“Open Streets” opening more than just streets

Photo: Jodi Allemeier

Photo: Jodi Allemeier

We guessed that about 5000 people came through to walk, skate, cycle or just be on the streets of Observatory, Cape Town on Saturday. We expected the locals to be there, we thought a few might drift in from the surrounding suburbs, but we didn’t expect the scale to which Open Streets drew different people in. Like the three well-heeled ladies who drove in from Somerset West saying they hoped to do something like Open Streets there. Or the mom with toddler in tow who said that she had been chatting with her neighbours about a street event like this in Plumstead where kids could come out to play, and chalk the road. Or the older guys from Maitland, keen to build community there, and wondering “how best to do it?” Or the kids from Khayelitsha, brought through by their mentors, and lapping up the attention. And of course there were the pick-n-mix array of Cape Town creatives in great number, and in all their glorious variety. People of vastly different incomes, ages, backgrounds – but all attracted to something about this Open Streets thing in Observatory. How so?

Open Streets is such a simple idea it can sound dull and until people have experienced it, it is a hard sell. Choose a day and close the street to traffic is one basic description of it. But beyond this apparent simplicity is also an invitation which cuts across our daily habits, and steps us into other possibilities. Open Streets allows us to come out onto the public space we normally call “roads”, without the usual barriers of vehicles and haste.  Like the gents who heaved a sofa onto the footway and watched the world go by; or the many, many kids who got down on their knees and chalked the road into a riot of colour; or the cyclists and skaters who meandered through; or the dancers who just kept dancing on. And on. We are ultimately curious, social creatures and Open Streets (like the Fan Walk before it) attracts us because at some fundamental level people love to watch, and be around, other people. And the outcome of Open Streets was a strange phenomenon which many remarked upon – there were just so many smiles. Surprised smiles, charmed smiles, smiles of realisation and children’s smiles. This is a rare, rare thing to see on our streets. The design of our South African cities boxes us up, separates us out, and rushes us though the public space we call roads. Open Streets not only opened up Lower Main Road yesterday, but it opened up us all. And that was what made it so special.

For more on Open Streets see http://www.openstreets.co.za or follow Open Streets Cape Town on Facebook

The struggle to respect, and street scripts

In an earlier blogpost I wrote about my attempts to make “random acts of kindness” an habitual part of my driving day. Just in case my children should see that post; or the people who responded so generously to it (including an elderly lady with walking stick, and wheelchair users) should see me driving – I have a confession to make. I often get it wrong. I sail past pedestrian crossings which have children waiting to cross at them. I swing left and narrowly miss office workers.  I drive through. Past. Over. I confess, I confess! In truth, I often fall short of my aspiration to treat other road users as human. And yet it is also true that this is my deepest wish. I know it’s unfashionable, but I really want to respect other road users, especially those who aren’t driving. In fact, I spend a lot of my working life, and a good chunk of my spare time working towards this goal. So why is it so difficult?
Madelaine Akrich offers some clues as to why I, and many of us, fail despite our best intents. In her work on technologies she argues technological artefacts, like roads, traffic signals, curbstones and all the paraphenalia of the street, behave like a film script. This film script prompts us to act out our lives in particular ways. Thus a freeway scripts us to drive fast; a red light scripts us to stop, and a traffic circle scripts us to turn left. These examples are so obvious, even mundane that we take them completely for granted. Amongst those obvious “scripts”, though, are the less obvious and more insidious ones. A wider road, for example, scripts “speed”, even on a suburban street. Straight roads also script “fast”, regardless of the number of people crossing, or the schools nearby. South African road infrastructure scripts in millions of subtle ways and for the most part these scripts are for priority, and speed, to the car driver. In this daily drama the simple act of behaving independently, and counter to the script, is much tougher than we may think.
Tough, but not impossible. I re-commit to “random acts of kindness” on the road. And I close my ears to the laughter of my teenage children on the backseat when I fall short.
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