The catastrophic consequences of demolishing freeways. Not.

The catastrophic consequences of demolishing freeways. Not.

Existing masshouse infrastructure

masshouse-changes
Photos courtesy of Birmingham City Council

There has been an air of impossibility surrounding discussions about the Foreshore and catastrophizing about the traffic chaos which ‘will’ ensue. (Catastrophizing which, by the way, should be taken with one very big pinch of salt). The protestations are so dramatic, one would think that Cape Town is the only city to face traffic congestion and a busy inner city core.

Urban enthusiasts are already familiar with the North American examples where elevated freeways have been removed without descent into Armageddon (and instead with many benefits to the cities concerned). These benefits include better access to all areas along the road (previously inaccessible); unlocking new opportunities for land development; better pedestrian access; opportunities for public spaces; and reduced noise. I love these pictures of the UK city of Birmingham where a ring road built in the 1960s was part of the reason for the city’s grimy and dreary reputation. The City council saw the potential to bring the road infrastructure to ground, unlocking large packages of land. Latest news is that these packages of inner city land have been sold for residential apartment blocks, generating a new wave of inner city life which keeps the centre vibrant while relieving the need for so much car space for commuters. In light of ongoing tension over housing, particularly inner city housing, it’s really time that the debate over freeways also allowed for a more informed discussion about demolition.

 

Parents, pangs and walking to school

Parents, pangs and walking to school

children-450925_640
There’s something aching beautiful about the sight of young children walking, cycling or scooting to school. Hair flaying, rosy cheeks, eager faces…there are few parents whose heart doesn’t melt at the sight.
I may be a hopeless romantic, but the sight always brings pangs of wistful nostalgia for my own school days. For most of us with school going children we, too, walked those streets, making friends with the neighbours’ dogs, and the neighbours along the way, getting to know the corner shop, the post box, the dip in the footpath where the rain always lingered. For those children unable to experience that freedom to roam the streets, something very special has been lost.
In Cape Town’s poorer communities the picture of children daily en route to school is more out of necessity than choice. In the more affluent suburbs the gleeful children who do walk the streets are usually accompanied by ashen and rather anxious looking parents, and for once their anxiety isn’t about crime. Rather it’s about the other suburban parents driving their own kids to school. In a hurry. Not looking. The fear is of collision, crash, worse….no wonder so few of us who have choices take the risk and let our kids loose to get to school under their own steam. And yet by accepting this situation, so much is lost. Not only for our kids, but for ourselves and for our cities. Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogota calls children “a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.”
By this rubric Cape Town is failing miserably.
From Sea to Mountain: time to re-frame the City?

From Sea to Mountain: time to re-frame the City?

One of the more visionary elements in the current Foreshore Proposals is the ‘eye’ which would frame a view of Table Mountain from the harbour-side and create an iconic picture, especially for visitors arriving at the port. The idea has echoes of the earliest concepts for the area found in the 1947 Cape Town Foreshore Plan drawings, which highlighted the vista of those arriving by sea.

Sea approach (2)
Artist’s impression of view from Maritime Terminal, from Cape Town Foreshore Plan (1948)

Planners at the time created an over-arching concept for the area with a Monumental Approach from the Harbour towards the City Hall, framed by the Mountain Amphitheatre. For the consultants in the 1940s the Foreshore area was a “…a National rather than a Department or Municipal asset” and the planning was a “…unique opportunity, never likely to recur, of investing Cape Town with the dignity that is appropriate to the ‘Gateway to South Africa’”.

Over the following decades sea arrivals dropped in importance compared to air arrivals, and the words “Gateway to Africa” fell out of step with how Cape Town imagined itself. It is interesting, then, to see that the current Foreshore proposals include cruise terminal ideas. Is it is time to revisit the sea-city connections and the tourism and city marketing possibilities that could bring?

Cruise terminal B (2)
Detail from Proposal B

Table Mountain and its sea approach is a widely loved, and globally known connected vista. As a City have not made much effort to frame it, physically or otherwise, in any meaningful way. In an increasingly competitive tourism environment can we afford to underplay the ‘romance’ of the approach by sea and the iconic vista that few cities can even aspire to? Or is the maritime ‘romance’ too associated with a European history many would rather forget? Could we find a way to physically re-frame this sea approach to Cape Town as part of Foreshore developments? In the process bringing forward the sea stories of all who sail and have sailed around the Cape, not only the wealthy few?

Amphitheatre
Concept Sketch for Foreshore development (1940) from Town Planning Advisors Report to the South African Railways and Harbours Board
Frame (2)
Photograph of Proposal B: Foreshore exhibitions 2017

 

 

 

 

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

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.

Returning

Returning

I’m back. Nervously and apprehensively. Unsure. Behind this though, and urging me on, are some tugs of courage to do something different. I stopped blogging a year ago because of the wooden-ness that had crept into the posts. I didn’t like what they had become (what I had become?) They read like so many other surly posts about streets and cities and traffic. “IT NEEDS TO CHANGE!” they screamed, judging and condemning the people who had been involved with the processes en route.

I do think “it” needs to change (street design, that is, and planning for cities, especially here in South Africa) as too often streets feel and act like places of aggression, rather than our home on this earth. I want to talk more of the role of streets in our precious lives and I want to acknowledge the role of respect for humanity and dignity of the person in street design.

More than that, though I want to carve out a small place in the cyberspace where I can talk out about the messy, maddening and sometimes hair-tuggingly frustrating act of working in places which seem to lack compassion for humanity, for the weak and vulnerable. I want to use blogging as a place to reflect on what works, what really doesn’t, and what I haven’t a clue about in all of this. I want to do this in a way which celebrates the reflective, the quiet, the compassionate and the peaceful and which moves from preaching to (horrible term I know but I don’t have an alternative) sharing, and inviting in. Along the way I hope to find some fellow travellers.

There are risks here. One is that I lose all credibility and never work again. Which is pretty terrifying. I have hope, though (and some threads of evidence) that I am not doing anything so risky here. Instead, I think that I am putting some words to a zeitgeist which is already emerging in street design and in research. Even if the traditional work which relies on my logic, rationality and quantitative analysis skills dries up then I am trusting there will be something else which calls on a deeper understanding of shared humanity, compassion and creativity. I’m guessing that I am also adding some words to an ongoing redefinition of what it means to be a woman doing research. Brené Brown is a flag bearer here, but there are others too. Their stand allows women, and hopefully men too, to do research unashamedly whole. If all this sounds a bit too earnest then I promise it won’t be. After all, ‘whole’ means I get to blog about macaroons.

“Welcome to Cape Town! The first thing you need to know? It’s treacherous to cross the roads…”

“Welcome to Cape Town! The first thing you need to know? It’s treacherous to cross the roads…”

Image from http://grosvenortours.com/incentives/our-team/

“In Cape Town”, she said, “the green men are ‘shy’ and drivers don’t care about pedestrians. Please be careful. I don’t want to lose any of you along the way!” So started the “Footsteps to Freedom” tour by Karen Goslett, our tour guide of over 20 years experience. As a long-time lover of the Central City it was a shock to hear these opening words. Yet, despite wishing it were different I came to see that Karen had good reason to headline her tour with a warning, rather than with a long list of Cape Town credits. For sure Central Cape Town has so much going for it: an energetic creative and arts scene; dynamic places to buy and hang-out; street life as vibrant as anywhere in South Africa. It was, though, difficult to focus on these on as I re-experienced – with visitor’s eyes – that sense of treachery and lack of care which greets us all as we work our way around Cape Town Central City. At street corners Karen urged us to wait patiently (sometimes very patiently) for the green man to appear and then like a fretful mother hen she carefully nudged us across, scolding the inevitable turning driver who tried to mow us down. We walked single file down quiet side streets, dodging the one or two cars parked there and the minefield of street furniture in the footways. We ran across Wale Street, nervously eying the fast-moving traffic.

Through my intermittent work with the City transport officials I know that the built environment of the Central City is steeped in history, difficult and expensive to change. Nevertheless the status quo of signal settings; on-street parking and design speeds for major inner city roads is seriously out of step with best practice. In the social democracies of Europe and increasingly in  North America streets and roads are being designed and retrofitted to be much safer and to treat people with more respect. The quantitative outcome of this is lower road fatalities and injuries.

As I listened to Karen talking about our apartheid history I wondered again about the relationship between politics and street design, and whether it was an accident that South African streets treat those on foot with such disdain. Streets are clearly not ‘just’ a matter of moving people from A to B. They are also more than ‘just’ ‘places’ and ‘spaces’. Streets are an integral part of our experience of our City, and so of how we experience our lives, and our sense of our-selves. No-one, whether visitor or resident, can escape experiencing a lack of care on the streets of Cape Town. What does that say about our compassion for others and the role of streets in expressing it?

Image from http://grosvenortours.com/incentives/our-team/

Promoting NMT: small is beautiful

Thanks to a UCT student for prompting this by asking “Without large and expensive investments for public (mass) transport or situations such as the cycle lanes in Rosebank/Rondebosch, what other options exist for promoting non-motorised transport?”

South Africa, it seems to me, is somewhat obsessed with big, infrastructure projects. Whether it is big freeways, or big BRT schemes or the “big” cycle infrastructure projects you mentioned. Whatever form it takes, South African government loves those big, sexy (expensive) infrastructure schemes. And yet, if you take a good look at the places where walking and cycling thrives (think Scandinavia, the low countries, small town UK, even Portland, US), for the most part this is not achieved on the back of big schemes like we see in Rondebosch, or next to the BRT. Rather, these shifts have been achieved thanks to decades of incremental, small scale, local improvements to junctions, crossings, local streets, local schools, residential neighbourhoods. By applying a road narrowing here, speed bumps or tables there, speed restrictions, play streets, one ways, traffic circles, traffic signal priorities for pedestrians, improved footways, landscaping (get the picture) local streets and then neighbourhoods have been transformed and (most importantly slowed). This is important for two reasons. Firstly to work well NMT” needs safe, comfortable door-to-door access which the big infrastructure projects can never give; secondly, investing in local areas has long term spin off benefits for landuse, for example making local areas and businesses more attractive (which in the long run cuts down on the necessity for car trips)….a win-win.

So, my medicine for NMT would be budgetary and organisational. Change and increase the local government transport and planning department budget lines to better support localised action, and get over the obsession with big sexy infrastructure schemes. Of course, such medicine is mundane, slow, and not as attractive to construction companies or politicians as the big schemes…..but its cheaper and in the long run, I believe, much more effective.