One would think the simple ritual of sitting down would be easy to do, but in Cape Town, your options are limited.
Public benches seem to be reserved for parks, with some are placed around a few of the city’s public squares.
However, it is the city’s streets where there is more to see. It is along the city’s sidewalks where life occurs in its richest forms. It is where there are people to watch, where interactions take place, and where the complex and interesting life of the city is most visible.
If you do come across seating on a sidewalk, chances are it belongs to a restaurant or cafe. The business that seating belongs to probably had to wait some time to get approval for it (jumping through hoops made of red tape), or it is there illegally, waiting for a city official to come along and demand that it be removed. This type of seating is invaluable in a city. It invites life to the street, contributing to making the public realm safer and more attractive. This should not be inhibited, but rather encouraged. Unfortunately, the current mindset is more concerned about moving pedestrians as efficiently as possible, instead of sending an invitation to stay. This is partly due to decades of increasing road and parking space as preference has been given to the automobile. Although there is not enough sidewalk seating outside restaurants and cafes, still, it is most often the only option. The catch here is that to sit and observe what goes on around a street, a citizen has to pay.
Finding a place to sit without paying money is a challenge. Cape Town is a city with citizens of vastly differing socioeconomic situations, and this should be acknowledged. You may come across some steps to sit on, or at least a sunny patch of a wall to lean against, but a comfortable seat is almost out of the question. A bench where someone can lean back, have a rest, and enjoy the sun on a calm Winter day is almost impossible to come across along the streets of the central city.
Other cities around the world are starting to see the value in providing places for people to sit. New York City is worth mentioning, with Times Square’s transformation from a traffic jam with people on the side, to a place where people come to sit with a few cars on the side. The installation of parklets, public seating areas reclaimed from parking or unused road spaces, are also popping up all over the place after being pioneered in San Francisco. Something you’ll hear a lot from advocates of cities for people is the value of cafe tables – not necessarily accompanied by a cafe, but rather in public places, available for anyone to sit at. Where movable cafe-style chairs differ from benches, is the capability they allow for people to position them as they wish. They can shift a chair to face the sun, direct it to facilitate a conversation with someone else, or turn it to achieve just enough privacy to feel comfortable, perhaps while reading a book.
If the argument is that there is not enough space for seating on the sidewalk, then the problem is not really that the sidewalk is too small, but that the road is too wide or that parking is given too much priority. It’s not only the city government, but also business owners, who need to see the value in replacing parking for a few cars with places to sit for a few dozen people. Let’s hope Cape Town catches on and sees the importance of providing places for its citizens to sit, not as an exclusive act, but as a basic right.
Stay tuned to the city’s sidewalks. One of these days you may not find it so hard to sit down in the city.