The image of a child drawing on the street with chalk has become symbolic of Open Streets in Cape Town. Examining this scene more deeply reveals that this traditionally hostile space, the domain of cars and heavy motor vehicles, has, for a moment in time, been transformed and made safe. Perceiving this safe space, the child readily discards their fears and embraces this opportunity. They feel free to experiment, express themselves, engage with other children, learn, copy and proudly exhibit their new creations to parents and passers-by. These simple gestures embody the essence and founding principles of Open Streets.
However, for the most part, safe streets and safe places are difficult to come by in South Africa. If we take a moment to observe what our streets are telling us, we will see that the places we are creating exhibit many of the qualities that make our streets unsafe. The trauma of apartheid planning has left us scarred, scared and divided. Our post-apartheid efforts at city-making have exacerbated these conditions with gated developments, exclusionary spaces and large swaths of subsidised housing, where poverty is concentrated. Our streets lack empathy, human presence and positive activity. Rather than bringing us together, our streets are keeping us apart.
Without overtly stating it, safety is the central concern of all Open Streets’ work. Without safety, streets cannot be places for social cohesion, places of cultural expression, spaces that offer us choice in how and when we move, places for recreation or places that facilitate economic exchange. And perhaps, most importantly, in this time we desperately need streets that are safe spaces for healing.
Safety is a loaded word that has material, social and psychological dimensions. Many of the factors that affect our material or physical safety are the result of, or can be addressed through, a combination of behaviour change and design. Road safety, for example, can be dramatically improved by adopting different attitudes towards others and the way we use streets. This can be reinforced through better street design that considers the needs, vulnerabilities and desires of all road users.
The socio-physical aspects of safety – such as crime and perceptions of crime – are far more complex. They are affected by the physical environment, economic factors as well as social behaviour. These conditions can be modified and influenced, but this takes time and requires perseverance and sustained effort on a number of fronts.
Over the past five years, Open Streets has been working to make streets safer on a number of levels. In preparation for all of our Open Streets Days, we have engaged with local partners, street committees and formed local organising committees in planning and organising activities. In some, limited way, we have helped reconnect people and build cohesion around street related issues.
Open Streets Langa and Open Streets Mitchells Plain have been particularly successful in building civic pride and changing perceptions. They also created “safe spaces“ for those across social and racial spectrum to experience the streets and life in parts of the city where they would not ordinarily go.
Open Streets Bellville also opened doors and provided new insights. Bellville CBD has become home to a large immigrant community who, for perhaps the first time, were invited to participate in urban life without fear of persecution and stigmatism. It also provided a view of how Bellville has transformed to become diverse and a multi-cultural quarter that is unique to this part of the city.
Open Streets Main Road, in October 2017, was an ambitious project and, while only a “modest“ 5km long, it created a safe corridor for walking and cycling that hopefully encouraged residents to explore modes other than private motor vehicles for these short trips.
Cape Town needs bolder and more permanent physical change. We need to build better, safer streets to knit communities together and transform our fragmented landscape. Through Street Minds, Open Streets has brought together built-environment professionals from various fields to share their knowledge and experiences around planning, engineering, sociology and street design so that professionals can improve the way we work.
But change should not be left to built-environment professionals or events. As active citizens and participants in the life of the city, we need to take possession of our streets. At the most basic level, we have a collective responsibility to make the streets in front of our homes safer. Not by exclusion, but by looking out for one another. This can be as simple as getting to know our neighbours, ensuring that our boundary walls offer us occasional views of the street so that we can actually see who is using it. Occasionally though, we will need to be brave, put ourselves in harm‘s way and transform spaces and places through our actions. Sometimes the most powerful actions are when we make ourselves vulnerable. This can be as simple as biking or walking to work, to school or the shops. The more we intentionally participate in street life, the safer our streets become.
If only we could more regularly shed our fears and inhibitions as a child does on Open Streets Day.
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