Public spaces are at the heart of the social life of any city and have a socialization function. Cape Town needs to tap into the power of public spaces to allow and nurture organic social interactions. A more creative use and approach to public spaces is needed. Streets, as the largest sub-utilised urban asset that connects all neighborhoods and areas within cities, offer a powerful transformative tool in this direction.
Public space is defined through its physical, social and political dimensions:
Tangible spaces such as streets, parks and squares
Spaces where democratic freedom is exercised through gatherings and mobilizations
Public spaces as sites of social contact where strangers interact and communities gather
Critical to the psychological health of any community is access to recreational spaces where people can interact with each other in positive ways and have open air safe spaces.
This is particularly important for those living in over-crowded homes. For these people, public spaces are a pressure valve that enables them to cope with the stresses of social and economic hardships in densely populated environments.
As citizens and social researchers in this field we have reflected on two central requirements for transforming public spaces; namely the impact of temporary interventions through social programming, and the importance of community ownership of public spaces.
The power of temporary interventions: The Open Streets movement
Public spaces, when strategically used, offer a platform where new social relations are likely to emerge and be reinforced.
Open Streets, a simple, yet powerful programme provides some insights into how more relational and human-centered urban approaches could enhance social connectivity through a better use of streets. The Open Streets manifesto invites building shared places that embody respect for all and help bridge the social and spatial divides of the city.
Their flagship program is The Open Streets days. These are street corridors of about 1 to 5 kms of planned and spontaneous recreational and artistic activities.
This temporary urban space created on the street through the participation of diverse stakeholders is mainly shaped through community meetings with local residents (but is open to everyone).
The team engages local partners and street committees; and also forms local organising committees for planning activities and creating a safe shared community space for locals and visitors. Individual agency is encouraged through the process and comes into being through free activities, spontaneous acts on the day, and improvised small street businesses.
When streets become people-centered and not car-dominated, local communities are given the central stage.
No other public space currently in Cape Town offers the diversity and social mingling created in this social spaces.
Temporary, but far reaching interventions such as Open Streets days offer a powerful tool for crafting permanent spaces of change. We need to utilize existing urban infrastructure differently and think beyond the physical dimensions of urban infrastructure.
Community ownership of the processes leading to their creation is essential for these physical spaces to be truly socially functional.
Urban Upgrading in the absence of meaningful community engagement
The Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) intervention has made an important contribution to infrastructure development in Khayelitsha. The social outcomes of some of these interventions highlight the centrality of community ownership to harness the potential of public spaces.
Ethnographic work conducted between 2014 and 2015 in some of these areas indicated a very weak community ownership and a sub-optimal utilization of some of the upgraded spaces. Research findings point to a lack of Social Engineering.
Simply put, this phenomenon refers to infrastructure development which is not influenced by and does not take into cognisance the ideas, feelings and sentiments of those expected to use the infrastructure.
This is a form of alienating the community from the material that was set out to help him/her in the first place.
- Involving residents in the design of these spaces.
- Giving them responsibilities to look after these areas.
- Providing opportunities (social or economic) for residents to actively use the space.
Community participation is the involvement of the community in decision-making, planning, and encouraging partnerships. This helps to develop community projects which satisfy community needs, build public support, and foster a sense of cohesiveness within society.
The key issue about community participation is that it embeds the community with a sense of ownership of the projects.
In the research conducted, the use of the developed public spaces often deviated from their original purpose. For instance, in Khayelitsha, a developed park which was purposefully named “Peace Park” became an epicentre of robberies and crimes as gangs and robbers took ownership of the space.
It was revealed that the process of community participation was not done in the manner in which the community hoped it would be. This resulted in a sense of alienation from residents of the surrounding areas who retreated from the space and sub-optimal measures to make this a human-centered and community inviting space.
By contrast, located in the same vicinity another small park tells a very different story. Here, a locally rooted NGO (Grassroot Soccer) activates the infrastructure through organized sports and social activities in a manner that fosters a sense of ownership.
By tapping into the playful and energetic nature of youngsters and using some basic recreational infrastructure (a soccer turf) it channels youth agency in positive ways, bringing temporary life and joy to the space in such a powerful way that it lingers in the air even after the sessions are finished.
This successful approach does not underestimate the value of community participation nor of Social Engineering. It signals clearly that more can be done to better use public spaces in informal settlings.
The value of having a sense of community ownership in this impoverished area cannot be denied. The lively spirit on the space was a result of the open door policy of the NGO. Community members were allowed to just come to the park get a ball and play soccer; a simple but powerful act. It created a sense of safety since in this township the playful presence of people tended to make people feel safer.
There were other social gains such as the networking and social bonding opportunities for youth (boys and girls) created through play. This was reportedly not only healthy but in itself a protective mechanism to cope with crime and violence. Find out more about the project here.
South African cities need to invest in public spaces that are truly co-created through social engineering processes. These need to be grounded in quality community participation processes which begin at the conception of the project, carries on when the project is handed over, and continues in different ways to ensure ownership and positive social activation of these spaces.
Approaches and initiatives should propose alternative uses of public spaces and urban infrastructure as places ‘to be’ and not only to ‘pass by’, potentially maximizing their capacity as sites for community socialization.
For either infrastructure investments (such as VPUU) or temporary interventions (such as Open Streets) partners are key to bring the physical spaces to life through recreational programming and community inclusive approaches.
Locally rooted social activation through healthy recreational activities is more significant to foster experiences of positive social interaction than the infrastructure itself.
At the policy and planning level, the re-shaping of public spaces should be framed under urbanistic approaches that value the relational and social dimensions of public spaces such as social urbanism; a development approach that emerged in the city of Medellìn, Colombia between 2003 and 2007.
This is done by investing heavily and mindfully on socio-cultural infrastructure which includes tangibles such as parks and libraries and social programming in the form of recreational and cultural activities.
The result: permanent or temporary public spaces that help to forge a sense of community and spaces for social interactions and economic opportunities.