Future Cape Town hosted its 4th summit on the topic: The long and short of better streets with Open Streets Cape Town. This session was sponsored by 48 Hours and Tsogo Sun, and was hosted at the Southern Sun Cullinan Hotel, Cape Town and comprised a cross-sector panel, of urban planning, design and architecture professionals, city officials, as well as NGOs with an interest in urban issues.
The aim of this summit was to discuss creative ways for Cape Town to manage and design its streets to have a sense of identity and existence apart from their role as simple transport routes. The debate comes in light of a motion by City of Cape Town councillor Dave Bryant to turn a section of Long Street into a pedestrian mall. While prompted by this debate, the Summit itself had a broader focus: creating streets with a better sense of place throughout the city.
As a starting point, there was general agreement that processes to improve streets in the city should be inclusive. However, it was also noted that one of the problems in Cape Town’s centre is that a majority of its population are present in the Cape Town city centre during office hours only, as they commute in for work from the suburbs in the morning, and return in the evening. These vast numbers of commuter-workers are likely to skew engagement process in their favour, as they are likely to have priorities different to those of residents and others using the city after-hours (such as restaurants, clubs and their patrons).
This is problematic, as it means that those who may participate in engagement processes may not actually experience the full consequences (whether positive or negative) of mooted interventions. This was not an idle concern, as many around the table have witnessed projects with potential benefits to wider society being halted by the ‘nimbyism’of a few. At the same time, there was a recognition that projects fail or experience difficulties simply because there is often a sense of complacency amongst the citizenry when it comes to supporting processes that would benefit them.
The point was made that a crucial component of getting activation projects off the ground is the creation of a significant grassroots critical mass of support. There was some disagreement about whether, in activating our streets, the best way forward should be picking the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of streets that already have some momentum behind them, or rather focussing on streets that are currently failing.
Role of Government
The discussion then moved on to the role that local government should play in this process. It is clear that slow public engagement is often compounded by regulatory red tape and a lack of knowledge about processes. It was noted that a clear step is to shift knowledge from authorities to citizenry, a role that Future Cape Town is attempting to fulfil. At the same time, there is a need for local government to make planning processes and other interventions into the city more transparent and accessible to the general populace. It was also noted that particular projects are often led by specific City Departments, meaning that the terms of engagement and objectives might focus on a particular area, instead of more holistically and inter-departmentally. This approach often leads to synergies and benefits being missed.
An associated point was an acknowledgement of the fact that Cape Town suffers from a lack of shared vision on what the city should look like, or whom it should be for. Bringing real change to streets will require significant change to current approaches to development and building practice. This is because alterations to the built environment have a significant effect on the life in the streets surrounding them. For example, buildings are required by law to provide parking bays for their users, thus many of the new buildings in town have parking lots on their first few floors. This has had the unfortunate result of creating blank facades on the lower stories of buildings — creating streets that are stripped of anything that would activate them on a human scale.
Practical Suggestions for Change
As a way forward for improving the street life of the city, the principle of experimentation was discussed. That is, the running of small-scale, low-budget temporary interventions to incrementally test the feasibility of certain actions, with the idea being that they are easy to undo or reverse if they do not work, but if successful, they are able to be scaled up.
The advantage of small, incremental actions is that they are much easier for ordinary citizens to conceptualize, champion and implement. It was also pointed out that citizen-driven interventions are also more likely to receive governmental sanction and support if they align with priorities the City is already attempting to address.
All parties agreed that the inclusivity of stakeholders is to be pursued, but that this must be balanced by a level of pragmatic functionality so that the processes do not become ‘suffocated by democracy’. Again, the small-scale nature of the ‘experiments’ could have the added benefit of acclimatizing parties who would normally wish to preserve the status quo to the change.
It was also noted that it is important that plans be designed in a holistic urban sense, taking into account a context wider than the immediate street. Thus a street parade in Lower Main Road Woodstock, for example, should also seek to make linkages with businesses in the surrounding streets, opening up the potential for synergies and providing benefits to the wider community. At the same time, there is a need to ensure that actions to activate streets are also run in neighbourhoods outside of the Cape Town CBD, especially in areas that do not have access to the same level of resources.
Operation, Maintenance, Monitoring & Evaluation
On a pragmatic note, it was pointed out that it is important that projects need to monitored and their success evaluated, as they proceed. This is a crucial step as it creates a degree of responsiveness into the project, and helps ensure its success and longevity, as well as potential replication in other areas. Furthermore, projects should be entered into with the understanding that they have cost implications beyond the term of the project build — into a future of operation and maintenance, and eventually decommission. Thus, there needs to be a financial understanding of the intervention, how to fund it. If the activity creates a rates base to sustain itself, it is more likely to receive permission to go ahead.
5 Wards, 2 Streets
It was suggested that City councillors be challenged to identify the best and worst streets in five different ward areas in Cape Town. These streets should then be evaluated to see if there are possibilities for running experimental activations on them, and then actions taken to facilitate these projects, whether they are run by the community or city officials. Again, these can be relatively simple, community-driven interventions, such as 100 in 1 day or Ciclovias.