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Reclaiming our streets should be the new design ethos

by Ofentse Sefolo
Reclaiming our streets should be the new design ethos

By Patrick McInerney, Christoph Malan, Catharine Atkins and Malika Walele, Co-Arc International Architects

In a healthy society, bumping into a president, a member of parliament (MP) or the chief executive officer (CEO) of a global multinational should not be a newsworthy event. It should be the norm. In fact, as an architectural firm, we have long advocated for a more inclusive type of city, for doing away with walled communities and for a design ethos which flows from structure to streets – in the process, creating new opportunities for interaction and collaboration.

Separate, but not equal
Much of our current situation must be attributable to the apartheid-era planning approach. Although it must be said that, in recent years, unchecked crime and the associated fear of hijackings and home invasions have buoyed the development of estates and walled communities. The combined result is a spatially distant approach, an uncoordinated hive of separateness. And a far cry from the inclusivity which, as a nation, we speak of in such rapt tones.

In recent years, and in recognition of this fact, there has been some good progress made to correct the imbalance – but only in pockets. Under former City of Johannesburg mayor, Parks Tau, and subsequently under the Democratic Alliance-lead administration, upgrades were affected to streets and parks in Soweto and several inner-city precincts. But it is becoming increasingly clear that, as citizens, we need to take responsibility for our own pavements and for the health and inclusivity of our own neighbourhoods.

Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s walking president.

A call for collective action
The problem is that issues around urban planning, opposing the mushrooming of shopping malls and walled estates are far from being “sexy” topics. As a result, there is no active citizenry demanding better amenities and a more intelligent use of community space. Many of us have gardens at home and private spaces to enjoy, so we do not raise our voices in support of the voiceless who need access to better communal spaces.

Investment in streets, squares, parks and other public amenities does not return a dividend that can easily be reflected on a balance sheet and, superficially considered, it is therefore an unattractive development proposition to both the public and the private sector. But in effect its value is immeasurable.

This is where society interacts, where culture thrives, where the economic pulse is tangible and the social contract is visibly enacted.

We, as architects, have a role to play, but we cannot do this alone. What is so desperately needed, is greater interaction between professionals and the government, and ongoing consultations with communities to understand how to breathe life into our cities.

Digital vs human, you decide
The lockdown period, and seemingly an overnight change in the way many of us work and live, has certainly highlighted a different way of doing things – one enabled by IT and digital solutions and taking the form of a greater uptake of work-from-home opportunities. Covid-19 has crystallised how easy it is to decentralise work and ensure greater flexibility in how we structure our time, where we live and what we require of our homes and our community spaces.

While it is easy to consider the digital reality for institutions such as private schools, which can certainly teach remotely, this is much more of a challenge in poorer communities and townships. That is unless we build a digital framework into our urban design planning which promotes equality.

Create new opportunities for interaction and collaboration
But there is another side to this debate: The social isolation and community estrangement caused by protracted isolation. The psychology of this new world of work will bring unique challenges around social interaction. As part of the human experience, this is an emerging trend which those tasked with planning our cities and our homes must consider.

In South Africa, for example, a work-from-home reality means we will be increasingly isolated in our own homes and gardens, compared to Europe, Latin America and Asia, where the streets are designed to host that interaction. This highlights the importance of reactivating our streets, breathing new life into our underutilised high streets and working to make isolated shopping malls more interactive.

Human beings are social by nature. We cannot just interact solely with the world through virtual means.

Now is the time to reclaim our commons, to apply our minds to putting our existing spaces to better or different use, to increase the availability of mixed-use developments and to make it easier to live, work and play within more flexible spaces, more creative places and more easily accessible areas. With the right foresight and planning, we could see this joviality unfolding on an even grander scale.

This process will require better social spaces and parks and the opening of our streets. This evolution can, and should, be a guided and collaborative process – one in which architects have an important role to play in ensuring that presidents and prime ministers can continue to enjoy a space to roam.

This call to action should, at this time, also be tied into the inevitable economic recovery and infrastructure drive that has been promised as part of South Africa’s response to the Covid-19 crisis. Coupled to this should be a greater debate and reflection about the type of society we hope to see in the future.

For more information, contact Co-Arc International Architects:
Tel: +27 11 447 1344
Email: admin@co-arc.com
Website: www.co-arc.com

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