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“Open Streets” opening more than just streets

Photo: Jodi Allemeier

Photo: Jodi Allemeier

We guessed that about 5000 people came through to walk, skate, cycle or just be on the streets of Observatory, Cape Town on Saturday. We expected the locals to be there, we thought a few might drift in from the surrounding suburbs, but we didn’t expect the scale to which Open Streets drew different people in. Like the three well-heeled ladies who drove in from Somerset West saying they hoped to do something like Open Streets there. Or the mom with toddler in tow who said that she had been chatting with her neighbours about a street event like this in Plumstead where kids could come out to play, and chalk the road. Or the older guys from Maitland, keen to build community there, and wondering “how best to do it?” Or the kids from Khayelitsha, brought through by their mentors, and lapping up the attention. And of course there were the pick-n-mix array of Cape Town creatives in great number, and in all their glorious variety. People of vastly different incomes, ages, backgrounds – but all attracted to something about this Open Streets thing in Observatory. How so?

Open Streets is such a simple idea it can sound dull and until people have experienced it, it is a hard sell. Choose a day and close the street to traffic is one basic description of it. But beyond this apparent simplicity is also an invitation which cuts across our daily habits, and steps us into other possibilities. Open Streets allows us to come out onto the public space we normally call “roads”, without the usual barriers of vehicles and haste.  Like the gents who heaved a sofa onto the footway and watched the world go by; or the many, many kids who got down on their knees and chalked the road into a riot of colour; or the cyclists and skaters who meandered through; or the dancers who just kept dancing on. And on. We are ultimately curious, social creatures and Open Streets (like the Fan Walk before it) attracts us because at some fundamental level people love to watch, and be around, other people. And the outcome of Open Streets was a strange phenomenon which many remarked upon – there were just so many smiles. Surprised smiles, charmed smiles, smiles of realisation and children’s smiles. This is a rare, rare thing to see on our streets. The design of our South African cities boxes us up, separates us out, and rushes us though the public space we call roads. Open Streets not only opened up Lower Main Road yesterday, but it opened up us all. And that was what made it so special.

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