Being human on Cape Town’s Open Streets

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Towards the end of Sunday’s Bree Open Streets Day I finally took some time to sit with a cup of tea and enjoy the street. As a survey volunteer I had spent most of the day interviewing. The people I spoke to had talked about the “the cool vibe”, how great it was “to just hang out”, the “freedom” (especially for kids). One even said it was chilled, so “serene”. I looked around and slowed a little. It was, as they had said, easy and relaxed. Ambling walkers. Meandering cyclists. Friends and family meeting, hugging and chatting. Skateboarders lazily flipping boards.

There were plenty of activities around attracting interest and small crowds. There were some people intent on getting exercise and the businesses were open. What most struck me most, though, was how low key it all was. We think of “events” as exhilarating and adrenalin-producing. By that measure this “event” was a non-event of sorts. There was nothing too dramatic to see. No big “wow” to post on social media, and yet everyone I spoke to loved it. The crowd who came mostly enjoying simply watching each other. We were enjoying the experience of being stripped bare of cars and the push to buy, buy, buy. We were just a bunch of human beings being human together. No big deal.

Except that in Cape Town an Open Street like this IS a big deal because there are so few places where people can go and simply be with each other. The genuinely public spaces we have – safe places that welcome all and that don’t require tickets or big budgets – are few. None of these spaces allow for safe and respectful movement, the lounging AND the creative expression that Open Streets provides a platform for.

Great cities of the world all celebrate and provide for this “Open Streets” relaxed way of being together with plazas, piazzas, or pedestrianised high streets. They make space for people to enjoy being with and watching each other. Our history hasn’t celebrated our peoples and so perhaps not surprisingly our city hasn’t created spaces for this kind of experience. We have all missed out. After all, where better in the world to people-watch than Cape Town with its eclectic, flamboyant, creative, fun and energetic mix of people? Open Streets really seems to answer a suppressed yearning in Capetownians. Here, at the tip end of Africa, there’s a lot people who simply want the chance to hang out with each other on a street closed to traffic.

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