From time immemorial, people have looked for ways to create spaces that invite dialogue, exchange, trade, memory and all the activities that make society function and flourish. In times of terrorism, economic uncertainty and political instability, it is no surprise that we may shy away from inhabiting, let alone investing, in those places that might be perceived as easy targets.
Nevertheless, as highlighted by Paul Steely from Transport Alternatives in a recent article, “The solution is not to retreat from public space, but to better protect and enshrine our public spaces.”
Good public space can enhance social cohesion and build a more resilient society, and that’s why the concept of “placemaking” can have a powerful impact in our cities. Indeed, placemaking is spoken about in urbanist circles across the globe as the panacea. But, though many ideas are worth learning about and even replicating, it is crucial that we ensure these processes are informed by the real people who use and inhabit public spaces rather than by best practice as documented by experts and institutions with a pre-established agenda.
The value in exchanging and learning from other countries is significant and a great desire to increase those opportunities exist, as was evident at the recent PPS Placemaking Week in Amsterdam. But nothing can replace experimenting on the ground in order to interrogate the ideas that we might otherwise accept as truth.
In our short existence, we have made a few attempts to create the types of spaces that might lead to better “places”. The best example is, of course, Open Streets Days, but we have also explored things like temporary furniture and street performance as ways of testing new ideas for placemaking. Though we have not developed a body of research or literature, we are interested in continuing to experiment to learn from our neighbouring African counterparts. Later this month, for instance, Nairobi Placemaking Week will take place and we are looking forward with great anticipation after the success of last year’s activities, which included a variety of tactical urbanism initiatives and experimentation in public space, including Open Streets.
Cape Town and Nairobi are, of course, very different cities but in times of uncertainty, turmoil and despondency, it seems that connecting with our neighbours on the street and in public space might be one effective way of unearthing strategies to our local challenges. The formula of connecting and exploring together seems universal but the specific applications and concrete activities on the ground must be informed by local contexts and constraints.
Tomorrow, our managing director, Marcela Guerrero Casas, will be co-hosting a Twitter chat with our counterparts at UN-Habitat in Nairobi to exchange ideas and reflections about public space. Please join and share your own!