Valuable lessons from Public Spaces Case Studies

  • 24 Oct 2023 | by Emma de Villiers | Fixed Africa

Valuable lessons from Public Spaces Case Studies – Blog

The first engagement in the VCP-led Municipal Safety Case Studies project took place on the 31st of August 2023, with presentations and dialogue on three studies of South African multi-agenda public space development projects.

The multi-faceted KwaDukuza urban regeneration project is aligned to a long-term vision for the city and aims to create safe, de-congested, cohesive space in the city centre of KwaDukuza, on the North Coast of KZN.

The Njoli Square Precinct Project aims to transform the busiest interchange of taxi routes to and from, and into Gqeberha, in the Eastern Cape, into a safe, conducive environment for economic activity around a major public transport node.

The Galeshewe Active Box is a small-scale intervention to provide safe, climate friendly premises to women informal traders in the Galeshewe township outside Kimberley, as part of the activity corridor to enhance socio-economic activities and connect Galeshewe with the Kimberley CBD.

While KwaDukuza can speak to localised successes resulting from long-term investment in a bright shared vision for the future, Njoli and Galeshewe both offer insights into the perseverance and incremental approach sometimes required to sustain development in the face of embattled relationships between communities and municipalities, and the complexities of implementing projects funded by third parties.

Some valuable insights emerged from the dialogue that followed the presentations.

Partnership approach

All three of these studies reflect partnership initiatives, where the municipalities acknowledge their limited capacity to achieve sustainable spatial transformation on their own. Community buy-in is of paramount importance and different measures are required at different times to ensure trust and pro-social participation. Political affiliations can disrupt this buy-in and ward councillors have proven a valuable asset in building trust and mutual understanding between communities and officials leading public space projects. Community engagement and participation requires specific and focused attention, one-size-fits-all methodologies will not deliver reliable relationships and in some cases officials should build their capacity to better negotiate the nuances of community participation.

The question of the role of the private sector looms large, how to attract private sector investment? How to demonstrate the value of partnering with the municipality on public space interventions to businesses whose premises intersect with public space and are put at risk where public space management cannot deliver safe, clean, inclusive and conducive spaces. The converse is also true, that the value of private property is also often affected by how well managed an area is.

Partnerships with ward councillors have proved vital to successful community engagement, and these partnerships should be treated with care as ward councillors are political appointments and subject to the exigencies of political processes. Officials suggest promoting a mutually respectful relationship with ward councillors, ensuring that they are central to projects, are well-informed, and can demonstrate their commitment to their constituencies’ needs by leading the transparent dissemination of information in the community. In this way they will not only see the benefit to themselves and their constituencies of participating in the project, but will also be able to supply useful information of processes unfolding in the environments where they operate.

‘You can’t call a community a community, you have to build community’ (Bronwen Jillings, City of Cape Town). This comment is highly suggestive of the link between consultation, activation of space, behaviour change and community cohesion. All of these are reliant on effective and strategic communication, not a capacity with which project officials are often equipped. The communications directorate of the municipality is often seen as marginal to projects, included only when needed for publicity or campaigns, rather than central to an integrated strategy to embed these outcomes into the project from the outset.

In Njoli, where the original project scope was amended significantly aligned to limited resources, the lack of feedback on the reason for the change has resulted in undermined trust in the municipality, and the Local Economic Development team is continually working to restore this trust. The need for feedback, and more than that, true exchange of ideas and power, between community members and project officials is critical. Where trust in local government is already very low, and relationships are often further undermined by insufficiently intense consultation, communication and engagement should be prioritised. Going beyond communication and feedback, suggestions emerged for sharing power to facilitate truly shared ownership of space. This approach is fairly radical in the context of the highly regulated powers of the municipality. It is possible for the municipality to turn a blind eye when the taxi association is enforcing the law using its own extra-legal systems, it may need to be possible to be realistic about what people want for space and how to deliver it.

Suggestions included placing materials in the hands of local users of public space to participate in the maintenance and management of the space (toilet paper, light-bulbs and soap for toilets, for example), or negotiating the rules of access to space to allow for uses expressed as desirable by users (keeping a park open after dark to enable young people to play basketball in the evenings, for example). Other examples of power-sharing included inclusive design processes, allowing community members not merely to give input on the design, but to participate in it, as seen in Galeshewe.

The pro-social use of a space is dependent on collective choices about behaviour, and about community ownership of space. The act of developing public space is itself a community-building exercise, but also reliant on a sense of community cohesion for success. Pop-ups were discussed as a mechanism for activating space. They are opportunities to simultaneously offer messaging promoting the type of behaviour for which the space has been designed (for example, the absence of alcohol from a park, or sensitivity to climate change response requirements) while also gathering input from community members on their needs and vision for a space.

For more insights on community building, join us for the session on the 31st of October 2023, where community leaders will share their experiences and insights in building community cohesion to 

Climate Change

Mbali Mpanza from the Climate Change office of the Local Economic Development directorate at KwaDukuza municipality demonstrated the high degree of alignment between the objectives of climate change and safety units. ‘Both of these are cross-cutting issues, both require behaviour change work and both are linked to a sense of place, to every individual’s accountability for the status of public spaces’. Both of these sets of objectives are often marginalised as separate mandates within the institutional context and both can only be achieved with transversal integration and buy-in in the municipality. Both link to the systemic well-being of communities and are fundamental to sustainable integrated development. Perhaps these are usefully mutually supporting mandates which can together mobilise cross-cutting support within the municipality.

“What can we achieve in 5 years? We cannot change people’s lives in 5 years!”

Siyabonga Khanyile, Executive Director of Community Services at KwaDukuza municipality commented on the need for long-term investment of interventions to transform public space. While there are incremental steps taken along the way, that are all linked to the big picture, it is not feasible to expect to see these steps alone delivering the kind of systemic transformation that many of our municipalities require. The political processes mean that every 5 years it is necessary to sensitise a new council both to the long-term objectives and to the current priorities and projects, so that they will continue to support the long-term process, although they will not be there to see its benefits for their constituents or their careers.

Communities themselves will of course remain beyond the five-year cycle, although they are not static, and they change over time.  If they are brought in as partners in projects and given tools to ensure leadership succession and project sustainability, they can also be relied on to bring continuity over time.

Beyond a consistent approach to including the council, and to ensuring the buy-in of communities, it is also simply necessary to acknowledge that some projects last because their champions in the municipality feel some personal investment in them, are personalities who are tenacious and determined, or people who have the unique trait of long-term commitment and persistence in the face of delays and difficulties. It is then important to the municipality to retain these individuals who can have a significant impact, and strategic for their colleagues to capture their imagination and attention for projects which require institutional support and staying power.

What’s next in the case studies project?

The event at which these case studies were discussed was attended by more than 100 interested practitioners, many of whom participated actively, highly suggestive of the appetite for this type of learning exchange opportunity, and encouraging for the upcoming events, where other themes will be explored. Look out for the engagement on three case studies looking at Data and Safety, how data can be mobilised to improve safety and some contemporary approaches to local data and its role in improving safety outcomes. 

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