A week ago the City of Cape Town tested the concept of Open Streets. So did Johannesburg this weekend and from both experiences it seems clear that unless citizens are behind the movement, they are likely to be become once-off events; similar to the car free days that took place along Klipfontein Road in 2003 and 2004.
The feedback from Johannesburg Streets Alive is similar to that in Cape Town; not very well attended due to lack of communication and genuine commitment to participatory planning. It is no surprise given the nascent nature of the concept; and yet given the cycling frenzy in both cities, not exploring the potential further would not only be a missed opportunity it would simply go against the unstoppable global trend towards a new public space.
In Cape Town this movement takes many different shapes and forms. Tonight, for instance the famous moonlightmass ride is taking place and even those of us unable to join in person can follow its magic via social media (Critical Mass Johannesburg attracted a similar crowd last Friday night). This is undeniably, a demonstration of citizens yearning for a different type of public space; one that provides freedom of movement and interaction with others. Similarly, skaters in Cape Town have been mobilizing their constituency to pressure the city in giving them the (legal) right to the streets. Today, incidentally, under the leadership of the National Skate Collective, skaters came out to what is hopefully going to become tradition if the Seapoint promenade remains open to bicycles and skates: Monday Promenade. Skating along the scenic pathway would have been unconceivable less than a month ago; today it seems to be paving the road for a skating critical mass claiming the streets of Cape Town!
Traditionally, cycling and skating have been the engines for most Open Streets around the world and evidently Cape Town is not the exception. However an interesting development seems to be catching on which might just unlock a different type of voice for a locally designed open streets movement: street parties. On Friday November 2nd, 35 streets will be hosting their own street parties in Rondebosch and judging from similar initiatives in neighboring Observatory, it seems in South Africa, the Braai tradition might just be the key to opening streets.
I recently met the two street party instigators: Gill and Jean. Friends and neighbors, both share a strong interest and passion for redesigning their neighborhood and creating a more vibrant and connected community. After brainstorming on a wide range of ideas including tea in their local park, plant sharing, vintage and children markets among others, they both decided a street party was the best place to start connecting with their neighbors. The word got out and next thing they knew, more than 30 street residents were following in their footsteps.
A combination oft activism and their professional background in urban planning puts Gill and Jane in a position to work towards a much larger goal towards sustainable living; in their words to cooperate on small actions that grow into something meaningful across the city.
And it is this sort of initiative that speaks to the ethos of Open Streets. It is not a super imposed model decided behind closed doors, but a grassroots movement that develops organically and grows according to citizen demand. As in the street party idea, Open Streets must be left to different interpretations. While an Open Streets day or event is likely to have similar ingredients as those present in cities which have been doing it for years, it is crucial that Capetonians find a genuine and sustainable way of exploring and opening streets. A street party might be the perfect first step, the rest will follow.