What is the glue holding our cities together? Marcela Guerrero, co-founder and managing director at Open Streets Cape Town, believes that the answer lies in the streets. In an open exchange with others, the initiative is building a network of fellow street enthusiasts in the Global South.
The Glue that Connects Us
When we think of cities and the myriad of challenges they face, we seldom – if ever – think of measuring ‘love and connection.’ However, as a participant in the Open Streets Exchange for African Cities highlighted: these are indeed two of the most crucial elements of city-making. After all, cities are neither the buildings nor the spaces between them, but the people who inhabit them. And, just like bricks making up the edifices surrounding us, individual residents also need to be held together somehow. We like to think that part of that ‘glue’ can be found in our city’s streets.
Open Streets for African Cities
From 22-29 October 2018, Open Streets Cape Town hosted a group of 19 individuals from 11 different African cities. They are involved in initiatives aimed at improving mobility and liveability in their respective places of origin. We crafted a programme around our first Open Streets Day of the season. Open Streets Days are held regularly, they entail the temporary closure of a major road in Cape Town. The goal is to reimagine the role streets play in our city.
Holding the Open Streets Exchange together with an Open Streets Day followed a twofold aim: Firstly, we wanted participants to experience the programme first hand. Furthermore, we wanted to use it as an opportunity for us to share our particular experiences, to explore points of learning and convergence, and to detect possible synergies.
By all accounts, both objectives were met, including a bonus outcome: we became friends. And thus, a formal network of Open Streets for African cities was born. Though we are yet to figure out exactly how it will evolve, it was clear that all participants are committed to continuing the conversations we started.
In my view, the reason for this resolve can be found in the genuine connections that were made. As one of the participants, Constant Cap from Nairobi, reflected afterwards, there was great value in the fact that nobody ‘pretended’ to know the answers and that everyone was open to sharing the challenges, not just the wins.
Working Towards a Vision
The exchange comprised a series of conversations, interactive walks, workshops, bicycle rides, and formal presentations by local city officials, environment professionals, and academics from the Centre for Transport Studies at the University of Cape Town. The idea was to provide a variety of ways of engagement and learning formats. And so, while serious content was shared on issues such as the state of non-motorised transport on the African continent, we placed as much importance on the opportunity to share meals and to paint on the street together.
In fact, it was during those moments that people realised the value of working towards a similar vision for the future. A future where cities are welcoming to people of all ages and abilities, and where the design and policies affecting the day to day life of inhabitants are tailored to embrace, rather than to police or to segregate.
In this vein, hosting this exchange in Cape Town – a city that still suffers the terrible legacy of apartheid planning policies – was particularly poignant. We see how pain runs deep through a society and how difficult it is to overturn the results of decades of separation: not only in the physical space, but in our psyche.
And so, experiencing contrasts were a significant part of the exchange. Cycling on the Sea Point Promenade, one of the most idyllic public spaces the city has to offer, one the one hand – and a visit to Mitchells Plain, where communities are forced to hide behind closed doors because of the real fear of crime and gang violence, on the other hand. Not to mention the significant physical distance between both places, such experiences were a crucial element that enabled our group to reflect, compare, and discuss.
Inspiration Instead of Formulas
During the week, we also discussed external forces such as climate change, technology, and how they are applicable and relevant to the reality of African cities. One thing became very clear: there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach when it comes to mobility and transport. Thus, all the placemaking initiatives, cycling strategies, and road closure plans presented served as inspiration rather than formulas.
As Christopher Kang’ombe (Mayor of Kitwe, Zambia) expressed, each city will need to figure out what’s realistic given the myriad of pressures and social challenges faced by each. Irene Messiba, from the Ministry of Transport in Ghana, pointed out that Open Streets-style programmes can communicate different things to the public depending on how they are created; they be a conduit to promote health, sport, arts, or local economic development.
In this regard, she also underlined that it is crucial that the mobility message is clear: that we have to create an enabling environment for walking, cycling, and other forms of non-motorised transport. Only when we succeed in making this crystal clear, we are truly going to change how people move in our cities.
Cross-Pollination of Ideas
Part of the motivation to host this exchange was to close the gap in documenting good practices regarding public spaces and active mobility (aka non-motorised transport) across African cities. This was only re-affirmed as individuals presented their cities’ programmes on the first day of the exchange.
From the revision of pedestrian infrastructure in Addis Ababa, to the involvement of private sector in the development of the Florida Road project in Durban, there is a plethora of examples and ideas waiting to be disseminated. And although it might sound too obvious: the most likely beneficiaries from such an exercise are cities with similar challenges. And so we came away from the exercise realising that the cross-pollination and exchange amongst cities of the Global South can’t be overestimated.
The week ended with Open Streets Woodstock on 28 October. From 9am to 2pm, one of the central roads of Cape Town was shut down so that residents, visitors, community groups, and other organisations could occupy the space and create a different reality from the day-to-day onslaught of motorised traffic.
The group, led by facilitator Dr Efua Prah, invited to participate in a shared activity: Using chalk, they drew a map of Africa on the street, attracting the attention of passers-by who connected with various parts of the depicted continent. This simple act communicated what we all crave at the very core of our essence as humans: love and connection.
An Obligation to Act
Of course, inspiration is not enough. In fact, one of the participants from Johannesburg, Stefan, shared an anecdote upon returning home, illustrating the frustrating realities we all face. Following the exchange, he had decided to ‘ditch his car’ for a bicycle and public transport to make his daily commute to work – only to find that the transport system does not support this type of change, despite the rhetoric towards the public.
Our transport policies, practice, and cultural frameworks are simply not there yet. There is a clear dissonance between what we preach and how we act. He reiterated how important it was for him to be reminded why we, as leaders in our own communities, have ‘an obligation to act while the system is still catching up with theory
Embarking on that journey to act and to change things from ‘where we are’ is a much better experience when done with others. This is why last week’s exchange demonstrated the power of connecting with others who care about cities – not only because it’s their job, but also because there is something deep inside them that continues to motivate them.
In our experience, organising Open Streets Days in Cape Town has highlighted how critical the connections between people are, and how the process of mobilising people to join the movement for inclusive and sustainable cities never ends.
If there was one crucial campaign, it would be one that helps individuals to find love and connection in their city. Once that is in place, mobilising for change and improvement becomes a much easier exercise, and a fun one too! After last week, I am convinced, more than ever, that we are a global village and that countries in the South have an enormous amount to learn from each other.