Cape Town’s struggle with the concept of a Public Realm: 3 recent events which could inspire change

Education belongs in the streets, politics in public parks, commerce in garages, food in parking lots, and relationships on sidewalks.- Kasey Klimes

Cape Town is finding its feet as a city that embraces festivals and life in the public realm. Unfortunately, many markets or events require an organising team and loads of patience to meet the many regulations and endless paperwork required by the City of Cape Town. I do believe, that frequency and prominence will iron out the current tedious process. At least, one hopes. 

The role of these events, although in some instances attracting a small part of the broader community, requires a rethink of how we engage with formal and informal public space; the streets, parking lots, alleyways and traffic circles.  Cape Town has a rich tradition of street events. Our annual Minstrels Carnival, the highly successful Fan Walk during the 2010 FIFA World Cup (although less successful afterwards) and the many street festivals on Long Street have captured the imagination of Capetonians over time. It has become a way of life, a tradition and a right.

A vast gap is noted in the willingness of authorities to embrace new events and spaces beyond its commitment to support current and longstanding events. The concept of street level activity and “spilling-over” still faces opposition from authorities in Cape Town, who have yet to fully grasp that increased activity in the avenues and public walkways promotes a safer public realm, attracting more people to these public spaces. What may seem like a broadly accepted component of Urban Spaces 101 is seen as a threat to the City, by those overseeing fire, health and other regulations.

Retail is not (and should not be) the only solution to activate public spaces. The aim should be to attract people, which requires the “mixed-use” concept, another major challenge in Cape Town, along with some imagination. Inviting citizens into spaces, and ensuring they come back requires more than a variety of retail stores, and restaurants but a broader vision to create a sense of place to which citizens can relate to.

I recently spoke with the owner of an amazing restaurant, Little Ethiopia, who described a 6-month process required to allow them to add a few tables and chairs to Shortmarket Street, an existing, paved street. Like the Fan Walk, this street has been enhanced with the introduction of new paving, bollards and space for cyclists, while reducing the travel speeds of cars. If control of space is what is needed, then by evening, the design of this space offers a perfect middle ground for what could be just another dark and quiet avenue, in a Central City which sees the masses return to suburbia after dark.

Another sign of this lack in vision, is present in the lack of action around re-activating the hugely successful Fan Walk, which was the star performer of Cape Town as a 2010 FIFA World Cup host city. At its peak, it welcomed over 200,000 ticket and non-ticket holders, filling the route to Cape Town Stadium from Cape Town Central Station. Today, it provides a safe path for a few cyclists and commuters, during the day, en route to Cape Town Station or through the Central City. At night, it has become a dormant series of spaces yearning for outdoor dining, concerts, art, sculptures and most importantly, people.

There have been rumours of a “Freedom Walk” concept which will see the Fan Walk act as a link to various historical sites and spaces symbolizing South Africa’s road to freedom. Very little has been mentioned in this regard. As it stands today, one of the markets mentioned below continues its battle to convince authorities that “spilling-over” onto the Fan Walk, during their market or other events is in the public good and interest.

But all hope is not lost as Alex Jongens, a Masters of Landscape Architecture Graduate from the University of Cape Town, gives us a rundown of some of the more recent markets and parties which may just be the start, in the shift in thinking Cape Town needs.

1. Fringe Handmade Market

The Fringe Handmade Market, showcased products by our local creatives. It was the first market of its kind in The Fringe, an area being developed into Cape Town’s Design and Innovation District and was a huge success even with the ungraceful south-easter wind funneling through all the stalls. Harrington Square, an area usually used as a parking lot, was transformed into a space for people with tables made from reused palettes and a stage under the Pepper Trees. The market brought Harrington Square to life and we look forward to how this event evolves in 2012.

2. Design Maker Market

The second Design Maker Market, in the courtyard and on the roof of the Freeworld Design Centre, was bigger and better than last years, even with the first day seeing rain and hail. The market had a wide range of products from succulent plants, unique jewellery and household products. A personal favourite was a note book, made by ikhaya, from a reused book cover. The title of the notebook being: “Around the World Adventure Stories for Girls”, a very fitting title for our trip. This market promises to continue to be an annual event and it is definitely a fantastic alternative Christmas shopping venue.

3. Block Party

Converse took over Harrington Street and Square for their massive Block Party. Three dance floors, two outdoor, saw the likes of 340ml, Niskerone, Tommy Gun, Kid Fonque and Bteam, to name a few, allowing Assembly regulars to ‘jol’ inside and out. The south-easter was kind this time and partiers were treated to a warm, calm Cape Town evening, perfect conditions to party the night away. Not only were we treated to local music legends but local graffiti artists showed their skills under flood lights, allowing us to sip our beers while watching the artworks grow. With 3,500 people jamming in the streets, this was definitely a night time highlight for December.

Images: Alex Jongens and Cool Town Studios