A view from the street: How do rule-bound cities accommodate diversity?

An informal trader pushes his mobile stall in Cape Town

The Cape Town Partnership has asked Rory Williams Cape Times columnist and writer on urban issues, to look at our work and see what he finds. His ‘outside view’ will be presented in a series of articles that will explore the human side of our projects. We hope they will stimulate some necessary conversations. This is the second in the series.

Many of us have felt the anxiety of being at a party where we can’t find a friendly face. A good host knows how to make us feel welcome by introducing us to others, arranging the space to encourage interaction, and perhaps organising ‘ice breakers’.

Living in the city is a bit like that: there are ways to design the experience so that we don’t feel marginalised. This is what planners really mean when they talk about an ‘inclusive city’. It’s a place where we can see and benefit from the opportunities that exist, and also where we can create new interactions. The aim of a city, after all, is to make connections – with people, jobs, ideas and so on.

Khayelitsha Township Cape Town South Africa, photo by Bruce Sutherland

Part of what determines whether a city is inclusive is the rules that govern our behaviour. Rules can establish a framework within which we know how to operate, providing a level of comfort. But they are also inherently constraining, because they assume that we all want to live in a similar way. In fact, rules coerce us into that uniformity, which suppresses our creative ability to find legitimate ways to make our environment more suitable, or ‘liveable’.

So we feel frustrated, and somehow wrong, when the way we want to live is not allowed under the rules. When a street busker sings outside allowed hours, or when people living on the street try to improve a neglected patch of soil, the rules and enforcement procedures kick in. And while some such incidents get public attention, the hidden nature of so much city life suggests that it may be more commonplace than we realise.

As a result, we have all these people who feel like they don’t belong, don’t fit what the city has become, and – even worse – feel that there is nothing they can do about it. But they do, generally, survive. The question is how their resilience, their strategies for survival, can be accommodated by the city. This is something the Partnership is exploring every day.

Without rules, we would have chaos. Or so we are led to believe. But if Indian cities with all their bicycles, tuk-tuks, rickshaws and other forms of transport can coexist in apparent disorder but with fewer deaths than we have on our roads, there must be something other than formal rules at play.

Quest Electronics in Mandela Park, Hout Bay.

Is Cape Town an African city?

One of the characteristics of many African cities is their connections with rural areas. There are all kinds of practical and emotional bonds that make Cape Town part of a bigger social and economic ecosystem that extends not only to the Eastern Cape, from which many inhabitants originate, but also well into other countries in the north.

These links bring something meaningful to the city. As Cape Town Partnership CEO Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana points out: when strangers from rural areas say hello in public streets, it is more meaningful to identify themselves by their clan names than their first names, as this puts them into a context and makes it easier to identify connections.

A sense of identity and belonging relies at least partly on where we come from. And if we feel we don’t belong here, and are unable to influence how we use the city, then change becomes something confrontational, even if the intentions are good.

When we question whether Cape Town is a truly African city, are we talking about belonging? Is it about diversity, or inclusiveness – or both? Considering all the hidden complexities of living in this city, it becomes clear that the criticism that it “doesn’t feel like an African city” goes deeper than whether it looks or feels like it’s been transplanted from a European country.

Customers relaxing outside Divine Takeaway in Langa, Cape Town.

How can Cape Town’s systems embrace diversity?

The architecture, the design of public spaces, and many of the rules that govern how we use it are indeed flavoured by influences from different countries and different periods. But if we accept that this city’s residents and their ancestors come from all over the world, and that there is much value in what this diversity can bring to public life (encompassing social, religious and economic systems), then the real question is how the design of these systems and their rules can embrace and celebrate this diversity.

Diversity can emerge from beneath the veneer of formal rules, if we let it.

The rules and standards ignore what is really going on. As Makalima-Ngewana points out, “if we judge an informal settlement according to what it is rather than what we think it should be, we see that it actually works in many respects. There is an unwritten set of rules and norms, and you understand how to engage your neighbour and what you can expect from your neighbour. It is still ‘informal’, so we tend to be afraid of it, and look at it as something that needs to be regulated even more.”

A liveable African city, she says, “must allow formality and informality to coexist, and for informality to add value to our culture and lifestyle.” One of the reasons this is necessary is that, in a less formal context, people are more comfortable creating their living environment. There is pride in that creation. “If I get my shack roof from my neighbour, and the walls from my cousin, it means something sentimental. It has a value.”

An informal city, then, is a much more communal city. When we relocate people from the Joe Slovo informal settlement to Delft, we do so because we want to formalise. But we destroy value in the process by destroying a sense of communal history and belonging. “So when there is rampant crime, alienation and anger, people don’t understand what has happened, because there is this asset that is supposed to have solved the problem,” says Makalima-Ngewana.

How do we move from standards – and expectations – that produce an RDP house in Delft, to seeing value in what we have, and harnessing that? “In order to create a lifestyle that allows you to live in a city like this, you’re going to have to embrace what you already know. You know how to be a villager, you know how to live as a community, and you recreate those communities in the city even though you are a migrant. The city you move to should embrace what you bring, rather than make you feel as if you are here to beg.”

Rory Williams is an independent observer of city life and of how design shapes the ways we use the city. A civil engineering graduate of UCT and formally trained as a transport planner, he has 25 years of experience in analysing urban systems. He writes a weekly column in the Cape Times, and tweets as @carbonsmart.

Photos by Bruce Sutherland, City of Cape Town; Lisa Burnell and Alma Viviers.

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