Family of public space warriors
I often joke that my attraction to cities is a natural reaction to an upbringing in the countryside. It turns out that the despite the clear contrast between the two, they share one of the features that most fascinates me about living with other humans: public space.
Cape Town may not be comparable to the large urban centres of the world, but it has enough people, movement and friction to allow for public space to be contested, redesigned and occupied. It seems this fascination pre-dates my arrival in South Africa. It might have started at birth.
My father passed away recently and I returned to Cota, the small town just outside Bogotá, Colombia, where he lived and where I grew up. Talking to his friends, I learned an interesting anecdote from his last years. He apparently went to “war” with the local municipality about making use of a particular corner of the town square where the coffee shop he visited almost every single morning was located. Perhaps “war” is too strong of a word as, really, my dad was a pacifist (despite our surname literally meaning “warrior”). Either way, it was interesting that he managed to create such a stir by simply setting up a chair outside the coffee shop where he would sit to read the daily paper while sipping on a strong cup of Colombian brew. The story goes that the authorities came to the owner and asked him to remove the chair because it was an “invasion of public space”.
My dad was livid, and thus began a passive campaign. Every morning, the chair came out, the owner reminded him of the town council’s position, my father ordered his coffee and the newspaper unfolded to the view of all passers-by. If anyone asked, he would say: “What is the harm of an old man making use of his ‘birth right’ to this country’s public space?”
What followed wasn’t anything epic or even conclusive — except that now, every once in a while, you see people sitting on that particular corner of the square, using chairs from the same coffee shop. No bylaw was passed and the owner of the coffee shop didn’t expand his establishment onto the square. It was simply my father’s way of exerting what he deemed his right and a way of engaging with his community.
The story is personal, not just because it brings a sense of nostalgia, a reminder of loss, but also because of my involvement in helping defend public space in my adoptive “town” –Cape Town. The lesson I take away is that the mission isn’t simple: to what extent are we entitled to take over public plazas, streets or parks as individuals and as establishments? Is there a clear line between non-commercial and commercial motivations? Was my dad inadvertently emboldening the owner of the coffee shop to take over public space for profit or was he helping people reconnect with a sense of ownership for this particular square that was built for them to use anyway?
Granted, Latin America has a history of vibrant plazas and public life, but sharing space and respecting the right of others to public resources is still inherently conflictive. And in a city like Cape Town, thus, the discussion is not just about commercialisation of space (though profit is increasingly a driving force in how public space is designed and managed) but also about history, language, access and more.
I was recently reminded of such complexities after watching a poignant play entitled What Remains. It tells the story of a slave burial ground in Cape Town where construction is planned by developers who seem oblivious to the sacredness of the space. Loosely based on the story behind the Prestwich Memorial, one of Cape Town’s most iconic new public spaces, the play brought home the challenges we face as inhabitants of cities with unresolved issues and, therefore, contested spaces.
How does memory influence the design of squares, plazas and monuments? Whose memory? How can public resources be distributed in a way that facilitates access to the city for residents from different communities? Do we recognise the value of those spaces and therefore exercise our rights and responsibilities to their conservation and use? Can public space, particularly streets, be truly inclusive or is it destined to remain a microcosm of the larger problematic reality we live in?
I lack the answers and, along with my colleagues at Open Streets, often grapple with issues of boundaries, rights, responsibilities and equal access to space. Fortunately though, I am part of a public space family that isn’t just biological. I have come across people in South Africa who share the same spirit my father had. The famous ‘zealous nuts’ that Fred Kent speaks about and the friends and colleagues who share the dream of city spaces where we all belong.