A weekend conversation: Are youth included in the vision of a city, and do they care?

With the weekend firmly in view, Brett Petzer and Rashiq Fataar kickstart conversations – and invite you to finish them in Comments. These dialogues are freeform to encourage debate and let in a little fresh air on some classic debates about the present and future of our cities. So, please take sides and join in. 
Rashiq Fataar: A weekend ago I found myself in a room with about 70 other young people from across Cape Town and its creative sectors, sharing our work, but also engaging with them on city issues, their visions, future projects planned for the city and so forth. It became apparent that there was such a large gulf or disconnect between their aspirations and visions for our city.

I wonder how much previous planning and vision processes actually reach out to these young leaders. They certainly do care but time and time again, through processes like “Cape Town 20XX”, or “One Cape 20XX”, they aren’t reaching an audience with whom these visions are meant to have the most resonance and will largely be responsible for delivering on these visions.

Brett Petzer: This is obviously a defining question for the future of South African cities. Beginning with the long term view, South Africa’s population growth is slowing and the population is aging – putting us from a few years to a generation ahead of most other sub-Saharan African countries. This makes a hell of a difference because it means that, within quite a short space of time, people in high school and in their twenties today will be paying for much more of the state than their parents currently do.

They will also receive less for that money, as things that are today background issues in Cape Town, like overall water supply and storm surges, become news. Then today’s youth will wake up to a huge bill  – one we’re deciding the details of now, through our success or failure in thinking long term.

I mean, if the beginning of getting the youth involved in the city is introducing the idea that the city can be a source of positive experiences throughout your life – it starts with parks and crèches, and once you’re older there are many services, especially if you’re starting a family, but in the meanwhile – for one or two decades – the city means nothing to you.

RF: I think that has to be one of the best things about living at a time when the City of Cape Town is in a position to open a visionary skate park under a highway – and then see what is officially a municipal park filled with young people every night of the week until 9pm. People already love the Gardens Skate Park, and that makes a difference: if they’re middle class people, there’s a real chance that this is the first time they’ve consciously used new City of Cape Town infrastructure and understood that social spending and local government are powerful and potentially transformative things. Although they’re just in high school, they are going to hear the argument that local government can change, and can change things, very differently now because they can think of, and visit, an example of that.

Now, of as a matter of urgency, we can start to dream about seeing other well-designed, well-conceived infrastructure going up in Cape Town that looks beyond immediate needs like health, sanitation, education and transport and addresses things like physical activity and stimulation and its opposite, inactivity and boredom. Boredom is a very powerful force in a young person’s life, especially if one’s home isn’t a comfortable environment to learn and relax and socialise in – and a lot of Capetonian homes are places like that. While essential services will always be paramount, and should remain priorities, that isn’t to say that things like offering a healthy and safe place for children to play doesn’t respond to a different kind of emergency.

BP: I remember going with my mom to Diepsloot in Soweto to see a park, entirely of the quality of parts of the Green Point Urban Park, that had been built overnight. It literally went from a field with some pipes sticking out of the ground to a landscaped, paved, extremely high-quality space overnight – I think Absa or a local corporate provided their staff, as a team building exercise, and possibly topped up the funding, but the rest was all Public Works or the City of Johannesburg. There was a Fanpark, that also became really popular for all kinds of meetings and get-togethers. The point was that, months later when we visited, the park was crawling with children – I actually saw a heavily-overcrowded merry-go-round that people were calling a Metrorail train.

I know we have great new parks going up in Cape Town and I suppose my point is just, let’s make sure that they are defended in subsequent spending reviews, that they are well maintained, that more are built where they are really needed first, and let’s think big about how public participation could learn from what young people actually do – to look at the Skate Park as a model, and go and find them where they are, rather than putting up details of a Wednesday night ratepayers’ association meeting on, say, Facebook.

RF: Let’s leave the ratepayer’s association discussion for another time, but I think this evolving and transformative role of public space as part of tangible connecting young people to a “more common” vision for a city is a bold move forward.