Siphelele Ngobese: «If cities work for the most vulnerable, they can work for everyone»

By  | 2023

«I would like cities to be safe, places where everybody can reap the benefits of living in a city.» This sentiment is shared by Siphelele Ngobese, Senior Researcher in the Inclusive Cities Programme at the South African Cities Network, when discussing her urban ideal. Significantly, she comprehends the intricate connections between social vulnerabilities and urban safety. As the coordinator of the South African Cities Urban Safety Reference Group, she leads efforts to analyze the urban dynamics of crime and violence in South Africa, advocating for holistic safety promotion approaches in the cities of this nation situated at the southern tip of the continent.

In this new CitiesToBe interview (available in both video and text), our focus turns to South Africa as we, alongside Siphelele, explore the path towards more inclusive and safe cities for all and delve into the lessons that cities in her country can offer, serving as inspiration on a global scale.

— What is a city for you?

A city is about people. It’s about all the opportunities we can all harness to better our lives and to access better livelihoods. It’s where life is lived, and it’s where we all go to realize our best potential. That’s what cities are to me.

— What challenges are cities facing today?

I think, from an inclusivity perspective, firstly, it’s about inclusive cities. Can cities include everyone? Can they be places where everyone can meet their best potential? Can they be places where everyone is safe? Safety, for me, is one of those critical components that is also a developmental question. So, if a city is not safe, it cannot meet its objectives in terms of the responsibility of cities. Beyond just the mechanical delivery of basic services, cities are also drivers of sustainable development. One of the key issues is the role of cities in driving inclusive growth and sustainable development. Can they take everyone along? That’s one major issue.

Secondly, I would think in terms of the inclusion of more vulnerable groups. Are cities for women? Do cities work for women? Do they work for children? Do they work for people with disabilities? Just as examples of some of the vulnerabilities that play out in the urban setting. In my view, if cities work for the most vulnerable in our societies, then they can be cities that work for everyone. That’s the second thing about getting cities to a position where they work for the most vulnerable. And I think that’s something that applies to cities globally. Some, however, are performing better. I find the city of Barcelona to be doing great, for example, by engaging with public space. It’s a city that has been very intentional about the inclusion of people from all walks of life, walkability, efficient public transport, and all of that stuff. These investments and public goods are not just infrastructure for the sake of infrastructure, but they are really things that are there to help people unlock better and more sustainable livelihoods.

The third thing, which I think is a challenge for many cities at the global level, is how to efficiently and better manage and handle migration. It’s a global phenomenon; people are always moving around, trying to find better opportunities and make better lives for themselves. But with the way that migration is happening, seemingly at a much more rapid rate than before, it’s not likely to stop; it’s only likely to continue. Cities must find ways to better manage migration for the betterment of all humanity and for the better livelihoods of all people.

Streets of Pretoria, executive capital of the Republic of South Africa. Image by Rachel Martin on Unsplash.

— Within that frame, how are South African cities promoting more inclusive and safe environments?

In the South African context, our president recently mentioned gender-based violence as the second pandemic in our country. That was in the context of COVID-19, where it exposed and revealed the real challenge of gender-based violence. Around the globe, many governments declared states on lockdown. In our context, and I’m sure in many other contexts, victims of abuse, regardless of gender, found themselves confined in place with their abusers. It’s not something that only began during COVID-19, of course, but it highlighted and made much more apparent the gravity of the challenge and the situation. So, I would say that’s one of the key challenges in a South African context, and I think cities are critical to that. As the level of government closest to the people, closest to communities, and closest to households, they have a critical role to play in shifting the situation and changing the tide of gender-based violence.

In what particular ways do cities have a role to play in our context? Our data suggests that public space is one of the key areas or key sites where violence is most likely to take place, particularly violence against women and children. So, cities, municipalities as custodians of space, have a critical role to play there. How do they make public spaces, such as pavements, parkings, parks, and open public spaces, safer? What interventions do they put in place? As we understand again from our research, space is a key site that can either enable and encourage violence and crime or disable violence and crime. Because cities are custodians of space, I think they are a key player and a key actor in intervening in one of the key sites where violence happens.

— Could you highlight some good practices from South African cities going toward that direction?

From our urban safety reference group perspective, one of the key examples for me of cities actually intervening in those particular areas is around the co-design of parks with children, which the City of Johannesburg has tested and done in a park called N Street North Park in the city’s core. They used Minecraft to engage children as co-designers of the park space, speaking to their needs and suggesting what would make the space more welcoming, efficient, and functional.

Another very positive and good practice coming out of South African cities is, again, what the City of Johannesburg is doing in partnership with UN-Habitat and various other partners called ‘the Her City initiative’. In a public space setting, going back to what I was saying about public spaces being the key sites of violence and the key areas of intervention for cities, the city is doing quite a lot of instrumental work to make city spaces safer for women. They’ve come up with a toolkit and a how-to guide on how they can make cities safer for women.

The city of eThekwini has implemented holistic projects to prevent homelessness. Image by Weyland Swart | Unsplash.

There are a range of other initiatives that cities are involved with that are really impressive. For example, the City of eThekwini, otherwise known as Durban, has a particularly interesting intervention and initiative around homelessness. It’s very holistic, not just about policing but also about skills training, potential job placement, training homeless persons living in parks as co-managers of parks, and also training them in terms of skills development around recycling and environmental sustainability. This was particularly important during COVID-19 when lockdowns were enforced by governments, and cities found themselves having to confront the issue of homelessness. They came together as a city to engage with this issue. The Public Safety Department saw it as important to work with other departments, realizing that the issue of homelessness is a social development issue, an economic development issue, and also a health issue in terms of substance abuse. Bringing all these functions together and working together is an example of how cities responded so well, partnered, and worked together in really unique and never-before-seen ways. There have been such positive outcomes from that as well.

📣 «If cities work for the most vulnerable, they can work for everyone.» #CitiesToBe by @Anteverti interviews Siphelele Ngobese, Senior Researcher on #InclusiveCities at @SACitiesNetwork 👇🏽 Clic para tuitear

— What are the main improvements you expect cities to achieve in the next 10 years?

For me, my aspirations for cities include being more inclusive, particularly for women and children. I have a particular passion for the inclusion of children in our cities. How do we plan our city spaces not only to accommodate children but to involve them in the planning and design process? I spoke about public space as a key site that we need to intervene in to make the situation better. I think it’s one of the key areas for the inclusion of children, especially in the co-design of parks and pavements. If we were to plan our cities for the smallest of our citizens, I believe they would function better for everyone. How do we make city spaces, pavements, park spaces, and public transport more accessible, attractive, and inclusive for smaller individuals, children? That’s one thing I would want to see, with planners being more conscious and intentional about including children. There are many different ways in which we can do that, and there are already many great examples of cities doing such work.

Another thing I would like to see by 2030 revolves around the common goals we all share. We talk about the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda, and what these pieces of global policy aspire to in terms of inclusive, productive, safe, and livable cities. I also hope for economies in cities that are more inclusive. I’d like to see cities enabling people from all walks of life to reap the benefits of living in cities and to enjoy the urban dividend.

Interview, text and edition by Sergio García i Rodríguez,
Head of Communication at Anteverti & CitiesToBe Executive Editor, and Tatiane Martins, Senior Consultant at Anteverti.

Video by Eloy Calvo

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About the authors

Senior Researcher at South African Cities Network | + posts

Siphelele Ngobese is a Senior Researcher in the Inclusive Cities Programme of the South African Cities Network (SACN). Her work encompasses city crime indicators, gender-based violence prevention, safer public spaces, smart cities, and community engagement, among other themes. She also oversees the SACN’s work on Youth and City Space; while also involved in global policy, contributing to the drafting and implementation of the UN System-wide Guidelines on Safer Cities and Human Settlements.

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