The train departed from Cape Town at around 9:30 and within 18 minutes we had arrived to one of the most impressive train station in the metrorail network. We were received by reggae tunes blasting out of one of the street shops -nothing better to set the vibe on a chilly and rainy Sunday morning.
We were met by Tony Elvin, the mind and leader behind the Langa Quarter Project, a fascinating social enterprise. Nestled amongst Athlone, Langa and Pinelands, the Langa Quarter is not only geographically but strategically positioned to achieve its goal of becoming the centre of Cape Town and the main hub for enterprise development innovation and social cohesion in Cape Town. As Tony pointed out, Langa is an ambitious community and given its history and entrepreneurial spirit it is easy to imagine great things happening in the next few years.
Langa has a rich history that includes dark passages such as the forced removals in the early 1900s but also a track record of highly prominent political artistic and sports personalities. In fact, we learned about 28 noteworthy individuals in the music, medical, professional sports and political fields who lived on Harlem Street. No wonder Langa is often called a living museum.
As we made our way down Brinton Street a picture emerged: a journey from the train station to the Langa Quarter coloured by gardens along the curbs, market stalls and music. A true haven for pedestrians and cyclists. Not a difficult feat considering most of Langa's main streets are very wide, a legacy of its original plans to make it into a "Garden City" Tony explained.
Langa does not only retain the Garden City layout, it lives up to the name with its ample green spaces and committed residents like Ntsikelelo Gum who displays an astonishing garden in front of his house on Brinton St. and has become an engine to create gardens around the township
Another clear appeal was the dynamic between pedestrians and cars. As pointed out by participants, it seemed pedestrians, unlike in the CBD, had the right of way. This, said Tony, was not only due to the fact that not many people own cars, but to the people orientated space that has been created by kids running around the streets and the spacious roads which to our surprise even had well painted cycle lanes.
As we approached Washington Street, one of the main arteries of Langa the rain came down. We stopped hesitantly to cross the street only to be met by a courteous mini taxi driver who stopped to give us way. Langa was quickly making its way up on the Open Streets ranking!
Langa residents are also well organised. There is a structure of street committees and though politics might get in the way at times (there are two ANC wards and one DA within Langa), the Langa Quarter seems to be encouraging a proactive approach to re-working and re-designing streets and public spaces. There are thirteen street committees which hold regular meetings and lead in the planning of activities. One of their goals is to create a safe space for markets. The premise is that streets must be safe to walk in order to attract customers. With that in mind, the committees are planning to roll out a programme during the Christmas season as Langa has been selected to be the sister market to the Summer Company Gardens Market. Moreover, street committee leaders are drafting ideas to carry out individual activities in their own streets and Open Streets has made it to the list of possible projects.
As we approached our destination and walked the last stretch on Rubisana street, a group of kids joined and greeted us farewell. With the rain gone, we walked back to the station within ten minutes. Tony was right, Langa is one of those places you can easily cover by foot (bicycle or skateboard); the land is flat, roads are spacious, there aren't many cars and those who drive are aware of and respect pedestrians. It seems they already figured out the concept of Open Streets and implement it on a daily basis.
The opportunity here is to import some of Langa's street best practices into town and to continue fostering the connection between both places. On one hand, this means building infrastructure that enables us to cycle, walk and use public transport in the most efficient way; as it was pointed out, the distance is not significant if lanes are built along desire lines or the shortest and most direct route from town to Langa. On the other, it entails creating the type of relationships that can foster exchanges and mutual support. The Observatory Improvement District has already begun to formulate a twining of sorts with Langa; to explore historical links but also new initiatives like Open Streets.