African liveability Public places

Placemaking begins with all of us

Open Streets Observatory, Cape Town on 25 May 2013

A wave of citizen activation is quietly but persistently transforming the urban spaces of Cape Town, writes Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, CEO of the Cape Town Partnership, in an article for the Cape Argus.

Some argue that it began with the World Cup – post-event studies found that improved social-cohesion was a significant part of the World Cup legacy. Certainly anyone who experienced the Fan Walk during that euphoric time will agree that the energy of walking and talking with strangers brought a happiness not easily forgotten.

A part of Cape Town found this happiness again on Saturday 25 May, at the first Open Streets event in Observatory. The Cape Town Partnership, City of Cape Town and Observatory Improvement District joined forces with the Open Streets group to support a volunteer-led, citizen-powered, free event in Lower Main Road that gave us all a chance to experience our streets without cars. And what do you get when you remove cars, but people! People who are not waiting for change, but rather experimenting with possibility. Together we played, as we did in our childhoods when streets were more open and children ran, skated and rode their bikes in them. The memory of childhood streets as a place of creativity and community came flooding back as people enjoyed yoga, music, art, theatre, installations and togetherness.

Open Streets in Observatory Cape Town. Photo by Lisa Burnell

Despite there being no visible policing, there was no crime; volunteers from a local rehabilitation programme marshalled the crowd, while community members looked out for each other’s children. There was no litter because everyone took home what they came with. There were no complaints of noise or anti-social behaviour; perhaps this is because the aim of Open Streets is “to generate respect for people, regardless of who they are, and how they move”.

At the same time, another urban transformation project was underway nearby. 100in1day taps into the power of people working together to create change by facilitating 100 small interventions that can take place in one city in a day. In Cape Town, 150 interventions were born of citizen passion and imagination. People volunteered their energy and time for things like Taxi Cab Lunch (where you could take a taxi driver for a meal), a treasure hunt, a treeplanting task team in Langa and many more. The idea was born in 2012, in the vibrant city of Bogotá, Colombia and within one year, 100in1day has spread to various cities in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Denmark – and now Cape Town. These events follow on from other citizen-activated events, like the communal cycling phenomenon that is Moonlight Mass.

Next year marks twenty years of democracy in South Africa and it is initiatives like these that suggest a certain maturity within our democracy, a self-realisation that the citizen is an active participant in the environment; a change-maker and a placemaker. Communities know best. They do not want art installations where they really need parks; they should be consulted about whether they envision a skate ramp or allotment garden for a derelict open lot.

“Placemaking,” says Fred Kent, a recent guest of the Cape Town Partnership, and founder of the Project for Public Spaces organisation, “is about educating people that they need to participate in the creation of their public spaces”.

We have to go beyond the tendency to sit back and wait for delivery, beyond the idea that our lives will just be shaped around us, spoon-fed or even force-fed to us – and the belief that we have to accept this. We are fast realising that we must be the main driver of the future we want to see.

The greatest mental barrier to this co-creation of place is the notion that it has to cost an exorbitant amount of money. I have wholeheartedly adopted Fred Kent’s mantra of “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper”. Citizen-lead interventions are cost-effective, authentic experiments that can become catalysts for the integration of ideas into a neighbourhood, as well as being litmus tests for legislation. They do not have to be well-designed or staged (in fact, the less staged the better; it is the intention that must be clear) and widely, warmly agreed on.

The Cape Town Partnership is very excited to announce that we will be launching a series of free public space interventions in the heart of the city later this year. Inspired by the success of City Hall Sessions, our collaborative music concert series in the City Hall, we are now launching the City All Sessions, a free concert series on Greenmarket Square on the first Thursday of every month, starting in September. These monthly events will focus on extending the city’s life beyond the 9 to 5 by adding music and warmth to its historic centre.

The concerts will again represent the collaborative but cohesive sound of artists of differing origins and musical style. If this works, then what about reshaping the hours in which informal trade, cultural events and tourism can happen in the Central City? What if you could listen to live poetry readings at rush hour instead of wasting time in the gridlock? We are starting with what we can imagine; what’s your idea?

If you want change, start by creating it. Send your ideas to us on #ctsoul or

Text by Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana. Images of Open Streets in Observatory on 25 May 2013 by Lisa Burnell.

This article first appeared in the Cape Argus on 4 June 2013: Download the PDF.

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