FUTURE CAPE TOWN | What is a street? 10 cities explored through street films

“Streets as the basic unit of a city or urban experience, whether by foot or in a vehicle”

Accra Global Street Design Guide Video Screenshot

A series of short films developed as part of the launch of the Global Street Design Guide have us going back to the drawing board, exploring past projects, articles and thoughts around the very definition of a street.





What is a street? More than just a path or route for vehicles and goods, and a piece of infrastructure potentially for pedestrians and cyclists and other non-motorised forms of transport, a street can play diverse roles in different cities and communities. This is especially true in Cape Town, where spatial segregation and under-investment in streets in large parts of the city have resulted in vastly different neighbourhood and street conditions. Over decades, this kind of environment – especially outside of middle-class areas – have conditioned many residents to expect little more than very basic safety infrastructure from their streets, rather than comfort, amenity, interest and liveliness. However, whether we expect them to be compelling and memorable or merely serviceable, it remains true that streets are the basic frame through which we experience the city, be it on foot, by bicycle or in a motor vehicle.

Milan Global Street Design Guide Screenshot


When comparing our experience of walking the streets of BT in Khayelitsha on a week day field trip, where residents often live in fear walking to or from work, to the more pedestrian-friendly streets and street culture of Du Noon on a Saturday afternoon, to the market areas around Gatesville, to the insufficient lighting of many suburban streets leading to train stations, it is evident that extreme challenges and immense opportunities exist side by side. Considering the countless ways in which all of these streets influence how people live, for better or worse, drives home the fact that transforming streets can very often be the difference between unlocking a community’s potential or letting it lie fallow.

We are already seeing glimpses of what these transformative future streets might look like in the work of firms like Jakupa Architects, who have delivered improved streets and spaces in Bosduif, the Liesbeek Parkway and along parts of Spine Road. In Johannesburg the work of Studio X Johannesburg interrogated the underlying misconceptions about Bree Street in the city centre through spatial analysis. The studio’s director, Mpho Matsipa, described the street as a “microcosm of inner-city spatial politics… a setting for ‘becoming’ for many migrant women, and…a contested site for large-scale urban redevelopment and illegalised street trade”

Chennai Global Street Design Guide Video Screenshot


More recently, the Project for Public Spaces described streets we walk along each day as “the product of hundreds of decisions and actions, some big and some small, which have taken place over many years”. This finding, familiar to readers of Jane Jacobs’ work, has inspired their Streets as Places programme, which aims to share resources and develop “key ingredients” for the creation of streets that serve as lively and attractive places in their own right, rather than simply conduits for traffic.

Like few other places, streets are a public stage where life unfolds – PPS

From the cosy streets of Sienna, to the pedestrian-dominated avenues of Madrid, to the bustling activity and sounds of streets in Accra, the design of streets (or lack thereof), the sense of local ownership and other factors  can either enhance or detract from human activity, safety, health, and the economic livelihood of residents. There can also be no single street design template that if deployed globally can deliver a “perfect street”, but there are definitely values and criteria which can serve as a basis for dialogue and improved performance in both people and their local and national economies. What might seem like chaos for some, could have an underlying order for others, and streets that might qualify as safe, clean and dignified to one kind of public, may appear dull and lifeless to another – even in the same community.

How to reimagine the streets of the future

Initiatives like Open Streets Cape Town, which has travelled from Langa to the CBD to Bellville, the launch of the largest parklet in South Africa on a vibrant high street in Sea Point, are local manifestations of a movement that is gathering pace from Helsinki to Medellin. (For more on Cape Town’s progress in this area, read Better streets for Cape Town. How?)

And in 2015, as part of the development and promotion of the soon-to-be-launched Global Street Design Guide, the series of short films below explore street conditions in various cities to provide a better sense of space, speed, scale and the sensory experience of various streets contexts. The Global Street Design Guide is described as a “timely resource that will set a global baseline for designing streets and public spaces while redefining the role of streets in a rapidly urbanizing world”. The Guide will broaden how to measure the success of urban streets to include access, safety and mobility for all users, environmental quality, economic benefit, public health and overall quality of life.

Accra, Ghana

Bandung, Indonesia

Sao Paulo, Brazil

Fortaleza, Brazil

Chennai, India

Mumbia, India

New Delhi, India

Melbourne, Australia

Auckland, New Zealand

Sydney, Australia

Read more


  1. Global Design Cities Initiative (GDCI) : http://globaldesigningcities.org/about/
  2. Film Credits: Skye Duncan at GDCI