South African cities are undergoing rapid urbanisation as well as transformations in their health and socio-economic sectors. An estimated 36 million people, or more than sixty-five percent of the country’s population already live in urban areas and the number is increasing rapidly.
Public space is where people of different ethnicity, religion, gender and class meet and is an expression and reflection of society. It can play important roles in transforming society, contributing to safety, wellbeing and sense of community as well as to local economic development.
In South Africa, the challenge and potential of public space to make a positive contribution has historical dimensions. During apartheid the equal right of all citizens to access quality public spaces was denied to the majority, non-white South Africans. Spatial segregation enforced limited, discriminatory access to city centres and designated certain areas for majority citizens. In the planning and building of townships, quality public space was an insignificant factor, if not altogether neglected. For many black South Africans during apartheid, open spaces in townships, informal settlements and inner cities were often frightening places - dirty, garbage-strewn and unsafe. Sadly, this remains the case in many settlements.
In the present day, the potential of public space that is vibrant, inclusive and accessible however is often not realised, as little attention is paid to public space in policy and legal frameworks.
While individual local governments are testing and innovating good practices, little is being shared to support others to replicate them. Increasingly, public spaces are being privatized or reduced to single use spaces. Another challenge is the scarcity of home-grown visions and localized ideas on how to develop public spaces that live up to their social function. Instead, solutions are imported often from the global north and frequently real estate developers also have a negative impact on community life.
New challenges also reinforce existing and historical ones. In response to the Covid-19 crisis, South Africa has had one of the strictest lockdowns worldwide, restricting movements significantly and citizens were only allowed to leave home for essential services like shopping and doctors’ visits. Public Spaces are abandoned areas during this time. However, social inequality and the imbalance of opportunities remain apparent - maybe more than ever before. While the privileged live in big houses with gardens, ample green space and often with live-in domestic staff, the poor majority share small spaces with dozens of others. In the lockdown, it was not uncommon that multiple families find themselves in a small single house or even a room; with nowhere to go and social distancing near impossible.
Without preserving, expanding, and enhancing the quality of public space, cities will continue to be overcrowded concrete jungles jeopardizing community life and the well-being of individuals. This is more apparent in the current COVID-19 crisis, which has brought across the need for social distancing among other public health priorities in public space.
It is for that reason that the Urban Safety Reference Group (USRG) from the South African Cities Network, with the support of the Inclusive Violence and Crime Prevention Programme of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit, developed a platform to voice different perspectives which analysed the need for public space and how to positively influence decision makers around equal access to quality public space in a way that responds to the range of South African realities.
The outcome is a widely discussed and consulted Urban Brief on Safety and Public Space which is designed to distil the knowledge for a policy and planning audience. It includes key discussion points on the need of quality public space, provides with key messages from experts and current, promising practices. The brief discusses key issues to do with integrating practice with policy and intents to respond to the current pandemic with lessons for informality and crisis management and provides clear recommendations for policy directions on public space and urban safety.