Long Street a chance for an exciting creative exercise
When we plan for the future we must ask what this space can do for for whole of Cape Town, writeRory andRashiq
REAT design always starts with a great question. The trick, as Thomas Heatherwick, a UK designer who has worked on everything from the London Olympic cauldron to an entire district in Shanghai, puts it, is finding the right question.
To manage the design process, clients create artificial boundaries based on jurisdiction, purpose or budget, and tell the designers to work within those confines.
Good designers try their best to ignore those boundaries, but it can be a challenge. “I am interested in ideas, at whatever scale. Every project has every scale within it,” says Heatherwick.
When it comes to planning the future of Long Street, the starting point cannot be “how do we pedestrianise this space?” but rather “what can this space do for Cape Town?”
Even that is not likely to be the key question that will spark great design. There is no homogenous community to say what they want, only different people who have conflicting hopes and fears about what change might bring.
Residents, businesses, club patrons, street traders, drug dealers, taxi drivers and prostitutes will all be jostling to ensure they have a future in this place of opportunity.
How will the design and management of the space ensure not that every activity is accommodated, but that the desirable ones fall naturally into place so that it is safe and welcoming and simply a great street? And how do we define that?
Long Street is a place where religious communities have had a home for more than 100 years, where fashion entrepreneurs take a bold leap in opening a store, where government buildings, restaurants and, most importantly, people are stitched into a complex, unique and diverse urban fabric.
We need to ask about the relationship between the street and the people who use it, and how they feel when they are there. Because ultimately a street like this is nothing if people don’t feel attracted to it.
While it is important to rethink the structure of the street as part of a conversation about its future, it is necessary that this forms part of a city-wide focus, on rethinking the role of our streets and how they can be improved to create a better life for citizens across the city.
We cannot focus only on Long Street while turning a blind eye to
Gstreets leading to the Philippi train station, or the potholed pedestrian route towards the Mfuleni Taxi Rank, or the potential to create High Streets in Langa and the Athlone CBD.
When we are imagining the future of Long Street, considering options for this future and then implementing improvements, the process must become an entry point for a conversation and focus on the broader role of the design of our streets in improving lives.
Future Cape Town, as a platform for the re-imagination of our city by its citizens, believes that a significant investment in innovation is needed for engaging the public, such that the process itself becomes a legacy for involving people more generally in defining the future of Cape Town, whether in the central city, Philippi, Mfuleni or Bellville.
The organisation has begun encouraging input from the public and processing this into themes for Long Street that can help in formulating the design questions and answers.
Open Streets Cape Town, an organisation promoting a culture of civic involvement through new temporary and permanent uses for streets as public assets, has also begun small-scale experiments to explore how people respond to conditions on Long Street and elsewhere across the city.
Innovative thinking is essential for overcoming perceived irreconcilable differences, and turning them into opportunities. The different viewpoints can be a stimulus. Public participation can be the vehicle for expanding the range of possibilities, but not if we stick to asking “stakeholders” what they think of a proposal.
The innovation must be in the process itself, not just the design. If we are creative enough, we may
WITH ENOUGH CREATIVITY WE MAY FIND THAT LITTLE IS NEEDED IN REDESIGNING THE STREET
just find that little is needed by way of redesigning the street, and that new management practices and ways of supporting positive private initiatives will be the key elements of a strategy.
That is not as simple as it sounds, of course, but it may be the only way to ensure that the solution is one that business owners, residents and others will be able to embrace. Ethan Kent from the US Project for Public Spaces, who visited Cape Town this year, wrote that management is vital, and “spaces need to be designed in a way that supports management – not the other way around”.
Through the placemaking process, governments can set places up to self-manage, and even self-govern, by creating a culture of engagement in the community that supports a given space.
He went on: “Cities are not going to compete with each other by developing and/or designing better physical infrastructure, but by creating the places, and governance of those places, that attract everyone to help them further develop.”
Long Street is an opportunity, then, not only to support the city’s policies for promoting a safer environment for pedestrians, cyclists and other forms of non-motorised transport, but also to test more inclusive and productive forms of public engagement.
Our respective organisations will continue to support engagement with other bodies and organisations, including the City of Cape Town, to further the debate around the ways that streets can contribute to civic life in Cape Town.
But the great thing is that we can start right now with designing and testing ideas to create a cascade of ideas.
And lots of small-scale initiatives can teach us more than one or two grand designs could do.
This is Creative Week in Cape Town, so let’s think of street planning as an exciting creative exercise that can change the way we think about public space.
RoryWilliamsisamember ofOpenStreetsCapeTown,anonprofitorganisationpromotingbetterdesignanduseofourstreets. RashiqFataarisfounderand directorofFutureCapeTown, aplatformfordiscussion,debate andawarenessaboutthefuture ofcities.