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Open Streets: A small start to something big

Victoria Road, Grassy Park

Before last Sunday, 21 October 2012, I’d never been to Grassy Park. There, I said it!

What drew me there was Cape Town’s first Open Streets event, where a stretch of Victoria Road was closed off for people to walk, cycle, play games, and exercise. Besides the health benefits of opening up streets for recreation, the initiative has major potential to confront our socially divided city. I enjoyed cycling out to Grassy Park. Worse than the fact that I’d never been there, I had to look it up on Google Maps to see where I was going. What surprised me was the fact that it only took 20 minutes to cycle there from where I live. The railway lines and large roads that slice up and separate Cape Town really do create false perceptions of distance.

The concept of Open Streets is borrowed from Ciclovía, Bogotá’s weekly closing of roads that started in 1976. Bogotá’s Ciclovia stretches for 120km through the city, with as many as 2 million citizens taking part (30% of the population). Similar events now happen across the world, and it is spreading rapidly.

Cape Town’s first shot at Open Streets was a good start. There were groups of kids on bikes, people playing soccer and cricket, yoga, and dancing. However, it could have been, and can become, something better. To start, it was badly communicated. Even though I knew it was happening, I found it difficult to find details of the event. Of course there was the City of Cape Town’s standard press release on their website, and an all-text camouflaged announcement in the newspaper, but this is something that really needs to be well communicated to draw people there. More powerful than anything will be word of mouth, but before that happens the event needs to be genuinely inviting to a larger group of citizens.

There weren’t all that many people there, which may have been due to a number of things. Above being badly communicated, it was windy and overcast, with rain closer to the mountain. There’s nothing you can do about the weather, but that’s why it is so important that this becomes a regular event. There seems to be interest from the city to make it regular, but nothing is clear yet. It needs to happen at least once a month, if not every week or two. For Open Streets to grow, it needs to be a great experience, and bad weather is not conducive to making it so. If the event is only going to be a special occasion, there’s a greater risk of the weather being bad, further holding back its potential to grow. Just as #moonlightmass has grown from 40 riders in January, to around 2000 riders 8 months later, Open Streets can grow if it occurs regularly enough, allowing people to invite their friends to the next one.

Another factor is the location. Although it is great to have an event in Grassy Park, I really think the most important factor at this stage is to reach a critical mass. To do that it needs to occur in a more accessible and interesting place. Grassy Park is suburban, and suburban streets are by nature uninteresting. Initial plans were for Open Streets to happen in Albert Road in Woodstock. This is a good place to start. If the route started in Albert Road, perhaps stretching up into Long Street, it would solve a number of issues. It would be more accessible to a greater population of the city, both physically and perceptively as a more familiar area. It would be more interesting, with the streets having more character, activity and attractions. A longer route is also needed. The stretch of road closed off in Grassy Park was under 1km. The street may not have been full, but for walking, running, and cycling, 1km is too short. The group of kids riding bikes were casually riding back and forth along the road, and eventually started racing, weaving at speed between other people. It actually became dangerous, but you can’t blame them, as riding along the same stretch of road over and over is incredibly boring.

Once Open Streets starts to attract more people, it can grow incrementally, until it stretches from the City Bowl all the way to Grassy Park. Open Streets can improve, but it needs to be implemented properly. This is a powerful initiative, with the potential to bring people together from all parts of the city to share the simple act of moving and exercising in the same street. Open Streets should not be seen as an event, but rather something that one associates with Cape Town. It could become a ritual, to the point that to live in Cape Town means you spend Sunday mornings walking, cycling, and dancing in the street.

I look forward to that day, and given the growth of  an event like #moonlightmass in less than a year, it may not be that far away.

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Gareth Pearson

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  • OS Activist

    Right on point Gareth! Open Streets is about behaviour change and that only happens when we are exposed to it on regular basis and under ‘conducive’ conditions (i.e. location, activities, etc.) As B. Herron said they should become a “way of living” in Cape Town!

  • capeleopard

    Fascinating critique Gareth. You’re right, comms are crucial. In London we’re working up HD visuals to “sell the vision” to local communities for a series of open streets events next summer. CT is my alt city and I congratulate the organisers on their boldness. Lessons will have been learned and I’m sure the movement will grow and succeed. http://openstreets.org.uk @openstreetsLDN

  • Cape Town

    Thank you for the interesting article Gareth. I agree – interesting comms would have made the event more attractive and increased attendance. Don’t you think though that having an Open Streets event in Albert Road/Long Street would be just more of the same thing? While Long Street has all the necessary elements for a successful event, couldn’t Open Street be used as a mechanism to develop those areas without these factors – as was the case in Grassy Park? As you said, it was this event which made you realise Grassy Park was not that far away. I was in the same boat as you! Let’s get out of the inner city, and experience more of Cape Town through Open Streets.