Opinion Piece

Marcela Guerrero Casas: Creating safe new ways of experiencing our cities

The creation of a safe, non-commercial and welcoming public space in Cape Town is necessary to challenge the barriers cemented in the past which taint our experience of the present and keep us apart.

My father used to say that in a country like the one I grew up in, “thinking was subversive”. The same can be said for many countries around the world.

This morning Michelle, one of my neighbours at work, made me realise that revolution lies in something even more simple: in “moving”, literally.

This followed a conversation about the important role an initiative like Open Streets can play in Mitchells Plain where young people are told, as she put it, not to move and to stick to the areas they know.

Michelle, a resident of Mitchells Plain herself, helped me remember why the creation of a safe, non-commercial and welcoming public space in Cape Town is not only desirable, it is absolutely necessary, to challenge the barriers cemented in the past which taint our experience of the present and keep us apart.

Moving” is made possible at an Open Streets day by the removal of motorised vehicles and the type of interaction that is made possible by the numerous activities that unfold on the day. But the movement only starts there. The experience is physical as people traverse on bicycles, skates or feet; and also symbolic in the sense that by shaking up the arbitrary demarcations society has imposed on us, regarding where we live what we are supposed to do, enjoy, be good at or even allowed to do, our minds create space for new ways of experiencing our city and therefore the world.

On Sunday, after months of planning and two previous Open Streets days, we tested out the formula of creating a shared public space for recreation, connection and different types of mobility –the type which doesn’t require an engine and brings people closer together.

But having fun one day does not magically erase the real challenges of a community, let alone the history that led to the social ills that a place like Mitchells Plain endures daily. The structural violence experienced by residents of Mitchells Plain is indefensible. Nevertheless, and perhaps partly because of it, there is a spirit of resilience which shines brightly where one would expect darkness and despondency.

Only last week we visited Duneside primary school where we were met by its principal. He had generously offered his premises for some of our operations on the day and during our visit he made it clear his commitment to the school was not just a job. He spoke of the school grounds as public space that belonged to the community and to which youth of all ages should have access, not just during school hours. He spoke about the need for changing people’s mindsets around success and the opportunity that every day lies in learning something else and choosing to be a positive force in our communities. In his case, this included (besides the running of the school) bringing colour to the classrooms and teaching children to work with recycled materials. It also included his personal attitude towards challenges and conflict.

Not everything is in our control… the trick is knowing how to respond,” he said.

One day is not going to change the fact that most children in Mitchells Plain are afraid to go outside, let alone make proactive use of public space in the area. But for an afternoon, there will be the types of activities that all kids at a young age should have access to; not just because they are fun but because engaging with each other and experiencing safety in public space is something that can last a lifetime. It is the type of energy that ensures they become adults who feel a sense of ownership and responsibility to protect that same space for the generations to come.

Three years ago, when we first went to Mitchells Plain at one of the public meetings, one of the residents shared with the group that her kid had never played outside. He was 10 years old and she, a 40-year-old woman, was afraid to go out on her own. We know the story only too well. And when Open Streets took place along Merrydale Avenue that year, our fellow resident came out with her kid, bicycle in hand, and the smiles were a powerful testament to the experience she was finally able to have and to give her son; because, albeit temporarily, streets were safe.

There is no illusion that safety will come automatically with Open Streets but we do believe there is untapped potential in bringing large groups of people together to create a shared space. After all, there is safety in numbers, and we’d add there is inspiration when those numbers grow.

It might be that we start to feel like we are part of a city, which despite its divisions and barriers can pull together to cross those boundaries, one street at a time. DM

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