Economic development

Where to for the Fringe?

Cape Town communities

2013 has been a year of retrospection and review for the Fringe initiative. What have we found, and what is the way forward? Read on for an update.

Original vision

Originally called the East City Design Initiative, the Fringe was conceived in March 2009 when a group of interested parties, each with their own mandates, came together with a common purpose. Their shared vision was to leverage their various mandates in order to stimulate economic growth through design in an area with potential called the east city. The vision arose as an outcome of a Western Cape Government research report. Against the backdrop of high levels of inequality, poverty and unemployment, and the decline of the manufacturing sector, the report identified the creative sector as a priority sector for economic growth. The economic potential of the east city, and particularly the area closest to the central business district, was identified as a result of a creative sector mapping exercise, conducted in 2008 by the Cape Town Partnership’s Creative Cape Town programme. Findings confirmed that the central city accounts for some 80% of Cape Town’s creative economy, and revealed a particularly high concentration of design-related businesses and entrepreneurial activity in a relatively small and unassuming neighbourhood east of the central business district. Other assets in this area included a well-established cluster of business support agencies catering to the creative industries, and proximity to a university with strong design and technology faculties.

Growth of a brand

The Fringe brand was born as a way to talk about and market this particular area in order to unlock its economic potential as a design hub. Over time, the Fringe was successfully established as Cape Town’s fledgling “design and innovation district”, particularly among creative and business stakeholders in the area and beyond. The Fringe initiative was a key driver of Cape Town’s successful World Design Capital bid, and also contributed significantly to the development of a design strategy for the Western Cape. But the aggressive branding and promotion of a “future vision” for the area, and the defining of a loose grouping of organisations and micro-enterprises as a “district”, also attracted criticism. This criticism came particularly from people who were concerned that the Fringe branding and marketing exercise was at serious risk of ignoring and erasing the historic significance of the area, which falls largely within District Six. Concerns were also raised that the initiative ignored some of the existing communities in the area, and needed to engage more broadly and inclusively.

Reflection, re-evaluation and re-prioritisation

2013, when some of these complexities really started coming to the fore, has been an opportunity for honest reflection. After critically engaging with a number of different groups, we’ve realised that our approach in the area needs to evolve to better suit its context and its time. The focus now shifts away from place marketing and branding, and we are prioritising the broadening and deepening of relationships with all people who have a stake in the future of the area – those who are currently in the area but also those people who will be returning to the city as part of the District Six Homecoming. In this spirit, the Fringe initiative is evolving into an east city collective, and the Cape Town Partnership will ensure participation from all interested parties, around a range of exciting projects that are planned for the area.

A design ecosystem

The evolution of the Fringe initiative into the east city collective also comes at a time when the Western Cape Government, supported by the Department of Economic Development and Tourism (DEDAT), has developed and launched a design strategy for the province (the Western Cape is the first, and only, province in the country to have prioritised design in this way). A summary of the strategy can be downloaded from the Cape Craft and Design Institute website, but in short, it’s about using design in all its applications, to do better and more efficient business in the province and create a more inclusive economy. It’s in this context that the original vision for the Fringe exists, as part of an ecosystem of initiatives, services and projects that see design as a tool for economic development. The east city collective, coordinated by the Cape Town Partnership, will ensure that activities within the area are aligned with the design strategy.

Lessons learnt

We have learned significant lessons from our work in the Fringe – that meaningful participation and engagement take time and cannot be rushed; that history and memory provide the foundation for future visions; that places are not products to be packaged and promoted, they are fundamentally about people. We’ve learnt the value of being increasingly sensitive to the local context, and evolving our approach as we go. These lessons will serve us, not only in the area or in initiatives relating to design for economic development, but also in the rest of our work as the Cape Town Partnership, wherever it lands.

Way forward

Going forward, all placemaking work in the east city will be integrated into the overall work and mandate of the Cape Town Partnership. Through the east city collective, we will continue to build relationships with former, present and future District Six residents, entrepreneurs moving into the area, and current users of its public places, from rough sleepers to immigrant groups to young designers. In this line, relevant content from the original Fringe website is being integrated into the Cape Town Partnership site.

As the Cape Town Partnership, we hope to host a public forum early in 2014 relating to our work in the east city and District Six, and initiatives that foster design for economic development, specifically aimed at deepening our understanding of the area and better communicating what is currently happening.

Building on existing work in the area

Some of the work we’re currently involved in in the east city includes:

  • Friends of Harrington Square: In line with building community ownership of the placemaking process, a group informally known as Friends of Harrington Square has been initiated, made up of Woodhead’s, Charly’s Bakery, The Bank and District Six Museum. The Cape Town Partnership is sponsoring free WiFi on the square, and the group have also come together to install benches and sculptures made of recycled goods, and have put out a call for artists to paint the white tree planters surrounding the space. The Harrington Square lease has also been revised and is in the public comment period for this to be handed over to Cape Town Partnership, with provisions for activation of the space. Friends of Harrington Square, and in particular Richard Harris of Woodhead’s, will come on as management partners for the space.
  • Public art: Cape Town Partnership has been part of facilitating a number of murals in the area: A seafarer-inspired piece at 99 Harrington by Xanele and Jeremy Puren of See-Saw-Do; a mapping of the users of Commercial Street and where they come from in the city, the country and on the continent by artist Andrew Putter; a piece by Falko at 75 Harrington Street inspired by the tale of how a goldfish only grows as big as its pond. We hope these pieces help to humanise the surrounding built environment and invigorate the space, while raising awareness around the role of public art in city making.
  • Neighbourhood Communication Project: A project-idea that started out its life with the title “Harrington Heart” and which centered on the public life of Harrington street, has turned into a new, related project, the Neighbourhood Communication Project (NCP). NCP is an ongoing project that looks for ways to bring strangers in the city into meaningful connection with each other, using the cultural, social and political diversity of city streets as the basis for this work. It is currently focused on research, attempting to see with as much open-mindedness as possible what is actually happening in some of the inner city’s public places, including areas like Church Square, the Grand Parade, and Longmarket Street. In the new year, NCP will launch a series of small, experimental projects in these areas, based on the idea that there is something to be gained by strangers who share a public place better understanding each other across their (often massive) differences.
  • Urban ethnography: How can exercises in story sharing and mapping seemingly arbitrary actions, like sitting in a shady spot or getting a meal, inform new ways of thinking about the urban dynamics of our city? Using these kinds of ethnographic techniques, Cape Town Partnership researcher Evan Blake is investigating the social geographies of marginalised groups, specifically street groups, in the east city area. Recent work has specifically involved understanding, from the perspective of street groups, why current social outreach systems are not effective, with the hope of developing experimental interventions informed by this street-level, people-specific research.
  • Informal trade research: In South Africa, the informal sector contributes between 8-10% to the country’s annual GDP, accounts for 12% of the local Cape Town economy and employs 18% of the city’s economically active residents. Considering the economic importance and historical significance of informal trade, the Partnership is committed to supporting and developing this sector in a holistic manner and within the context of inner-city transport planning, the rightsizing of complete streets, urban design processes and the management of public spaces. There is also a recognition that beyond the regulatory and infrastructural complexities, the informal trade sector is underpinned by complex social structures. Through an emergent design process, Cape Town Partnership project consultant Andrew Putter is seeking to bring to light some of the overlooked stakeholders in the space of informal trade, such as the trolley pushers. For example, at seven o’clock every morning, homeless men from all over the city converge to wait for the opportunity to push trollies from the Excelsior building on Harrington Street down to the Grand Parade. Andrew produced a ten-minute video of images captured by a camera attached to the top of a trolley of this journey from storage to trading space. 

If you have any questions, are running projects in the east city, or are interested in adding your ideas, time, talents or resources to existing projects, mail us at

Images of the east city by Sydelle Willow Smith

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