Published on the Cape Times 21 January, 2013
Writing a manifesto for change in the city, we discovered last year, is like getting on a skateboard for the first time. It looks simple, you can picture how it ought to be done and yet the first attempt inevitably confirms that striking balance is most challenging to your mind no less than to your body. Enacting change that seeks to achieve a better city and the common good is easy to imagine. We, as citizens, are encouraged to become active in helping to improve our communities, to foster a safe and clean environment and to provide the next generation with a legacy that will enable sustainable progress. And yet identifying the right words that accurately communicate how that can be is not an easy or simple exercise. Writing a manifesto is indeed a journey in itself.
We started with a tagline which we all liked. The core of our manifesto, we agreed, would be a commitment to work towards streets which embed and generate respect for one another, regardless of who we are and how we move. In practice, few are likely to argue against the creation of space that is welcoming and accessible to all citizens no matter who they are or how they move. Initiatives to create spaces that invite activity, creativity and human interaction are originated by government and civil society regularly. Citizens then have the role of occupying and activating those spaces. Most of it happens organically and in an ideal world it should evolve without any premeditated efforts; however reality in South Africa shows we all need a little incentive to go out, interact and build on what's already available to all: the streets.
South African cities still suffer the effects of the past. Cape Town in particular continues to struggle with issues of separation, segregation and social division, Despite the commendable efforts by government to instil inclusivity and democratic practices, we still find ourselves divided when deciding what that good city might look like?
One place to start is on the street and the Open Streets movement and manifesto embody the collective imagination of people passionate about streets, of what is a good city. It is a vision that, by its definition, looks to consider the perspectives of all citizens. However, writing a manifesto that encompasses the multiple visions of the City and its citizens is an exercise which underlines the challenge of identifying the language that speaks to all as well as the real obstacles in ensuring a citizen-led movement is truly representative and democratic.
As we all know, or should know, streets belong to all, and their legitimate users include more than just car owners. Hence, a fundamental shift is required in Cape Town, both in our attitude as well as in existing policy frameworks. A diverse community means many different perspectives on how we engage with the city, and Cape Town is not short in diversity. Unfortunately, priority has been placed on the motorised vehicle, leaving drivers and others believing that their right to the road supersedes that of pedestrians, cyclists, let alone skateboarders! This sense of entitlement on what is said to be public roads, is reinforced by out-dated policy and bad planning practices which have had detrimental community impacts and stifled diverse mobility in the City.
Creating an inclusive City means considering the needs of others, a daunting task in a City with so many conflicting interests. Even amongst the active mobility community, there are different takes on how streets should be used or designed. (i.e. disabled users do not always agree with the demands made by cyclists; cyclists are not always sympathetic to the needs of skateboarders, etc). Ultimately, however, as many would argue in the case of multiple religious creeds, all we need is a little tolerance and according to the Open Streets philosophy, respect for each other regardless of who we are and how we move.
Although the street is an inanimate object and cannot therefore physically generate any human emotion, its design and our relation to it can certainly provoke different types of human behaviour. At the moment, our streets generate aggression and intolerance; particularly for those who are not shielded by the metal armour of a car. Life cannot thrive under such conditions, as was painfully made evident with the myriad of deaths during the holiday season. The solution is not to do away with automobiles,. We must therefore focus on what changes are realistic and constructive in the short term.
Social transformation starts with language and communicating new visions of the city. Thus, a manifesto for Open Streets as a citizen-led initiative is no small task. If the aim is not to arrive at a place but to engage in a process; what is needed and who is required to ensure that process has a legitimate output. We might need to have street-friendly people before we can arrive at people-friendly streets. Some might argue it is all a matter of semantics; but as we, at Open Streets, have discovered there is tremendous power in working with words, no matter how painful, and a manifesto can perhaps become a compass that takes us down the lane towards a better future.