Street life growing in Cape Town

What’s the best way to encourage people to contribute to the good of society rather than just their own needs? You could appeal to their sense of justice, but that doesn’t seem to work for most of us. If it did, we’d be able to eliminate all the damaging things in the world just by explaining our role in their existence.

According to Steve Martin, author of Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, the most powerful incentive for changing behaviour is the knowledge that other people do it: social norms.

I’ve been in hotels that have encouraged me to reuse towels rather than getting fresh ones every day. They do this to reduce the laundry bill, but they usually hope to convince me by saying “it saves the environment by using less water and electricity”. Martin says the hotel instead should tell me – if it’s true – that “90% of people who stay in this room reuse their towels” because I am more likely to comply if I believe everyone else does.

For the same reason, keeping streets clean gives the impression that nobody litters, and so people are discouraged from littering without being told anything. If we think something is the norm, we are more likely to adhere to it, so this could be a positive incentive for creating social change.


Cyclists prepare for Moonlight Mass, a monthly bicycle ride in Cape Town that happens beneath the full moon. Photo: Brendon Bosworth.

There is a trend emerging in Cape Town with powerful potential for inducing change. I don’t know where it began, or what to call it, but in the central city there is a proliferation of coffee shops and eateries offering exceptional quality fare, an increasing number with outdoor seating (about 60 last time I counted), and a number of informal but regular activities involving bicycles and skateboards. There is greater recognition of the value of small interventions in public life, and it’s creating a buzz of activity in Cape Town in the run-up to the 2014 World Design Capital as people realise they can create their own change.

Even if you and I are not particularly interested in any of these activities, or the bigger annual events with an outdoor presence, they could permanently change the norms of how we occupy the city, and our experience of it.

Just as the manager of an empty restaurant can encourage patrons to walk through the door by seating the first customers near the windows, the city itself can induce activity.

The more people we see outdoors (many of whom are brazenly tapping away at their laptops and tablets), the more it appears that this is a safe and attractive city, giving substance to what people are writing about Cape Town in local and international media.

What might have begun as ‘spin’, and the actions of the Central City Improvement District, becomes a new social norm that can encourage more people to find ways to enjoy public places. All of which helps create a more inclusive city.

Imagine an Alice in Wonderland birthday celebration in the Company’s Garden, where people in oversized hats and colourful dress create a diversion for office workers on their lunch break. Or a flash mob creating a chalk artwork on the station plaza, encouraging bystanders to join in.

Of course social norms can work the other way. The more we debate whether Cape Town is a racist city, the more we begin to think that we are polarised and exclusive. We need to live as an inclusive, accepting city. And the place to start is in our public places, where our beliefs are made visible.

The city could be made even more welcoming by supporting private efforts to bring people out onto the street – at tables, on the grass, on foot and bicycle and skateboard – and by designing space to allow different activities to coexist harmoniously. It’s a public-private partnership.

We’re at a tipping point in Cape Town’s transformation as outdoor life takes root to create a shift in cultural norms. If we live more of our lives in public, as people do in the attractive cities of the world, we will encourage more people to do the same. What begins as trendy becomes mainstream. And greater interaction in the mainstream creates an acceptance that can influence other parts of the city. This kind of street life is not a fad; it’s been around for centuries. We just need to nurture it.

Article via Urban Africa.

This column was originally published by The Cape Times.

Read Rory’s previous post “Cape Town: the iPhone of African cities.”

Rory Williams is a transport planner and commentator on the role of design in creating liveable cities. He has over 20 years’ experience as a consultant, contributing to numerous urban planning projects in Cape Town and other African cities. He is a columnist with the Cape Times, and blogs at He has a civil engineering degree from UCT.