By Alex Ramsey*
The first Talking Streets walk of the year took place on 18th February as part of the planning process for Open Streets Mitchells Plain on Sunday 3rd April. As hundreds of schoolchildren departed from school, the group set off down Merrydale Avenue to observe the space and how it is used by members of the community. The group was a mix of previous Open Streets volunteers and collaborators as well as members of the Mitchells Plain community and local government. The community members in attendance voiced their excitement and enthusiasm to be hosting an Open Streets Day.
Upon arrival, it was not immediately apparent what makes Merrydale Avenue such an interesting street. It is not the hub of commercial activity in Mitchells Plain - with only a few shops alongside it - and, despite the width of the entire space, there is only a two-lane road for cars. However, Merrydale Avenue serves as an arterial roadway for the community and commuters from elsewhere, in particular by connecting with Spine Road, a major connecting road to Khayelitsha. Additionally, Merrydale Avenue provides access to schools, residential areas, religious and activity centres (including a famous mosque), and two train stations.
Its design and the space it occupies are interesting and unusual. Adjacent to the curb of the two-lane road is a sidewalk, a wide median strip where trees and grass grow intermittently, and finally an additional, wider sidewalk. This design subsequently poses challenges to all commuters on the route. Cars frequently exit the paved road and roll up onto the median to pick up students from the various schools sprinkled along the route (there is no other room on the road to pull over). This, in turn, presents safety concerns for pedestrians who have to worry about cars entering the supposedly pedestrian space. Additionally, there are only a handful of stop signs, intersections, and crosswalks, further complicating pedestrian use of the space. This is compounded by the fact that many of the pedestrians on Merrydale are schoolchildren and families. Use of the street by bikes or other forms of transportation also seemed essentially non-existent.
At the end of the walk, the group was asked to imagine what Merrydale Avenue would be like without cars during the Open Streets Day planned for April. Given its size, the street could provide ample space for sports and recreation for all who come along on the day. The wide space also provides great opportunities for decoration and artwork to help transform it into a more intimate space. Finally, closing the road to cars would quiet the space and give community members a chance to move without the safety concerns posed by traffic.
It was easy to feel the sense of community while we walked the street, particularly given the presence of families and children. It's easy, as an outsider to Mitchells Plain, to hold a singular, stereotypical view of the area based on media reporting on crime in the area. However, while Mitchells Plain struggles with these challenges, it was beneficial to walk Merrydale Avenue to view the area first hand. We are excited for the Open Streets Day to expose more people outside of the community to engage with and experience this side of Mitchells Plain, as well as to reimagine Merrydale Avenue without cars.
*Alex Ramsey is currently doing an internship with Open Streets Cape Town.