“Perhaps public space is the best catalyst to enlighten citizen’s imaginations about their city’s potential”
Brett Petzer of Future Cape Town and Olamide Udo-Udoma of Future Lagos reflect on the perceptions and influences on public space in each city, and how their work has been shaped and whether either city could learn from the other.
Brett Petzer: Comparing Lagos and Cape Town is, in some ways a dangerous game. Cape Town is too often presented, by insiders and outsiders alike, as an counter-African edge city, trading on the European look achieved in its city centre through hundreds of years of segregation by race and class.
Olamide Ud0-Udoma: Well, in too much current reporting, Lagos exists as the opposite: an African megalopolis hurtling towards total collapse, but never quite getting there.
Brett: These narratives have considerable force in the public mind and in the press. Moreover, they do contain some truth. And yet, like flies around a shisanyama or suya stand, they must be beaten back if we are to arrive at anything fresh and fulfilling.
Olamide: Yes, and we have been trying this with the Playable City Lagos in collaboration with the British Council. A project starting from scratch to build new narratives, one step at a time. Playable City Lagos is a step in this direction. We are attempting to use play, and the unscripted, unrehearsed interactions that a state of play provokes, in encouraging Lagosians to think anew about how to make and remake their city.
Brett: This is a bold approach, considering that here in Cape Town we remain very constrained in this sense of freedom your project aims for – historical divides persist, the language of power excludes many of the most vulnerable people, and participatory processes are physically and practically very exclusive. Interventions like yours offer a way to treat vox populi systematically and seriously, to overcome these problems in traditional public engagement processes.
Olamide: Our online questionnaire and live video interviews held in streets and public spaces really helped to address some of these divides and broaden the conversation. We could then take these insights to a workshop with key individuals in the built environment profession in a way bridging the gap between street and boardroom.
Brett: Yes, and being creative through languages, interviews and methods is key, and sometimes unplanned. We invited some young people to a Placemaking Lab (a co-design workshop hosted by Future Cape Town with young designers and urbanists)- without a clue what the outcome would be. It involved graduates and young professionals sitting around a table sketching blue-sky ideas over images of the Sea Point Library square site. This gave us fresh perspective halfway into our research, rather than continuing without a shake-up of our minds.
Olamide: In our city creativity is not optional, as decades of ad-hoc, spontaneous development and rapid urbanisation have created a context in which securing basic services and performing everyday commutes call on citizens’ ingenuity and patience. ‘Play’ is thus all around, except perhaps on official drawing-boards. In a sense we want to bring something of the hackability of daily life in Lagos into an official context, and ask how informality can inform more effective city-making at local government level.
Lagosians tended to cast their ambitions for their own neighbourhoods in terms of private-sector opportunities rather than government shortcomings
Brett: But at what cost? In Cape Town it seems as if the cost to become a hacker or guerilla urbanist, or even to work with temporary projects can be met with compliance processes and a lack of inter-departmental discussion. This divide between the DIY urbanism practiced by residents and a highly formalised discourse at city government level is nowhere more pronounced than in Cape Town.
Olamide: Here in Lagos, given where we come from, change was visible and this influenced the dialogue. We were reminded of the power and benefits of a bold and visionary leadership, like that of Governor Babatunde Fashola (Nigeria’s Minister of Power, Works and Housing).
Brett: And this was reflected in the aspiration of individuals?
Olamide: In a sense yes, but also not. Lagosians tended to cast their ambitions for their own neighbourhoods in terms of private-sector opportunities rather than government shortcomings, as they are accustomed to state failure in areas such as basic service delivery or transparent government.
Brett: In a law-and-order city like Cape Town that makes much of its history of clean audits and effective service delivery, very little can be achieved without the appropriate permit, effectively stacking the odds against citizen-led innovation. But I don’t think this should be a dichotomy.
Olamide: A lot of times, Lagosians don’t see why things need to change. You ask them, “What are the problems in this area?”, and they say “Oh, nothing”. Then you ask, “Is your water constant? Is your electricity constant? Do you think we need more public spaces? How about if we had more green spaces?”. Then they start to open up and it becomes alright to ask.
Brett: I think that it is our collective job to build a more interested or more inspired citizenry. We don’t come from 300 years of a well-established public space culture. Even the word ‘public space’ is so abstract for many – both in language and sensory experience. They incite citizens to wonder what it would take to cross the distance between the cities we have, and the cities we want
Olamide: Although this sort of conversation would have been much more difficult a decade ago, before the current era of heroic urbanism in which Lagos has seen unprecedented investment in public services and infrastructure.
Brett: This is the kind of thinking that has guided our development of the Sea Point Parklet on a busy commercial artery in Cape Town, which some stakeholders opposed because the road was “too busy”. We argued that was precisely why pedestrians deserved some infrastructure, to complement the excellent infrastructure already existing for cars. Cape Town recently funded a ‘streetiquette’ project, in which actors modelled civic kinds of behaviour and parodied anti-social ones, as well as Open Streets projects (modelled on Bogotá’s ciclovía) in a growing number of areas.
Olamide: Governor Fashola backed a No-Horn Day in which, by the force of distributed pamphlets alone, Lagos’s famously cacophonic drivers refrained from hooting their feelings for a full day.
Brett: As these initiatives prompt people to imagine the city they deserve, they incite citizens to wonder what it would take to cross the distance between the cities we have, and the cities we want.
Olamide: Perhaps public space is the best catalyst to enlighten citizen’s imaginations about their city’s potential, and even to further empower them to push those changes.
Brett: With Future Cape Town’s design competition for the parklet, we chose to include government, and not just officials but those champions like librarians and headmasters, who are such large influencers on the public spaces outside their doors.
Olamide: Yes, not working with government would be a mistake. Three ministries – Environment, Urban Planning, and Works – participated in the workshop phase of Playable City. There has also been tacit support for future built interventions, if funding can be found.
Brett: And the power of design collaborations are key. New funding models and more advocacy efforts are needed if we are to show the power of public space. UN Habitat has called public space essential but funding remains challenging, not surprising when the first ever UN resolution on public space was finalised just 5 years ago. It is not often one gets to work with an innovative and visionary developer like Blok who partners with us on the parklet.
Olamide: I think the next phase where interventions will be designed collaboratively at three very different sites will reveal even deeper perspectives about what ‘design’ means here.
Brett: I think this quote from Marco Lampugnani in a previous Future Cape Town conversation ties up our conversation well : “I’m not only talking about tools to support design processes (what we call participation, inclusion, user experience etc). I’m talking about going far beyond in the way we look at urban environments: our societies are changing faster than ever so how can we relate to that change? How can we design for the new rituals that are emerging daily? Novelty comes from our ability to lead the world as we know it into the one we can contribute to create”.
Olamide: I think that sums it up perfectly.
Where to from here:
- 11 creatives from Nigeria and the UK have been selected for Playable City Lagos with Future Lagos
- Thornhill Park, the community parking being revived by Blok in collaboration with Future Cape Town, the City of Cape Town and the Friends of Thornhill Park re-opens on Sunday, 21 February
- The parklet at 51 Regent Road, with free wifi, bicycle parking and seats launched this year. Through the Blok x Future Cape Town collaboration, GAPP Architects and Urban Designers designed the parklet, and built by Cameron Barnes Furniture
- Have more ideas for public space? Mail us firstname.lastname@example.org
Read more about public space:
- R1 million public art competition launched
- How to turn a parking bay into a public space?
- How public spaces revive cities
- Pictures, Rashiq Fataar and Brett Petzer, Future Cape Town.
- Pictures, Olamide Oda-Odoma, Future Lagos.
- Pictures Lagos: Lindsay Sawyer, ETH Zurich