WATCH: Open source urban design

”…the most dangerous place for me to design a city from, is from a desk or from a place of privilege.”

Kirsten Wilkins is a freelance urban designer and architect in Cape Town.

Kirsten Wilkins recognises the value of ‘active participation’ in urban design. However South Africa suffers from a ‘lack of robust dialogue’ and South African urbanism continues to be designed from behind a desk. The exclusive design rhetoric used by designers serves to alienate the public from a conversation on urban design. Wilkins asks ‘how can the majority of participants and inhabitants of a city speak when this language of change is spoken by so few.’ She asks us to consider what our cities would look like if South Africa was not made up of 175 urban designers but by 45 million urban designers. Open source urban design invites the public to collaborate with designers and become a valued contributor. Wilkins states that ‘We are all fluent in a non-verbal, intuitive language of space-making.’ She speaks of an intuition that we all have, we know whether to judge a space as safe or unsafe. We also know whether it is a space to parade in.

As 45% of Cape Town’s inhabitants live beneath the poverty line (surviving on R10 a day), urban designers need to think about the way they view poverty. We do not necessarily need an urban design qualification to change the way that we think about the city. Wilkins went as far as to live on R10 a day – this example demonstrates the engagement of an urban designer with the needs of her city’s community. In another example, Wilkins left her desk again and took on the challenge of bicycle commuting. She was able to understand the needs of cyclists and in the process became a cycling advocate. Wilkins was able to bridge cycling with her earlier experiment: there’s an urban conversation to be had when you live on R10 a day and cycling costs nothing. Wilkins asserts that the key to successful cities is by first building successful relationships. Wilkins holds the view that open source urban design is really akin to a ‘community garden’ project where everyone is involved.  She concludes that ‘Open source urban design says it’s not my city, its our city.’

This talk was given at a local TEDx event in Cape Town and the video was published by TED on 2 September, 2014.