Maximising public space

With all the positive changes that urbanism brings, cities also face certain risk factors in this process, says Marcela Guerrero Casas, co-founder and managing director of Open Streets Cape Town.

Open Streets, a NPO founded in 2012, was the first formal Open Streets programme in Africa and offers a practical way to help bridge the city’s social and spatial divides. The programme runs events in various parts of the city including Bree Street in the city centre, Bellville in the northern suburbs and most recently, Mitchells Plain on the Cape Flats. The programme works closely with the City of Cape Town, as well as a host of sponsors and partner organisations.

Casas says problems include overdensity, overly high pricing, and the culture of the area changing and losing some of its charm. A city is only as strong as its residents, businesses, and community, and once these become too exclusive due to the these restrictions, that sense of propriety disappears and the area changes.”

But she says a strong urban environment is not only dependent on its diversity and sense of community – actively encouraging the use of democratic public space in a city can play a huge role in achieving a healthy balance.

Other examples of this happening locally, include:

The popular Infecting the City (ITC) festival, a public arts festival that is held annually in the City of Cape Town’s streets and gardens. For a few days every year, ITC transforms the city into an outdoor venue where art is free and accessible to everyone. This creates awareness of the arts and the artists taking part, and brings people together, enhancing community in open city locations that most urban residents seldom otherwise visit.

In Sea Point and the CBD, a handful of innovative businesses are making use of parking bays to create Parklets. A Parklet is described by Future Cape Town, one of the organisations involved in the Sea Point project, as an intervention that occupies car parking bays or large sections of a sidewalk, usually temporarily, and acts as an extension of the public realm.

With two in the CBD and the most recent in Regent Road, Sea Point, these mini urban rest-stops offer anyone that passes by the opportunity to take a seat and relax with no obligation to spend money, and no restrictions to access.

Although the Regent Road parklet has not yet been granted a permanent licence by the city, its Instagram account, @facesoftheparklet, shows the mix of people (on average 50 a day) that visit and use it daily and the contribution it makes to Sea Point’s busy Main Road – in terms of convenience and providing dignified, safe spaces for members of the community a place to sit, browse free wifi, and assemble.

“When we launched the parklet with our strategic partners Future Cape Town, GAPP Architects and Cameron Barnes, we wanted to provoke a conversation around public space; who can manage and participate in creating it, and in doing so redefine the way that people view public spaces in an urban environment,” says Jacques van Embden, co-founder and managing director of Blok, an urban property developer.

“The project has undoubtedly added a vibrancy and much-needed pedestrian attraction to this busy, high-traffic road, and even contributed to the city drafting parklet guidelines in 2015, which previously had not existed, that aims to challenge introducing public space to busy urban areas.

“All of these projects show that the magic truly happens when active citizens work with their cities for the benefit of all groups, and also when the cities recognise the importance of these democratic urban projects and grant the licences, write the guidelines and provide the assistance needed to encourage more organisations and individuals to imagine more of the same,” says van Embden.