Our streets are primarily designed as arteries to accommodate the transport of goods and people, often with little regard for the pedestrian. They are the most vital of our public places, as they are where public life happens, and how they invite walking, shopping, and the presence of people throughout the day, is crucial to the quality of urban life and the success of the urban economy.
By day, the sidewalks of Cape Town’s central city teem with life as citizens make the migration from its sprawling edges. Unfortunately, that is not the case by night. As a primarily commercial district, it does not yet have a sufficient residential base to stay alive after the sun goes down. Long Street’s diversity keeps it humming into the night, but below Wale Street any sort of street life is restricted to a few pockets of activity.
While the central city slowly grows its residential population, how might we increase the operation hours of the city? That is the goal of First Thursdays, the monthly event that sees art galleries and stores keep their doors open until 9pm. Events are particularly effective at creating destinations and inviting people into the city at night, but what differentiates First Thursdays from something like the annual Infecting the City public arts festival, is that it works with existing infrastructure and does not require special programming. It simply entails participants agreeing to keep their doors open, and collectively they attract hundreds of people to walk Cape Town’s streets by night. It is much like the hugely popular Moonlight Mass bicycle ride in this sense.
First Thursdays started in November last year, and has grown tremendously since. It was inspired by the London edition of the event, where there are over 130 participants every month. The area on the harbour side of Cape Town’s Wale street happens to have dozens of galleries and stores within a very walkable area, making it conducive to such an event.
Besides the individual value in experiencing the event, there are multiple ways that First Thursdays benefits the city:
- It gives those who work in the city a reason to stay beyond 5pm, rather than joining the mass exodus back to the suburbs, as they may usually do.
- It introduces a lot of people to the central city and increases the likelihood of them visiting the area more often, whether to shop at a store they visited or eat at a restaurant in the area.
- It gives entrepreneurs reasons to open new galleries and stores in the area.
- It get’s a large new audience into galleries, encouraging more people to appreciate art and the cultural wealth that this city has to offer.
- The fact that the event attracts hundreds of people every month gives young artists the audience to justify organising pop-up exhibitions in empty storefronts.
- It provides a social, stimulating experience in the city that one doesn’t have to pay to take part in.
The ultimate vision for First Thursdays is essentially for it to become redundant. Ideally it will grow into something more regular, perhaps where the entire city knows that everything in the central city is open late every Thursday, and beyond that, a liveable city centre with thousands of residents who can sustain a vibrant night-time economy. It’s almost one year in, so only time will tell.
*The October edition of First Thursdays is this week (3 October 2013). Highlights include a performance on Greenmarket Square by Ethiopian duo Munit & Jorg, a food truck market on Riebeeck Square (at Bree & Shortmarket), and the route stretching all the way to the Fanwalk for the first time with participants like Merchant’s Shebeen, the Gold of Africa Barbier Mueller Museum, and Peruvian restaurant Keenwä. Find out more on Facebook or on the First Thursdays website.
Editor’s Note: First Thursdays is a great way to test the walkability of the city during the day and at night. What if all those taking part shared the good and bad as they were walking between galleries and spaces?