Why activism matters when designing public space

Reposted from the Cape Town Partnership, thanks to them, Future Cape Town and author Craig Adams.

By: | 16 May 2016

Craig Adams reports on a May event honouring Jane Jacobs’ 100th  birthday, during which four active citizens came together to discuss various ways that they are helping to co-create the future of Cape Town.

Marcela Guerrero Casas (Co-founder and Managing Director, Open Streets Cape Town), Hedwig Crooijman-Lemmer (Urban Designer, GAPP Architects and Urban Designers), Marco Morgan (Founder, National Skate Collective and Urban Planner) and Zimkita Booi (Organiser, Ndifuna Ukwazi), all from different backgrounds, came together in a combined effort to demonstrate the role and impact of activism and how methods of protesting have evolved to make a difference in the spaces we live in today.

Open Streets, transform communities

Demonstrating a more subtle form of activism, Marcela highlighted the recent accomplishments of her organisation in Mitchells Plain where residents came out in multitudes to enjoy car-free streets. “Earth is the ultimate public space” Marcela began, “but before we can take ownership of the planet, we first have to take ownership of the streets.” Marcela gave an ‘on the ground’ description of what goes on behind the scenes of an Open Streets event.

Closing a street to traffic is costly and causes a lot of inconvenience. Safety measures need to be put in place and visible policing helps people feel more at ease, none of these things are free.

In spite of the financial constraints, Marcela revealed ambitious plans for Open Streets activations in various locations around the Western Cape. “Incremental changes through experimentation” seems to be a working strategy as Open Streets continues to transform the streets into safe platforms for the exploration of local culture and talent.

Describing the dynamics of more conventional protesting, Dutch-born Hedwig gave a breakdown of the transition of the streets of the Netherlands from smog-filled danger zones to the bicycle friendly streets that Dutch cities are known for today. Pointing out the effectiveness of people-driven initiatives, Hedwig said:

People nowadays take for granted how progressive the streets of the Netherlands are, but it wasn’t always a happy place. Now, there are 1.3 bicycles for every person.

“When people are ‘fed up’, they tend to take matters into their own hands if governments aren’t responsive enough,” she concluded.

Civic-public partnerships really help

Marco, an avid skateboarder, uses non-motorised transport (NMT) to get to work where he helps develop and align infrastructure policies for the Department of Transport and Public Works, Cape Town. Seeing the lack of progress in the city’s plans for developing lanes for NMT he said:

We want to break stereotypes and show people that through strategic partnerships between governments and citizens, change is possible.

“I urge you to dig a little deeper when it comes to your individual rights. Use your streets and enjoy them, but be willing to work with officials in the boardroom to realise the changes you’d like to see,” he concluded, sharing an image of the Premier of Cape Town, Helen Zille, looking joyful with a skateboard in her hand.

The dire demand for affordable homes

Driven by the urgent need for affordable housing in low-income communities, Zimkita focuses on the disparities faced in an unequal Cape Town. “As activists, we risk our livelihoods by chaining ourselves to posts in protest,” she said, “but, by innovatively using the spaces, we are able to engage the community and raise awareness in a way that doesn’t end with arrests.” When questioned by an audience member on how people can be turned into activists, Zimkita answered:

People have shared interests and creatively using what’s already in the spaces makes it easier to bring people together for a cause.

Zimkita mentioned that the South African constitution reserves the right of a citizen to protest under certain conditions and shared her experience of organising a ‘dancathon’ (music rally with the theme of affordable housing) at the ‘Big Red House’ on Long Street and the relative ease with which a permit was granted by the city.

Wrapping up the lecture, Rashiq Fataar of Future Cape Town reiterated the importance of community buy-in. He observed that all four presentations focused on people “and their ability to navigate the restrictions placed on them to implement change.”


This conversation was the second of a three-part lecture series presented by Future Cape Town and the Urban Design Institute of South Africa at the Cape Institute for Architecture.