Who owns the space? A collaborative future for public spaces | FUTURE CAPE TOWN

“We do need long term partnerships, we do need enhancement and activation, we do need people to come to us with ideas, we do need people to come to us with dialog and knowledge, then, we can really rock and roll”


The third and final ‘The Future of Public Space’ discussed the control and ownership of public spaces with experts to analyse the current and potential roles for stakeholders to deliver better public spaces.


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On June 8, 2016, Future Cape Town and UDISA hosted the third and final event in ‘The Future of Public Space’ series. The speakers included : Andrew Charman (Director of the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation), Alderman Walker (Mayoral Committee Member for Community Services and Special Projects), and Jacques van Embden (Managing Director of Blok Developers) to discuss the ownership and control of public spaces. 

Informal economies’ self organised functionality of public space

The Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation has collected data from Delft in 2011 and 2015 regarding informal traders.

In commercial centers “we see conflicting interests between landowners, informal traders, property developers, council authorities over how public space can be used for trade” says Andrew Charman. However, in informal areas we do not see this competition from property owners and developers. The contestation lies most often between the City and the traders themselves.

Functionality is really being underplayed in the way we teach public space

“Design which seeks to regulate, order, standardize and sanitise impacts the greatest amongst the most fragile micro-enterprises and social processes of inclusion”. Charman emphasized that we need to think about how to accommodate the fluidity and diversity of informal businesses. Informal economies are allowed to be incredibly agile in their responsiveness to the market and its changes. “Informal economies’ responsiveness is part of what makes them sustainable and dynamic” says Charman with the example that if the pedestrian flow shifts, than the enterprises will follow that flow.

There is a constant change in the consumption of space

The Sustainable Livelihood Foundation’s research in 2015 showed that the number of informal traders grew by 108% since 2011. These informal enterprises tend to cluster around high streets as 46% of businesses are around high street public spaces and other areas with public amenities (like the only ATM in Delft or skate parks) as these areas see more traffic. Markets are incredibly safe places because traders as a result of the collective surveillance by market traders.


Public space delivery: challenges and a more innovative future


We have to make sense of this mess and imagine a very different city


Alderman Walker opened her presentation reflecting on the legacy of colonialism, apartheid and draconian planning, with the failures which controlled zoning brought as people’s interest and use of space was not compatible with an over planned zoning scheme, “we were going to end up with this very sterile type of city which Jane Jacobs would refer to as having all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery and that is what a lot of Cape Town is like”. Spaces were primarily defined by their defined function and by the race of the people in the area.

It doesn’t work if you plan it too much, you need to leave space for organic things to happen

She stressed how thinly spread the City’s operating budget is to deliver and maintain public spaces, and that if these spaces are not maintained they quickly become a place for “bad things to happen”.

She addressed the challenges of delivering the same standard to different areas, as in deprived areas there is a tendency for reutilization materials that are installed (such as people taking bricks which were installed and using them for their own building use). As a result, 10% of Community Services and Special Project’s capital budget is spent on theft and vandalism.

Good public spaces must be safe, accessible, multifunctional, community needs driven, realistic and vary in size. Alderman Walker stated that this cannot be delivered with the cookie cutter delivery model, “a trained planner knows an awful lot, but until they engage with a community, they only know half of it”.

The City has come up with innovative solutions to make parks more safe and durable, such as installing spray parks rather than pools, and installing AstroTurf rather than grass pitches.

Alderman Walker concluded that the City cannot be the sole deliverer and maintainer of public spaces, and but delivered and designed in partnership with the public as they are the users, and with the expertise of specialist groups.

We do need long term partnerships, we do need enhancement and activation, we do need people to come to us with ideas, we do need people to come to us with dialog and knowledge, then, we can really rock and roll

Bringing meaning to urban living

“What does urban living actually mean?” asked Jacques van Embden as he opened his presentation. He reflected on  his own personal progress of understanding and answering this question saying that most people live in a lie when they think of urban living as it is not simply just living in an urban environment. He explained how he came to clearer truth about what urban living means: first through learning to use public space and amenities, and later through expanding his the radius of his pedestrian routes through his neighborhood which built more interactions and relationships with his neighborhood.  He brought this lesson to his company Blok that “home doesn’t stop at the front door”, and made it company’s philosophy to sell a home inside and out through Blok’s urban interventions investments and their holistic sales approach of introducing their buyers to the community and encouraging engagement to the micro-community.

Home doesn’t stop at the front door, so how are we going to get involved?

Rather than spending on marketing, Blok has to turned that budget to “urban interventions”, targeted developments of public space invested in Blok.

These urban interventions are set out by three simple rules, 1) Blok does not own the projects, 2) plans must be achievable, and 3) to treat every project as a documented experiment for others to learn from for more collaborative projects.

Blok currently is pursuing four urban interventions within Green Point and Sea Point; Thornhill Park, the Regent Road Parklet, Sea Point Bike Parking and plans to collaborate with the City to revamp the Sea Point Library Sqaure.

Van Embden made a point to say that they are willing partners to work with the City on delivering public space, however he did say that the process can be intimidating, unclear and complicated.

He additionally raised the point that we need to decentralise our relationships to more than just the City’s BIG central parks, “Embedded into our urban fabric is an enormous amount of public space which we don’t know about”. Blok was surprised to find six parks just within Sea Point It is these public spaces in Blok’s micro community which they are trying to activate through urban intervention to promote the community and urban living as a whole.

To bring a close the night’s event and ‘The Future of Public Space’ series, Future Cape Town intern Hannalie Malan presented the key ideas and lessons from all three parts of the series.


Get involved with or share your ideas about the future of public space :

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Image credits : 

  1. Blok