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Open Streets Cape Town |Photo by Sinobia Makapela

Not only do streets connect places, but they also connect people. Streets hold memories and stories, both individual and collective, and these stories help cement the path of generations to come. Stories aren’t always pretty, though, and sometimes streets bear scars that even a complete infrastructural overhaul cannot mend.

This is particularly the case in South Africa, where apartheid policy entrenched divisions that were both physical and emotional. The remnants of these policies are still painfully present in many public spaces.

In the 1950s, the state passed a number of laws enforcing the separation of races on a large scale. The Population Registration Act of 1950 formalized racial classification (white, black, Indian or colored), while the Group Areas Act of the same year determined where citizens lived according to their race. Under the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953, public and semi-public spaces such as beaches, public transport, hospitals and educational institutions could be reserved for a particular races—signboards displaying “whites only” and “non-whites only” were common in these areas.

Urban planning was, of course, influenced by these policies. Residential neighborhoods were developed far apart from each other and separated by “buffer zones” such as freeways, and non-white areas weren’t permitted to have any permanent features, which meant that the majority of the population enjoyed very few social amenities.

In the twenty years since apartheid has been formally dismantled, very little has changed in the way we actually live and move. This is partly why the Open Streets Cape Town movement speaks so directly to those who have grown accustomed to an inaccessible city that is still largely segregated by race.

Cape Town is one of the richest cities in Africa. However, the majority of its 3.7 million citizens live in “townships” and in poorer areas such as Mitchells Plain, which was built during the 1970s for non-white people who had been displaced after being forcibly removed from the city center and suburbs deemed “white only.” Because of this, today Mitchells Plain residents are often required to travel huge distances for work. (The township is 18 miles from the central business district [CBD] of Cape Town and 12 miles from commercial nodes in the southern suburbs.)

Meanwhile, those Capetonians who live “on the right side of the tracks” (or freeway)—or along the beautiful coast and mountains for which the city is renowned—seldom visit its poorer areas. This is business as usual in a city whose poverty and division you never have to see if you simply speed past it on the freeway.

The Past, Present, and Future of Open Streets Cape Town

Registered as a non-profit organization in 2013, Open Streets Cape Town was founded in 2012 by a group of volunteers who were fed up with the status quo. Our flagship program is a series of Open Streets Days that began as a practical way to help bridge the city’s spatial and social divides by changing how streets are used, perceived, and experienced. Today the popularity of these events—which were inspired by Bogotá’s recreational program Ciclovía—is spreading quickly across the metropolitan region.

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Traffic-free streets have been tested for decades in Cape Town | Cape Argus article, April 12, 1948

The concept of shutting down streets for recreation and to promote active mobility is not new; not even in South Africa. Indeed, an article in a local newspaper (the Cape Argus) from the 1940s shows how some neighborhoods created traffic-free streets, even then, for the purpose of play. More recently, in the early 2000s, South African government officials visited Bogotá and experienced Ciclovía, which has enabled people to traverse the entire city on a bicycle since the 1970s. Even though local government tested a car-free “festival” in Cape Town in 2003, the idea never caught on.

When we came together to try Open Streets again in 2013, it was difficult to convince local government that it was worth another shot. They argued that Cape Town already had a proliferation of outdoor activities, that the city was too spread out and the weather was unpredictable. (In fairness, all of this is true.) But we pushed on anyway, and with the help of the Cape Town Partnership and a number of civic organizations, we held the first Open Streets Day in the residential inner-city suburb of Observatory on May 25, 2013.

And the results were amazing. In a post-apartheid city, Ciclovía was not just about cycling, exercising, and being outdoors; it was also about (re)connection. The people of Cape Town craved the opportunity to interact with each other safely and freely, in the way that only public space enables us to do, and this event afforded us the opportunity to attach some positive stories to the narrative of the city’s streets.

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Boho “Obs” was chosen to host the first Open Streets Day because of its diverse and creative community | Photo by Lisa Burnell, Cape Town Partnership

Since that day, we have tested the concept twice in Cape Town’s CBD; twice in the city’s oldest township, Langa; in the historically Afrikaner northern suburb of Bellville; and in Mitchells Plain in the vast area known as the Metro South East or Cape Flats.

The turnout has exceeded our expectations on every occasion, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, while still acknowledging the reality of Cape Town’s division and emphasizing that there are still not enough opportunities for people to connect and see each other as equals.

Open Streets Mitchells Plain was perhaps the clearest indication of what potential lies on a city’s streets. On a regular day, many of the area’s thoroughfares are scarcely populated beyond the large traffic loads during peak hour. Crime, gangs, and drug addiction are everyday problems that prevent people from moving freely in public space.

The perception of danger on the Cape Flats is exacerbated by the narrative pushed by mainstream media, but the sense of imprisonment among many Mitchells Plain residents is very real. During one of the public meetings we held in preparation for Open Streets Day, a 40-year-old woman, with her 10-year-old son by her side, lamented that her child had never been able to play outdoors because of the pervasive fear that keeps everyone in the community in their homes. She said that even she didn’t walk on the street on her own. Ever.

So we thought Open Streets Mitchells Plain would be a hard sell. But we were wrong. “What would happen if we took cars out of the street for an afternoon?” we asked area residents. Confused looks quickly turned to day-dreaming faces. A soccer game or some street cricket? How about music, or dancing?

In the following weeks we asked the same question and held similar conversations with different groups, and a plan started to take shape. This engagement process showed us that, if given the opportunity, people want to invest in making their neighborhoods better.

When the first Open Streets Day took place in Mitchells Plain in April 2016, many couldn’t believe that there were thousands of people – of all races, from all over – on Merrydale Avenue. First a marching band arrived, followed by a group who had cycled more than 18 miles from the city center. And the procession of people didn’t stop until the street had to return back to “normal” at 5pm.

In adding a new chapter to the story of Cape Town’s streets, we’ve managed to convince communities and local government that Open Streets Days work. The City of Cape Town’s transit authority, Transport for Cape Town, has committed to developing a model that will enable a long-term city-wide Open Streets program and, pending private funding, we aim to do just that!