Open Streets has been a relatively easy sell in Cape Town -and worth noting, Johannesburg! At the last Pecha Kucha Cape Town on 4 September, 2012, along with a Rock art specialist, the ultimate Frisbee national coach and a hip hop wizard, Open Streets joined the ranks of passionate projects in the city.
An idea that has resonated strongly throughout the Americas and European cities is not surprisingly getting Capetonians to dream of better public space not only for cyclists for everyone. Though the jury is still out to see how Open Streets roll out in practice, it might be time to start thinking what the concept means to the continent more broadly. Why has Open Streets resonated so strongly in North America Some would argue it's partly because the bicycle is perceived as cool. In Africa the challenge is different. As someone pointed out this morning, here, not unlike in Latin America of course, the car is a sign of status and progress, therefore calling for car-free streets might not sound so appealing and the challenge will be to communicate what Open Streets looks like differently.
In cape town the benefits of Open streets contributing to community building is a concept that resonates very strongly given the social divide that gives the city a bad reputation; in Johannesburg the idea of giving people the physical space to exercise and go outdoors is also an easy argument. Similarly, looking beyond South Africa, I can see Nairobi calling for Open Streets outloud. Imagine Ngong Rd full of bicycles, skaters and joggers on a Sunday morning ! or perhaps Tahir square in Cairo being surrounded by activists on wheels, all of a sudden the Spring revolution takes on a new meaning!
The needs in African urban centres, not unlike those in the rest of the developing world include the high costs of fuel, pollution and health. Perhaps the sell is not very different from the script that has allowed the concept to spread so broadly and quickly throughout the Americas. If Pecha Kucha was anything to judge by, we might just need to ask a few more Open Streets activists to join the ranks and go from dreaming in a room together to making things happen on the streets.