Public Spaces in African cities
By Rashiq Fataar | 2017
What became more clear after the lecture series, 'The Future of Public Space' co-hosted by Future Cape Town and the Urban Design Institute of South Africa (UDISA), is that the future of public space sees a broadening of the public realm. This expansionincludes more actors, mediums and actual spaces, along with a recognition of the fact that qualitative public space is fundamental to achieving social equity, which can only be achieved through flexible, locally engaged, inclusive and integrative approaches to public space.
Public space in South Africa was, and in some instances still remains, a contentious issue due to apartheid spatial planning policies, which denied non-white citizens access to quality public spaces and city centres, places which were reserved only for whites. In addition, township planning and building plans neglected the design of quality public spaces. As a result, many black South Africans experience public spaces in townships, informal settlements and inner cities to be frightening places - dirty, garbage-strewn, exclusionary and unsafe - conditions which still persist in the country today.
What must be realised is that cities that are unwelcoming for some are unwelcoming for all. They perpetuate social divisions and unhealthy social relationships between people. South Africa, with its history of segregation, is in dire need of physical spaces for citizens and communities of different backgrounds to interact. In order to transform the apartheid urban social landscape, urban planning and design must promote spatial, social and economic integration. Cities, beyond buildings, are made of physical and social fabric, of which public spaces are an important part - they build cohesion, develop feelings of belonging and inclusivity and give tangible expression to a more democratic, equitable society.
In light of these considerations, it becomes clear that public spaces within South Africa are very complex; different users have different perceptions of space and usually have different ownership patterns. How are we to begin reimagining how these spaces work and how do we work together to improve them?
These are some of the questions and challenges that Future Cape Town and its partners sought to untangle through a series of events, presentations and discussions called "The Future of Public Space".
The Future of Public Space lecture series in 2016 highlighted the complexity of space and the countless efforts of individuals and groups to create and appropriate the public realm against the backdrop of deepening inequality, fast urbanising cities and increasing socio-economic volatility, and also brought into question the polarity between those responsible for creating and maintaining the public realm and those who are supposed to inhabit it.
This is a particularly important topic in Africa, a complex and diverse nation, for when it comes to public space, one size most certainly does not fit all. As such, we need an approach to public space that is flexible, locally engaged, inclusive and integrative.
The content of the series was summarised into a report, along with the following 10 key findings:
10 Key Ideas
1. Identify new champions for urbanism: There is a need for future champions of public spaces, as well as more equitable approaches to designing public spaces.
2. Incorporate the arts and new technology into public space research and development: We need to engage more deeply with fast-paced global processes that influence the future of cities and public spaces; for example the changing nature of public-private ownership, artificial intelligence and 3D printing. There exists great potential for the public realm to be activated in new ways.
One example covered throughout the series was the Playable City Lagos project, comprised of a number of fun methods to promote engagement between citizens in Lagos’ public spaces. Two examples include a speaking mirror and a taxi-to-taxi phone.
3. Map and understand non-traditional and in-between public spaces that define the broader public realm: People have different perceptions of public space, which makes defining the concept somewhat challenging. Public spaces include streets, sidewalks, markets, train stations and bus stops. We need to gain an understanding of these viable public spaces as part of the public realm, and where they fit into our future definition of public space.
4. Understand the future citizen: We are designing public spaces for future citizens, a large number of whom will be vibrant, young and connected individuals. We need to unpack their identities, their ideas of space and work directly with them if we want public spaces to serve the needs of the community in the future.
5. Big change needs a long term effort: People’s ideas for their public spaces can be realised by powerful citizen-activations that take the form of long-term advocacy movements. Often starting out as small groups with specific concerns or aims, what they would soon discover is that, in actual fact, these concerns/ aims were shared by many others. This served to grow support and collaboration within communities, thereby creating an active citizenry over time
6. Activate the streets and the boardrooms: In many cases, various processes of activism need to be applied to inspire a wider range of individuals. This creates an opportunity for different voices to be heard. Activations do not only occur in the boardroom.
For example Marco Morgan, an urban planner, founded the National Skate Collective which advocates for the rights of skateboarders in public spaces by creating a platform for communicating and sharing information on current policies and new ideas between different role-players. The collective used diverse methods to advocate and lobby for changes to policy, including voluntary activism, occupying different public spaces e.g. the foyer of the Western Cape Government buildings and various boardrooms to inspire and create an opportunity for different voices to be heard all over the city.
7. Work within the law, or change it: Urban actors need to engage with and challenge the constitutional processes, legislations and policies that govern our urban areas and public spaces. While the constitution makes provision for protests in public spaces, it does so only with very strict and somewhat bizarre regulations.
For example, The Constitution states that a gathering of more than 15 people requires a formal application. In certain instances, these regulations need to be actively challenged. For example, the Social Justice Coalition organised marches in more creative ways. In the start of 2016 a protest of 200 activists was divided into groups smaller than 15 members each, as a way to comply with the regulations of the constitution. At another occasion, ‘Reclaim the City’ hosted a dance-a-thon as a form of activism in Long Street. Within the series, this sparked additional conversation and questions regarding the availability of important information, the definition of public space and possibilities for collaboration with the City and different stakeholders.
8. Encourage the private sector to play a role in public space: The private sector should be involved in the development of integrated public spaces, beyond merely their existing and planned developments, so that they contribute meaningfully to public spaces and the urban fabric through community activation. Greater collaboration aimed at crossing the divide between designers and users is needed if we are to build more inclusive, democratic and successful cities.
For example, in 2015 a design competition was launched to reimagine the square in front of Sea Point’s main library, in order to change what public space looks like, how it feels, and how it invites people to act within the context of Sea Point and Cape Town. The competition was launched by Blok and operated by Future Cape Town as part of the Urban Interventions Collaboration. Six entries from private firms were received and the competition was won by Craft of Architecture.
9. Create flexible spaces for diverse businesses: We need to explore and recognise the value and importance of informal spaces and informal markets. The Sustainable Livelihood Foundation’s research in 2015 showed that the number of informal traders grew by 108% since 2011, 46% of which cluster around spaces with public amenities. The scope, scale and spatiality of the informal economy should be examined and understood in a way such that these systems can enhance multi-stakeholder participation process and allow alternative outcomes to be visualised.
Creating flexible spaces for informal businesses was a key finding in our Bellville CBD Report, where we conducted research on the social and cultural identities, realities and opportunities within the Bellville CBD area. The aim was for this research to inform and inspire future placemaking initiatives and activations that would feed into the broader vision for the area, recognising the ongoing development of the identity of the people living in Bellville and the area as a whole.
10. Work with the Government: It is important to recognise the role that the government plays in the design, management and maintenance of urban public spaces and city parks. City departments have a mandate to provide quality public spaces where people can meet, be active, spend their free time in. Within these programmes, more information needs to be made available to increase the possibility for public-private partnerships to be formed.
One example was the Regent Road Parklet, a collaboration between BLOK, Future Cape Town, GAPP Architects and Cameron Barnes, in association with The City of Cape Town’s parklet guidelines (2015). The Parklet aimed to introduce public space into a dense urban area; “the Sea Point parklet is about taking a stand to reclaim and beautify public space along Regent Road for the people using the street” says GAPP Architects, winners of the Blok Parklet competition run in 2015.
What can be said about the future of public space?
The power of public spaces still lies in the opportunity for direct interaction, but the sphere of public action has broadened to now include virtual and digital spaces, including social media platforms.
“The future of public space is a future of the elision of boundaries […] we need more, and better quality, public spaces in which to interact as the virtual world collapses artificial boundaries” – Guy Briggs.
From the conversations, presentations and case studies pulled together from the series, it becomes clear that the notion of public space (as conceived by urban elites) is, if not obsolete, certainly incomplete as a definition. This involves a recognition that public life goes far beyond the formal and the civic, to encompass (especially in South Africa) the informal, the mundane, the banal – whether this be political discourse, cultural engagement or commercial activity.
Many of these principles guide our way of working and the projects which affect the future of cities and their public spaces. A few of these projects include reimagining the public space in Church Square, Cape Town CBD and incorporating arts into our visioning processes via a research programme called Constructing Future Cities. In addition to this, we have a vision to implement an electric car-charging station in Sea Point and also advocate on many of the City of Cape Town’s policies, for example on their Draft Cycling Strategy, along with our other services which aim to improve public life for all.
The future of public space is a future of the creation of partnerships between the city, communities and businesses. It is a future that recognises that functional and qualitative public space is fundamental to achieving social equity and that public space is not simply for recreation but is inherently and vitally multi-functional, best designed by those that will use it – the citizens themselves.
The Future of Public Space report will be released in the coming months. Please visit www.futurecapetown.com
Rashiq Fataar is an urbanist and the director of Our Future Cities (comprised of Future Cape Town and Future Lagos), an influential organisation leading discourse and action related to the future of African cities.
As an independent urbanist, he helps leads research, strategy and communication for urban planning and development projects with a focus on public spaces and urban regeneration. He is also invited as a thought lead on cities, as a writer and speaker and international conferences and conventions. Fataar has previously served on the board of Cape Town Tourism and holds an Actuarial Science degree from the University of Cape Town.