Opinionista Judith February 14 December 2015

Sharing public spaces is the best way to bring people together

South African cities, for an array of reasons to do with the past and present have failed to grasp quite how fundamental cities and their development are in creating those spaces for interaction between ordinary people in a society with such high levels of inequality. Sharing public space is the great leveller, after all.

As the climate change summit in Paris wound its way to a close, sustainability is on everyone’s minds. At the heart of creating a sustainable city is naturally dealing with climate change. This week, Johannesburg and Cape Town were recipients of the C40 Awards for their innovation in tackling climate change. Kudos must go to both of these cities for their creative work and leadership on reducing emissions and adaptation. Yet, for those of us who live in either one of these cities, we know that much work still needs to be done to make these cities sustainable in far broader and dynamic ways. Much of that has to do with inclusivity and access and dealing more decisively with South Africa’s stubborn spatial apartheid.

It is useful to ask, what are cities and how do we increase their ability to be agents of social change? They are places in which to live, love, work, thrive and survive. Great cities are able to accommodate diverse forms of expression by those who live in them through art, music, sport, food, literature and graffiti, to name a few. They have a comfortable relationship with those who dissent and with a past that might be haunting.

Cities are places of community and individualism, solitude and togetherness. Community within cities often happen in those public spaces; squares, beachfronts, promenades and parks. Public transport links and joins the dots of community. In London, the city’s parks are its greatest asset, New York has the iconic green lung of Central Park and there is no greater pleasure for an Italian than meeting on a public square – places where life is lived more publicly.

South African cities, for an array of reasons to do with the past and present have failed to grasp quite how fundamental cities and their development are in creating those spaces for interaction between ordinary people in a society with such high levels of inequality. Sharing public space is the great leveller, after all.

Some of the debates around the appropriate use of public space arose during the “Seafront for all” campaign against development on the Sea Point promenade in Cape Town a number of years ago. The Sea Point promenade is probably one of the most diverse public spaces in Cape Town where people of all hues and backgrounds are simply free to be, walk, cycle, play football and interact. It is the place where people of the Cape flock on warm summer days to be chilled by the Atlantic ocean and where its Muslim community gathers for sightings of the moon ahead of Eid celebrations. It remains hard to believe that had the politicians and planners had their way, a large part of the Sea Point promenade would by now have morphed into yet another parking garage and shopping area. Instead, children still play, the runners run and the football teams continue to dribble. Some rather odd public art has found its way onto the promenade but we better be divided by debate on those ‘Ray ban’ sunglasses and seeing across to Robben Island than by yet another concrete eye-sore creating the further atomization of the city.

Given the tooth and nail fight to retain the Sea Point promenade as a true “seafront for all” Capetonians, it is surprising that the City is planning to develop a section of Maiden’s Cove, also on the Atlantic seaboard. Not content to leave the scenic beauty well enough alone, public comment has been sought for the development of a parking garage in this most beautiful of parts. A parking garage naturally one might assume to be a precursor to a mall, shops or some kind of commercial development. Quite what logic there could be in developing such a pristine area remains an unanswered question. Some investigative reporting has prompted a few questions about the relationship between the Mayor of Cape Town, Patricia De Lille and business associates (and it seems, friends) who appear to have some inside track regarding the process of development. While denials by De Lille and the City have sought to put the matter to rest, there is no doubt that the public participation process will be deeply scrutinized, not only by other potential bidders but by citizens themselves who are tired of our coastline being sold off to the highest bidder. That is not, after all, the route to sustainability. Finding the balance between spaces of play, expression and development is key.

That aside, we do need to be asking ourselves what kind of city are we building in which a concrete jungle is preferred over green lungs and open spaces for interaction and simply to ‘be’? One drive along the Garden Route in the Western Cape shows how golf course style development is threatening the environment and our beautiful coastline. Earlier this year when wild fires broke out in Cape Town, one had to wonder what City planners were thinking when approving housing developments in fire-prone areas of the mountain? Our ‘mall culture’ has created a particular lifestyle that has the effect of exclusion and closing off parts of the City to the ‘other’. Given its already skewed spatial development, it would be a pity if Maiden’s Cove were the next victim of poor planning.

The poet, Karen Press, perhaps puts it more eloquently in “Under Construction”, one of a series of poems on the urban landscape, and the kinds of questions we should ask about citizens, community, anonymity and creativity in cities.

test: would Vladimir and Estragon be willing to wait here?
test: would a ball kicked along the road roll backwards?
test: would a bunch of flowers stay alive all the way home?
test: would Charles Baudelaire walk these pavements?
test: how long would a goldfish survive?
test: would Frida Kahlo find enough colours?
test: would the carrots grow straight?
test: would Nawal el Saadawi be able to relax?
test: would a cellist be heard?
test: would Elvis be happy here? Would Fela?

We could ask the same of all our South African cities and find that the answers provide some difficult challenges. The development choices of today affect the sustainability of our cities for decades to come. Future generations may not thank us for failing to overcome the challenges of shaping new cities where everyone feels welcome to work, play, create or be anonymous. DM


Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or if you are already an Insider.


Medupi down because of ‘electrical supply panel burn-out’, say sources

By Ed Stoddard and Marianne Merten