Congested Cities Week: The Rise of the Overcrowds

by Mayra Hartmann

The secret is out – everywhere you look cities are mushrooming, and people go flocking. A flock of people migrating to cities quickly creates more than just crowds, it creates Overcrowds. These Overcrowds breath, eat, sleep, work, play and most of all move. People move from home to work to gym to school to a restaurant to home, and tomorrow it starts all over again (granted these patterns can be vastly different).

How are Overcrowds and congestion related? In its most basic definition, is the overcrowding of a particular space. So, how does one as a planner, architect or engineer create the streams for this flow of crowds to move, or even live, freely?

Anyone that has lived in a city has been witness (or even a member) of these Overcrowds. They’re on your streets, public transport (armpits in face anyone), and your treadmill; they’re in your grocers, schools, and hospitals. They follow you to work in the mornings and leave you at home in the afternoons. Often the Others will tell us city dwellers: “You chose to share ‘your’ space with millions of people. Deal with it!” I say: “N-to-the-O”, and this refusal is the great challenge of our city dwelling generation.

How do we create urban spaces, for millions of people, without getting into each other’s spaces?

My answer: be smart about it. Simple right?! Well, not quite. No solution to an infinitely complex problem will be simple, however the approach you take, and the perspective you employ to solve that problem can be smart and simple.

Congestion, although being a problem, is not a cause, it is a symptom. Therefore, in order to cure our cities of congestion, you must rid them of the virus that caused it. That virus is a lack of alternatives within the various systems that make up a city (whether be it transport, retail or education) and little diversity and experimentation in professionals, and “experts”, attempts’ to provide these systems. So, much like when you have a flu, you don’t attempt to cure it simply by blowing your nose, i.e. getting rid of congestion, you rid your body of the influenza virus.

As a temporary, self-proclaimed Capetonian, my closest encounter with the Overcrowds must have been during my time at the University of Cape Town, and for some reason they were always particularly present the day of a deadline, simply because the system (UCT) did not provide alternatives (multiple printers for each dept.) and diversity (everyone’s assignments always seem to be due at the same time) to create infrastructure that would spread the Overcrowds, so that instead of being a nuisance, they enhance the individual’s experience and stimulate learning.

This is a very niche type of congestion; taking a more universal example the question arises: How can we be smart about solving traffic congestion?

Don’t just simply blow the proverbial nose (for example additional lanes on freeways). Between public and private transport create alternatives so that you spread Overcrowds across various modes of transportation. And be diverse – incorporating different modes into one holistic integrated system. Use buses of different sizes and shapes for different areas, develop car sharing where people don’t own cars they merely have access to use one should they need to, let people burn energy by walking and cycling, and most importantly make the switch from one mode to another effortless.

I’ve been fortunate enough to live on the “right side” of the mountain and thus always avoided traffic congestion. But guess what, I mostly drove. Mine was a minor obstacle in transport integration, there simply is no easy way to access the system (unless you’re willing to fight gravity with every step), and so my decision-making process was simple – there is no adequate mode provided so I jumped into my car – the majority of the inhabitants of Cape Town do not have that luxury.

Their decision-making process is highly complex and influenced by numerous factors: time of day, destination, budget… So, not only do you need to integrate the different modes of transport, the decisions that lead to “which mode is used when” must also be integrated. What you end up with is hard infrastructure (the physical realm) and soft infrastructure (frameworks and systems) that work together so that even children can use these systems without fear or danger. I started using multiple public transport modes in Germany at the age of 9, the system works, this is what I see for Cape Town – Africa as a whole. It is independence to be where you need to be, when you need to be there, without having Overcrowds get in your way.

I am proud to say that recently the City of Cape Town has made great progress in providing a holistic transportation system, but many a people, including me, would argue: it leaves out those that most need it. The challenge is overwhelming and so it requires the greatest amount of effort and innovation. What if it doesn’t work? Try again! Failure may not garner you votes, but, as long as you’re not hurting anyone, it will surely teach you what not to do. Process: think of something, attempt at making it work, fail, start again. Voilá experimentation. Before you know it, the ideal solution for a particular community has been designed.

None of these concepts are hardly new, yet it seems they are so rarely applied. Specifically, they are so rarely applied outside of transportation.
Getting Overcrowds out of: -hospitals? Prevent them from having to go there in the first place. -schools? Build more and different institutions for different types of learners. -shops? Create different modes and locations for accessing whatever it is people have to buy… the list goes on. Due to the great wealth inequalities, African “experts” have no choice but to create integrated urban systems that bridge the gap.

Diversity, experimentation and creativity. Humans have been living in cities (especially of today’s size, complexity and density) for a tiny fraction of our history, therefore we’re all guinea pigs that have a chance (duty even) to become scientists and create the future spaces we want to inhabit.

There is no way to avoid the creation of Overcrowds, the key is to spread them so that their presence enhances city life.

Getting around in cities all over the world has remained relatively the same over the last half a century: we get picked up by buses or subway cars and, after a few stops and the inevitable delay, we disembark and step onto well-stamped concrete or pavement. The evolution of public transportation has so far been a boring, straight line.” – Theodore Brown