are undertaken.

For example, in many cities around the world, such as Berlin, Bogota and New York City to name only a few, car-free streets have become a tool to ensure people have enough space to move around and to provide a mobility alternative given the higher likelihood of transmission in public transport. This is most easily achieved in contexts that have historically enjoyed a strong culture of active mobility, such as cycling or walking to work. In these contexts, setting up temporary bicycle lanes, or creating incentives for people to walk instead of using public transport, coupled with the high density and short distances most people have to cover, makes this a relatively simple shift.

In Cape Town, the history of apartheid planning means the distances most people have to cover to get to work are long and cannot realistically be covered on foot or by bicycle. Thus, notwithstanding the fact that 60% of school children and 20% of people walk to school and work respectively, creating an environment that encourages active mobility will not come easily. On one hand, the infrastructural and logistical undertaking of temporarily shutting down streets is expensive and continues to be a once-off, event-based concept to our city. The risk-averse tendency of local government and residents will be one of the many hurdles to overcome. More importantly, the challenges which prevented people from cycling before (affordability, safety and cultural acceptance) will remain untouched unless deliberate projects are undertaken.

Although the dispersed and fragmented nature of the city presents an intractable challenge with respect to the sheer distance people need to cover, the uptake of bicycle delivery services in places like Langa and Soweto, and a Cape Town-based campaign to get bicycles to essential workers, suggests that thinking small and local may present an appropriate solution.

Beyond transport, the use of public space looks different in different parts of the city.  For instance, the last few weeks, with the three-hour window of opportunity to exercise, have highlighted the human desire to use public space. While residents of affluent Sea Point have access to the promenade, in Khayelitsha people have taken to the streets. It has been amazing to watch the N2 highway transform into a usable public space, albeit much more user-unfriendly than the manicured Sea Point promenade. In both places, people running, walking and ‘gymming’ are a familiar scene.

From the overarching requirement to provide handwashing facilities, to the exponential growth in people needing food and shelter, our common spaces will need to adapt to this new human experience.

These examples point to public space in the traditional way: streets for movement, parks for recreation, sidewalks for commerce… but Covid-19 is also shedding light on how this same shared space will need to accommodate emerging needs. From the overarching requirement to provide handwashing facilities, to the exponential growth in people needing food and shelter, our common spaces will need to adapt to this new human experience.

The work of the Cape Town Together Community Action Networks (CANs) – a network of community-led self-organising neighbourhood level groups providing social relief in response to Covid-19 – is already raising new possibilities for the use of public space through a growing number of community kitchens. In Lavender Hill on the Cape Flats, for instance, a field commonly known as ‘the battleground’ has quickly shifted from a place where gang disputes were settled to a safe place for children to get lunch. The Lavender Hill CAN started cooking for kids who no longer get their ‘meal a day’ while the schools are closed, and have transformed this public park from a place of war to a place of possibility, where hundreds of kids come every day and eat lunch together while keeping a safe physical distance apart. The Salt River CAN has worked with corner shops to keep them open and free of Covid-19. Bright spray painted floor demarcations serve as a reminder to shoppers to maintain physical distancing, and as a signal to the entire neighbourhood of the power of simple, space-based interventions. 

Both groups and individuals are realising that the rules and regulations governing how we use public space are human-made, and that, in times of crisis, we might all have to pitch in to change them. 

Nceba Phike from the Gugulethu CAN decided to contact City officials to ask for permission to make 1.5m demarcations on neighbourhood pavements as a reminder to residents to maintain physical distancing while queuing outside a soup kitchen. Surprisingly (given how long these processes usually take), he was granted immediate permission to paint the sidewalks in Gugulethu, as well as in Delft and Khayelitsha. Officials at the Gugulethu community health clinic got wind of his idea and asked him to do the same inside the hospital, in their boardrooms, kitchens, and some consultation rooms.

The Ebola experience in Sierra Leone highlights the importance of community networks and social safety nets. With Covid-19, the value of such fabric being strengthened in a city like Cape Town could not be overstated. In this vein, using public space to provide health and social support to those in need will be essential. Some private property, such as the CTICC, has already been repurposed to serve as facilities for health care.

These intermediate facilities will be needed for the 15%-20% of people with Covid-19 who require hospital care. However, the remaining 80% of people who test positive will need to self-isolate at home while they recover. However, because many people living in informal settlements and low-income neighbourhoods are unable to safely self-isolate, quarantine and isolation facilities have been set up across the city, in some cases through repurposing hotels. 

Imagine what could be possible if we instead repurposed community halls? These could function as neighbourhood level Community Care Centres, just like those set up in Sierra Leone during the Ebola response. These would be a “home away from home” for people with Covid-19, to be cared for by their neighbours. Social support and community kitchens (linked to a vegetable garden) could be provided alongside the supportive care needed during the pandemic, but these neighbourhood hubs could remain a vibrant public space for years to come. Many are asking how we can respond to the current crisis in ways that “build back better”, and transforming public space is surely one of the answers.

Saving lives will be the priority in the coming weeks, but the way we use public space is an essential part of the response. When we picture the future of public space in Cape Town, let’s imagine building a city that prioritises sidewalks over highways, bicycle lanes over parking bays, and public transport over private vehicles. 

By focusing efforts on our collective and public wellbeing, we could be laying the ground for an entirely new way of inhabiting our city. DM/MC

Marcela Guerrero Casas is founder and former Managing Director of Open Streets Cape Town and Dr Leanne Brady is a health activist and public sector doctor. Both are active members of the Cape Town Together Community Action Network.

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