Little actions that bring people together

Little actions that bring people together

As the CEO of a grant funded organisation, a non-profit, I am often challenged to validate the importance of placemaking programmes and allied activities in a country characterised by staggering inequality, high unemployment and poverty. These issues are of vital importance and require consistent intervention by civil society and the public and private sectors. Placemaking is often seen as a soft issue, not equal to infrastructure investment.

Twenty-two years into South Africa’s democracy, divisions along race and class lines are becoming more pronounced than ever. Spread by social media and the growing ubiquity of some form of Internet access, cellphones and other forms, these schisms are becoming part of the public discourse today, and this is not only true of a country shadowed by a history of institutionalised prejudice, but it’s a global issue as well. One needs only to be aware of the outcome of the recent Brexit elections, or listen to the xenophobic bluster of a certain political candidate to know that the world is becoming more divided than ever into ‘like us’ or ‘different them’.

The legacy of apartheid spatial planning in a city like Cape Town means that many suburbs continue to manifest apartheid-era realities in terms of racial composition. Since moving to Cape Town 16 years ago, I’ve lived in a relatively integrated, previously ‘white’ suburb that is slowly becoming integrated. However, it took a chapter in a report, the General Household Survey1, published by Statistics South Africa, in May this year which opened my eyes to the true extent of segregation in South African cities.

Applying Theil’s entropy index to the latest census data, researchers were able to discern that though municipalities around the country have become more integrated, the situation is still dire. Cape Town shared several general attributes with the five other large municipalities in the country. These included central business districts (CBDs) with a high percentage of black African residents; these CBDs are surrounded by suburbs with a high concentration of white residents, while the high-density townships “dominated by black African, coloured or Indian/Asian residents – are disconnected from the CBD.”2 And as per my own experience, racial mixing seemed to occur most frequently in previously ‘white’ neighbourhoods.

The findings around the CBD were of primary interest to me, since when the Cape Town Partnership was first established in 1999 – to address urban flight and contributing factors such as crime and grime, which saw large corporates shutter their buildings and low residential and commercial occupancy rates – our area of focus was limited to the Cape Town CBD. Within ten years, Cape Town’s CBD came to be regarded as one of the cleanest and safest in the area.

From about 2006, the next phase of our evolution saw us concentrate energy on property investment, while since around 2012, we’ve expanded our model to include placemaking. Every phase of our development has been appropriate for the environmental context, which leads to a fully integrated model focused on putting people (and their needs) first.

And when we talk about people, we mean Capetonians, since we believe that if ordinary citizens feel at home in their cities, visitors will too. Recently, Cape Town’s CBD was shown to attract the highest number of international visitors amongst all attractions in South Africa – according to research by South African Tourism.3

Since citizens are a vital partner in our work of bringing people and places together, we have several programmes that enable citizen activation of public spaces to take place. These include Open City, held on the first Thursday of each month as part of the First Thursdays movement, during which individuals and organisations are invited to use historic Church Square as their stage, and City Walk Saturdays, held on the third Saturday of each month in which people are invited to activate the entire City Walk route, stretching from the Company’s Garden, up St George’s Mall to the Fan Walk and culminating at St Andrew’s Square.

During these and a 17-year history of events, we’ve seen sights of true unity that would have been unthinkable in the past. We’ve seen people from various walks of life initiating ideas: from the older woman giving away cones filled with soil and seeds to raise awareness about sustainability, exhibitions by students at design and arts colleges in the area, live installations, mime, puppetry, theatre, tears, laughter, and throughout all this, people from diverse walks of life meeting each other as equals in public space.

These days, the Cape Town Partnership regards placemaking as a core strategic focus that permeates all we do. Although we’re only begun articulating this, and using the term in recent years, it encapsulates what we’ve been doing since we’ve first begun: creating clean, safe, public spaces, where people feel welcome. And while there are many noble causes and dire needs in Cape Town, South Africa, and indeed, the rest of the world, surely activities that seek to unite people rather than divide them, are worthy of our support?


About SIX Series on post-conflict societies

In the run to the Summer School in Colombia 2016, we developed a blog series on social innovation and peace building. How has conflicts shaped social innovation cultures across different places? What is the post-conflict legacy?

Introduction to SIX Series on post-conflict societies #1: To read Eddy Adam’s introduction to the series, click here.

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #2: For the first blog in the series, written by Eddy Adams and Gorka Espiau on the Basque peace process, click here.

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #3: For the second post, click here to read Al Etmanski’s piece on innovation and the indigenous population of Canada. 

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #4: For the third post, by Michelle Breslauer on positive peace approach links between Mexico and Colombia, click here.

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #5: Click here to read Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana’s blog on little actions that bring people together. 

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #6: To read an extract from Adam Kahane’s book entitled Collaborating with the Enemy: How to Work with People You Don’t Agree with or Like or Trust, click here.

SIX Series on post-conflict societies #7: To read Michelle Herman’s blog on how small communities can address traumatic past events, click here.