God-tricks and the Foreshore

Dec 2010 093 edited (762x1024)

It has been seventy years – a lifetime – since the first models for the Foreshore were presented to the Cape Town public. The 1947 model proved to be surprisingly resilient, even if the sweeping boulevards and monumental parades that it presented fell out of fashion. The three-dimensional 1947 model lived for many years in a civic centre lift foyer, beguiling passers-by.

2017 Foreshore proposal (576x1024)

The models and visuals of the latest exhibition of the Foreshore are equally entrancing. They allow the visitor to get a full sense of the scale and grandeur of the current proposals. Visitors can move, as if in an airplane, through the air above the city and see the future visions below.

Donna Haraway calls this way of seeing the “god trick”. Being above such models distances the observer and creates an illusion of all-knowingness. The observer is omnipresent, the Foreshore is under control. The view from above is cleansed of complexity. Looking at models like these of the Foreshore creates a fantasy view. No human will live this version of the Foreshore.

Donna Haraway suggests that instead of god-tricks we could we pay more attention to “diffracted views”. These deny the idea of a single Foreshore story, whether based on roads, or elevated urban parks, luxury apartments or low cost housing. She challenges us to become more open to knowing from a location, and from a particular body.

In practice, what would that mean?

It would mean moving beyond god-tricks, and getting into human bodies, from the proposal stage. It would mean representing experiences of humans in and through the Foreshore proposals, in all their complexity. The woman driver on freeways, on streets, in parking. The man on foot. The child in pram. The householder in high-rise, under freeway, next to port. The business woman in the waterfront, in the City, in the Bo-Kaap. The refugee.

This is not common practice. It feels too complex for planning purposes and for certain it would require Cape Town’s built environment professionals to stretch even deeper into their creativity. But the history of planning in the Foreshore area shows that the many voices of Cape Town will have their voices heard and their experiences validated, despite the god-trick arguments of the engineers and planners. History shows that people can and will call loudly and powerfully for attention. Which is partly why the Foreshore is “unfinished” to this day, despite the impressive models of the decades before.

Engineering, roads and public participation: “It’s technical….not political”

There’s a picture which will stay in my mind long after the Wynberg public participation meeting on the proposed phase 2a BRT scheme meeting is forgotten. It’s the faces of City engineers looking, frankly, baffled. Like George Bush caught reading children’s stories while the twin towers collapsed many of the City engineers were caught off-guard reading the wrong script and wondering “how on earth did I end up here?” The public feedback was frequently jeering, bitter and highly critical of the engineers (“Hogwash!” “It feels so unprofessional”). The awkward moves of the engineers to deflect criticism (“This is not a political meeting…it’s technical!”) were met with scornful laughter and resentment at their apparent ignorance.
The audience had it really wrong about engineers and engineering. And really right.
First the wrong part. Engineers are not, by and large, stupid. An engineering degree is one of the most difficult university programmes to enter. Engineering students are universally derided for being hardworking nerds and the benchmarks for graduating are high. Engineers are then, by any standards, pretty bright. Also, engineers tend not to be the mean-spirited despots portrayed by the public. Many engineers enter the profession because they want to see good in the world. They are practical people often disenchanted with lack of material progress for humankind. I’ve been surprised at how many City of Cape Town engineers continue to work in a frustrating bureaucracy because they still secretly harbour some genuine wish to serve the public.
Then again.
The same university and professional education processes nurturing bright minds also generate much political, historical and social ignorance in the pursuit of engineering efficiency. Much of the undergraduate engineering education purposefully ignores historical context (and with it community memory and pain). And so an engineer can claim in a public meeting in Wynberg, with no sense of irony or cruelty, that a road scheme planned during apartheid is as valid today as it was then. In the traditional engineering paradigm “a road is a road” and a road, it has been taught, is a matter of efficient movement of people and vehicles. The road has little other meaning. In the engineering mindset if the road was “technically” valid in 1952, it is valid now. Educated to trust in their own pure objectivity a traffic engineer can publically state, without blushing, that a meeting to discuss a highly contested route, requiring relocation of families, affecting notable heritage sites and substantially impacting on a key business node of the City is not a political matter.
I am really encouraged, then, by a relatively new offering in the Engineering and Built Environment Faculty at UCT called “Social Infrastructures: Engaging with Communities for Change” acknowledging that development is a socio-technical process….shaped by the institutional and political context.” Let’s hope that as the BRT rolls out the engineers become much less baffled and much more savvy about power, pain and politics.

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