"Our streets must become democratic spaces!"

  • 27 Jan 2015

"Our streets must become democratic spaces!" – Blog

"We need to ‘de-privatise’ public space and bring back public street life." Initiatives such as Open Streets promote the pedestrian use of urban centres - here on Bree Street in Cape Town, 18 Jan 2015

"We need to ‘de-privatise’ public space and bring back public street life." Initiatives such as Open Streets promote the pedestrian use of urban centres - here on Bree Street in Cape Town, 18 Jan 2015

Luyanda Mpahlwa, born in 1958, is a Cape Town based architect and director of DesignSpaceAfrica, an architecture and design firm he founded in 2009. Luyanda was one of the first black students to be allowed to study architecture in South Africa. After serving a five-year prison term on Robben Island for his anti-apartheid activism, he went to exile in Berlin where he finished his studies and worked as an architect before returning to South Africa in 2000. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Science and Technology from the Walter Sisulu University for his contribution and critical thought on innovative technologies and design for social change.

In this interview, Luyanda speaks about urban development in Cape Town and Johannesburg, the need for integrated urban transformation in townships, and why we must revive public street culture to make urban spaces in South Africa safer. 

Interview: Daniel Brumund


You live and work in Cape Town. To many people Cape Town feels different from other cities in the country – they enjoy its inner-city vibe and feel safe strolling around. Yet Cape Town repeatedly surpasses Johannesburg when it comes to murders per capita. Of course the vast majority of murders and other violent crimes take place in the townships sprawling across the Cape Flats, out of sight for the more affluent inner-city dwellers.

As a local and an architect, how do you relate to these contrasting realities in Cape Town?

I am not quite sure who compiles these crime statistics. Are the ‘urban conditions’ and areas of the study comparable?

For example, the inner city of Cape Town may be safer than Johannesburg due to the fact that the Cape Town urban fabric has remained ‘largely intact and protected’ despite the post 1994 changes. The urban fabric in Johannesburg, on the other hand, started its decay prior to 1994, when white capital took a flight to the suburbs such as Sandton or Melrose Arch.

Downtown Johannesburg was then left with absentee landlords, and that’s when issues of a collapse in the urban fabric and its dilapidation crept in. The consequence was the collapse of law and order, and public safety became compromised. Today downtown Johannesburg seems to be recovering from these negative urban conditions. Inner-city Cape Town did not experience the same decay.

At the same time, the biggest township Soweto has undergone a major transformation in terms of urban upgrading and clean-up efforts. The township has seen major investments due to its prominence and ‘world fame’! There are museums, heritage sites and tourism is booming due to the prominence of high profile leaders who resided there such as Nobel Prize laureates Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and other political figures like the Sisulus, Tokyo Sexwale or Hector Peterson of the 1976 Soweto uprising.

“Urban development has been driven by political imperatives rather than an urban development agenda which is geared at urban transformation!”
Johannesburg is an economic hub which attracts people from all over, including other African countries in search of economic opportunity. Therefore Soweto residents had to become ‘entrepreneurial’. This way they have been able to survive the Apartheid economic onslaught. They have since ‘moved on and up’ the economic ladder by taking ownership of their own destiny and economic development. They have asserted themselves in the City of Johannesburg, seizing all available opportunities.

It must be noted however, that Soweto has also attracted ‘other entrepreneurs from elsewhere’ and this becomes another source of conflict with local residents from time to time. Townships, therefore, become contested spaces for economic opportunities and this leads to violence.

Although the sprawl of Gauteng townships has also multiplied in the last twenty years, it is very difficult to compare this with the Cape Flats. Completely different urban conditions apply in the Cape Town townships and these have largely remained unchanged since 1994. This is a major difference between these two cities and hardly comparable.Yet, the contestation for economic opportunities remains the same in all townships

However, despite these realities and the post-1994 changes, South African townships will remain the ‘sources of violent and petty crimes’ for some time to come due to the density of these areas, inadequate economic opportunities and lack of social and public infrastructure. The majority of the economically deprived population in South Africa reside in these areas and this will not change any time soon.

It was urban development during the apartheid era that enforced spatial segregation and created the townships in the Cape Flats. Twenty years into the new South Africa, they are still largely detached from the rest of the city. Why has urban development so far failed to transform these disadvantaged areas into safer, well integrated parts of Cape Town?

An affordable and dignified low-cost housing solution: A Design Indaba project led by Luyanda in Freedom Park, Cape Town
In my opinion, urban development has been driven by political imperatives rather than an urban development agenda which is geared at urban transformation!  My observations are based on the following:

  • The demographics of these townships have not changed since 1994. They are still largely black residential areas which lack economic opportunities, public infrastructure and social amenities.
  • The density of these areas in terms of population numbers makes it almost impossible to police and maintain law and order.
  • The increase in urban sprawl and informal settlements makes policing a worse nightmare and public safety remains compromised.
  • The focus on providing large quantities of state-subsidised low cost urban housing rather than creating integrated environments does not contribute to urban transformation.
  • Townships offer disproportionately more residential opportunities than economic opportunities. As a result townships continue to be deprived of a viable tax base which would assist in funding urban upgrading. Thus they remain ‘dormitory towns’ for sleeping only. These places should be integrated into areas to live, work and play.
  • Townships remain unsafe areas for investments, situated far from places of work and mainstream economic activity. The only meaningful investments are made in building shopping malls. These, however,  promote unproductive economic activity.
  • The white population of South Africa still does not engage with townships. In fact, these are ‘no go areas’ only visited by tourists, and largely supported by NGOs.
  • Urban transformation and upgrading in townships has been delegated to NGOs and international donors. The state only provides ‘low quality housing’ on a massive scale, while public infrastructure like schools, clinics etc do not meet the needs of the densely populated areas.
  • The standard of education and technical knowledge remains very low in townships. There is an inadequate development of skills to assist the unemployed to find economic opportunities.
  • Townships are located very far from work opportunities. The lack of public transport infrastructure condemns these areas to ever growing poverty. Salaries are spent on unsafe public transport and mini-buses. Admittedly, the recent provision of Rea Vaya buses in Johannesburg and MyCiti Bus in Cape Town will help improve these conditions. However the contestation with the Taxi industry, make public transport a fragile industry, often experiencing violent conflict.


In South African cities that are particularly affected by violence, public space is viewed and experienced by many as being out of control and dangerous. It is dominated by fences, walls, gates, private guards, cameras and other defensive security features. Thus the city becomes exclusive rather than inclusive. Public life withdraws into the interiority of the private realm (homes, malls, gated enclaves etc.) and public space is abandoned. Research shows that people from every third household in South Africa avoid going to public spaces or parks for fear of crime in their area.

How do you see the impact of safety concerns on the social fabric of our cities?

In South Africa, public space has long been privatised. Real public space is seen as dangerous and only meant for the poor. What we need is a change of mind-set towards a better understanding of public space.

On the one hand, shopping malls have taken precedent for urban development and have become new urban/public commercial centres. On the other hand, the street culture has been destroyed! Public areas and pavements in malls are occupied by restaurants. Streets and roads in suburbs and townships are planned without pavements or bike paths. Parks are not maintained properly and perceived as ‘unsafe’ because they are occupied by the homeless and marginalised. As a result, many parks have now been fenced in and cannot be used.

Urban planning professionals have to put pressure on city authorities to promote public space and develop integrated, accessible and safe urban centres. We need to‘de-privatise’ public space and bring back public street life.

As an urban designer, how important are considerations related to safety in your work? What are your ideas for designing and managing urban spaces where people feel safe?

Neglected public space in Johannesburg: "The public must be educated regarding the value and respect of public space."
There are various considerations for creating safer spaces. It starts with changing urban development policies to create integrated environments and make public spaces the centre of urban environments.

Some good examples have been realised in the Newtown Precinct and recently the Maboneng Art Precinct  both in Johannesburg. The Green Point precinct around the Cape Town Stadium has seen a major upgrade which was part of the 2010 World Cup. Wealthy Green Point residents were against this development, highlighting that ‘it will bring noise and inappropriate patrons to the area’ but the City insisted due to the pressure of the World Cup.

Green Point is still a predominantly white inner-city neighbourhood, but this is a start. We need the same approach in other areas including the townships. The old stereotypes must be changed and integration must be promoted and supported at all costs to improve urban quality of life.

“We need safe and well equipped play areas that promote creativity and urban culture.”
Newtown precinct in Johannesburg, however, has very little residential opportunities in close proximity and therefore lacks the urban vibrancy of a 'world city'. It is important that South African cities increase residential opportunities. This will contribute in making safer urban spaces.

The public must be educated regarding the value and respect of public space. This means that maintenance and cleanliness as well as consciousness about waste collection and separation must be promoted.

Public spaces must be pedestrianized to exclude cars and focus on non-motorised transport, e.g. bikes. We need safe and well equipped play areas that promote creativity and urban culture, including recreational areas such as skate board parks.

Finally, drivers must be educated to understand that streets are public environments and cars must respect pedestrians. Our streets must become democratic spaces!


What is your vision for South Africa's cities 15 years from now? 

I hope to see truly integrated city and township environments with vibrant public street life, parks and safer urban spaces and environments. Safer streets and an efficient public transport system, which is supported by a network of buses, taxis and other forms of non-motorised transport including transportation of bicycles from areas located far from workplaces.

Our schools should become centres of promoting environmental awareness and citizens who value and respect public spaces. There should be more affordable residential opportunities in the inner cities.

Luyanda, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview!


DesignSpaceAfrica is a Cape Town-based firm providing architecture and design solutions for sustainable buildings, creative interiors and transformative urban spaces.

For more information visit their website: http://www.designspaceafrica.com/

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