“the disconnect between planner, resident and municipality, in which large-scale urban planning and development is mostly executed without cognisance of the people who will live in those spaces”
Young people of Port Elizabeth/Nelson Mandela Bay are begin to connect and start a dialogue about the city they want to live in.
by Lauren Coetzee
A few months ago a hundred-strong group of young Port Elizabethans gathered at the Athenaeum in Central, for the city’s first YOUNGURBANISTSmeeting. A historic building and national monument situated on the corner of Castle Hill and Belmont Terrace, the Athenaeum is not your typical art gallery. It has reinvented itself as a community hub for emerging creatives in Nelson Mandela Bay and surrounds. Set in the heart of the ‘old city,’ the Athenaeum sets out to be a tangible example of a reimagined, multi-use urban space – a fitting location for a Young Urbanists event.
The local hosts included local creatives, Rifqah Luzita Naidoo , a postgrad student in ecofeminism and cultural studies who is a champion of all things sustainable living, and Kelsey Blignaut , an architecture graduate and former intern at Future Cape Town.
In their opening remarks, Rifqah and Kelsey talked about their reasons for wanting to get a local chapter of YOUNG URBANISTS off the ground. Kelsey discussed the pervasive (worldwide) issue of the disconnect between planner, resident and municipality, in which large-scale urban planning and development is mostly executed without cognisance of the people who will live in those spaces. She explained that “if we desire to make meaningful change, we have to think about how our cities will actually be lived in.” Rifqah discussed our right (and our duty) as active citizens in “taking ownership and accountability for these spaces because we form an experiential relationship with our city, whether we are aware of it or not.”
Having been challenged by our hosts to focus on city spaces and what it means to be an active citizen, the first guest speaker of the evening was resident of the by turns notorious and nostalgic ‘heart-of-the-city’, Central, MA in Literature graduate and blogger [http://www.myhumblepie.co.za/], Jocelyn Terri Fryer. The ferocious reader entertained us with a piece aptly titled, “My so called bad neighbourhood” in reference to common misconceptions of our inner city neighbourhoods in particular. Otherwise only recognised for its scandalous decay, Central is reframed in Jocelyn’s talk as a vibrant and dynamic living space, no less safe than any other. While at times its streets may be more littered than those of affluent suburbs, this should not blind onlookers to the thriving sense of urban vitality that this neighbourhood has to offer.
Our second speaker for the evening was Oyama Vanto, project leader in Development and Infrastructure for the Mandela Bay Development Agency (MBDA). Charming and informative, he introduced the audience to the MBDA’s goals of reversing urban decay and attracting people and businesses back into the inner city, and to its current projects: the resurrection of Zola Nqiri Square, the development of Vuyisile Mini Square and the extension of Route 67. Oyama’s passion for the democratization for city spaces resonated clearly in his talk, and he called out for a safer city for our women and children as the starting point in enabling a more inclusive city.
In the interval that followed, the audience were invited to share their vision for the future of our city, and to record it on a piece of paper and placed into a box. During one of the many conversations that evening, one young female was asked for her vision for the city was. She simply said, “I know what I don’t want to see in Central…I don’t want another Richmond Hill,” instigating a discussion of the features of this popular local neighbourhood.
Pre-2010, Richmond Hill was an area designated to promote tourism and citizen re-interest. It boasted architectural appeal and a centralized locality. Over the past decade, the booming foodie capital of PE has contributed positively to an influx of economic growth within the private sector. However, since the inception of the Richmond Hill project, it has carried with it the potential pitfalls of gentrification: the outpricing of a diverse group of neighbourhood locals as developers and ‘visionaries’ move in, while boasting a bustling restaurant strip that attracts a not-so-diverse demographic of patrons and whose options are lacking in local flavour: the haunt of those privileged enough to enjoy an occasional gourmet dinner with the accompanying bottle of wine, or those who prefer their beer microbrewed while discussing the best beard moisturizer. I was compelled to agree with Jocelyn; I did not envision this for my future city either.
Revitalised by these discussions, the final speaker for the night was an architect with a keen eye for up-cycling solutions in design, Kevin Kimwelle [http://www.the-soapbox.co.za/issue-21/2015/6/20/agents-of-change]. Brilliant in his quest for realising change through innovative architectural design, Kevin has done amazing work in the most rural, undeveloped and neglected communities. He described to us his experience in re-envisioning a children’s creche in the very rural and under-resourced Joe Slovo township, where the team used innovative design to build a pre-school out of recycled wine bottles and wooden pallets. His presentation was inspiring and poignant, a story of hope in our country.
The evening concluded with a Q & A session, during which the young urbanists in attendance voiced their ideas and their concerns, calling for clear objectives through which we could move Nelson Mandela Bay forward as a model for future cities. One issue in particular was to identify the many pockets of multidisciplinary communities in our cities, with the hope of promoting synergy and fostering a participatory environment.
While inside the vision box, many fresh and dynamic ideas spoke to the sort of change we envision as we look at our city through the lens of a young urbanist. One suggestion was for “an efficient, integrative, multimodal transport system, connecting disengaged suburbs and relieving the roads of cars”; another called for “more mixed-use developments that brings home, work and play environments together”, and yet another imagined an urban forest filled with indigenous plants.
Grand visions in place, the attendees now need to reflect on the ways that they can begin to take steps towards making such visions a reality, and dwell on the question of how, as young urbanists of PE, we can collectively propel a momentum shift and foster a culture of pride in our city.
Learn more about the Young Urbanists here
- Why young urbanists made their own city plan for Helsinki
- Young Urbanists Film Night: Apartheid propaganda planning fims
- From Accra to Cape Town: A conversation with urbanist Victoria Okoye