2020 will undoubtedly go down in history as a year which changed the world and our lives as we know them.
It brought to the fore what we already knew about our cities, and placed it onto a giant billboard for all to see: Our cities remain deeply divided and unequal and the quality of life for the majority needs rapid and significant improvement in all areas.
At Our Future Cities, the pandemic challenged us personally and professionally and it felt as if each week was filled with the unexpected and unpredictable.
With limited means to engage in our cities and places, it was an opportunity to adapt to the restraints of a Covid environment. With our team in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Nairobi, Polokwane, Melbourne and London we quickly had to find new ways of working, sharing ideas, building networks and making a difference with our partners in towns and cities.
So, how could people be empowered to change their cities and towns in a Covid-environment? I was fortunate to be appointed to curate South Africa’s first ever Urban Festival which aimed to unpack this question. Through its theme Empowering the Civic we saw this as an opportunity to acknowledge the current challenges but to find ways to leapfrog into the future. The virtual festival was opened by Deputy Minister Parks Tau and architect Sumayya Vally and became the embodiment of the adaptable spirit of our team. Thanks to the South African Cities Network and 6 open-minded organisations, we delivered 78 virtual events reaching over 3700 people across Africa and beyond. The month-long programme was closed by Minister Dlamini-Zuma on World Cities Day but the events live on in our website archive, and we hope they will continue to inspire and provoke action.
Our efforts in housing and creating inclusive, future-focused neighbourhoods was given renewed impetus by the C40 Reinventing Cities competition a global competition for innovative, carbon-free and resilient urban projects. Detailed proposals for Athlone CBD, Mitchells Plain, Goodwood and Diep River were submitted in collaboration with a local consortium as well as design teams from the UK, Netherlands and Italy.
Our work in this space also saw a deep dive into the concept of serviced-living in the South African context commissioned by urban developers Blok, and research to support a new affordable housing tower still in planning.
It is no secret that at the heart of our organisation is our passion for co-creating vibrant public spaces and places. On the ground our team joined forces with residents of Tafelsig in Mitchells Plain to improve a forgotten space with seating, art and landscaping. This initiative began more than two years ago and also included fundraising for a community kitchen. On the other side of the city, our ever-popular parklet, which found its first home in Regent Road in Sea Point was relocated to Bree Street. We love to see people meeting up (but safely) and watching the world go by at the Parklet. It is a reminder of the potential of our public realm and an example of how we can encourage people back to inner cities by using what we already have.
And in Durban, partnering with local partners we developed a scheme to convert the well-known high street Florida Road into a “Streatery” to create additional trading opportunities for local restaurants and retailers.
While the project did not go ahead, it once again showed how red tape, a lack of political will and inertia mean that even the most cost-effective and low-risk intervention in the context of a global pandemic cannot find the traction (or rather leadership) in local government that is needed for implementation.
This year has brought into sharp focus the role of city centres across the world and in South Africa. Are they future-fit for the new world we are entering? In Cape Town and Durban we were able to intensely focus on this theme through our work for Urban Lime, South Africa’s leading regeneration specialists. The breadth and depth of the work ranged from new partnerships to address inner city challenges and lobbying for effective economic policies, to understanding trends and finding new ways to integrate technology and wellbeing into the built environment.
Through the Invest Bellville project we worked with the Greater Tygerberg Partnership to develop an investment case and attract commercial investment into the Bellville and Parow area. Through research, data, narrative and stakeholder engagement we aimed to promote and communicate the broader Bellville and Tygerberg Region to investors locally and internationally.
Towards the end of the year, we consolidated ideas jotted down in notepads and on sticky notes into the piece City Leadership in a Post-Covid World to give city leaders practical ways to navigate the daunting Covid and post-Covid environment.
In partnership with UK-based consultancy Vivid Economics we explored the South African smart cities landscape, undertaking stakeholder engagement to map existing synergies and potential opportunities between the two countries. Our work in the smar(ter) cities space was supplemented by our research paper comparing smart city approaches in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
After 9 years, we decided to launch our first remote internship programme. We received hundreds of applications from around the world, and our first team of remote interns navigated time differences, ever-changing Covid restrictions and Zoom glitches to support and enrich the work we do. Their contributions have allowed us to continue with many of our projects (too many to mention in one letter), adapt them to our new ways of working, and further build our global network of urbanists. We are looking forward to continuing the internship programme, both remotely and in person, in 2021.
As we reach the end of this unusual year, I would like to extend a thank you to all our partners, clients, and supporters who kept thinking smart, kept pushing and kept a youthful spirit alive as we work towards better future cities for all.
To Rouen, Ruby, Ciske, Bella, Lebo, Emmanuel, Sophia, Alexis and Maria you have been a professional and personal support throughout this year, and formed the bedrock of our ambitions. To Carolina, Brett, Rahla and the countless mentors, thank you for your patient listening and boundless energy in a year that challenged us in all ways.
From the friendly faces popping up during our Lunch and Learn sessions, to our engaged social media followers and our long-term partners, we look forward to working with you and seeing you again.
Have a wonderful and safe festive period filled with joy, lots of rest and an appreciation for the family, friends and loved ones that make life so special.