It’s been an extended holiday preluding to my very much-anticipated Honors degree in City Planning at UCT and so about a week ago the course outline was sent out. I automatically entered analysis mode, scanning meticulously through the reading list and content of what knowledge I would be absorbing this year. To my excitement, a few of the listed and recommended readings live on my shelf, and that you’ll probably now find ‘On The Shelf’ (tab above).
A book that I’ve recently been reading, or biting my teeth into got me quite keen on the course: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by the prolific American-Canadian journalist, activist and planner Jane Jacobs in 1961.
A few quick points of information that come with this: I’m both ashamed that I hadn’t discovered this book earlier and excited that I haven’t finished it yet (I’m about 3 quarters of the way there) because every page is filled with an incredible amount of valuable information, and so this post will NOT be a summary of the book.
It is important to note that Jane Jacobs was one of the lucky women to have made it onto the sensational list of “known” individuals in the design discourse. She’s white, so there is an inherent privilege that she had. I say this with a chuckle, but thank god she was, because her writing speaks about city planning as a whole, with legal, social, political and basic human facets and during the time, a black women wouldn’t have been as recognized and the masses she reached would not have been attained with such magnitude. Her writing speaks on issues that have been discussed for decades, and have surfaced as more central today. And so, because of the shift in context, we can be bittersweet about Jane being white because these contested conversations were birthed earlier in a time when marginalized identity groups were institutionally muted.
What makes this piece of work so important is its relevance to cities today. It reveals that successful cities function in similar ways and therefore gives some guide to designers in being able to preempt and problematize dysfunctional cities.
Coming from Johannesburg to Cape Town has been- for lack of better words- A LOT. Those who have experienced both cities will know that conversations between Cape Townians and Joburgians are often of a this city ‘versus’ this city nature. I myself am a culprit of initiating these conversations, for many reasons including being hyper aware of my identity in Cape Town but also because of a pure interest for the movement and functioning of both cities. For this reason, this blog post will speak on the two cities; however, it won’t be an argument as to which city is “better”. Jane Jacobs, is the only writer thus far that I know of who has meticulously described the aforementioned, and funnily enough in antithesis to the mis-alluding title of her book referring to American cities, her analysis of these cities provides an analysis of all great cities.
I often find myself walking through Cape Town, and recently realized that amongst its oppressive intangible violent cons, it is a physically comfortable and functional city to experience, particularly as a pedestrian. Keeping in mind that my only frame of reference is Johannesburg, like many other South Africans who move between the two big cities. In Johannesburg, you are a purposive walker, if you have your safety and best interest in mind: looking forward on a mission, always. Where as in Cape Town, you may find yourself walking towards a destination, but also indulging in an pleasant meander: looking down at the fast moving textures beneath your steps, and up at the soft lines of buildings reaching towards the sky. So it’s pretty easy to acknowledge the luxury one has in occupying space safely in Cape Town.
Interestingly enough, Johannesburg as a whole isn’t as suffocating as Cape Town, in terms of identity violence, in fact as a black woman I can say it is more comfortable (not completely, gender violence still prevails). I’m not hyper aware of being a black in Joburg, but as soon as I’m at the airport and step onto the bus that takes you to the plane back to Cape, I am aware that I am a black, and the sour citric aroma in the room only gets stronger.
Now, we ask 2 questions? If Johannesburg CBD is such an inclusive city, why is it not physically safe and comfortable? Why is Cape Town so hostile when it’s physical environment is so comfortable and safe? The answer is simple. POLITICS. The specifics are complex, to say the least. Service delivery, power, user based ownership… the list goes on, but we’ll visit that at a later stage in the article.
“City diversity itself permits and stimulates more diversity”. Personally I think that both cities are lacking in this regard. Cape Town City: occupied predominantly by foreign transitory “residents” and a privileged white community, (mostly young hipsters with a few sprinkles of black privilege in the bunch and trust me, having only been able to afford staying there for a year I would know). And then we have Johannesburg CBD: a busy work hub but a recent vestigial residential zone as a result of the rise of Sandton and other surrounding nodes and suburbs, leaving it quite run down, with predominantly black residences, who can afford to stay in the run down city due to historical injustice. Look at the tenement colloquially known as “The Dark City on Doorfontein”. Circa Gallery in Rosebank recently had an exhibition on it, which would be worth investigating if you’d like to learn more. It opened my eyes even more because “There’s a lot that we don’t see, privilege shields us from a lot and there are many paths we’ll never walk but moments like these, exhibitions like The Dark City, give us a glimpse into worlds we otherwise might never get to see.” (Sejake 2016)
Class and race are joined at the hip in South Africa, and so the only way to truly diversify the city, would be to foster a city for mixed income housing with various activity spaces and spaces that attract people across this class-race kaleidoscope. Once diverse cities can sustain activity, safety and comfort are inevitable. Convenience through proximity to facilities also affects the walkability of a city, which Cape Town has been successful in doing. Personally having lived on Roeland Street, close proximity to my everyday needs made me feel at ease in my location. I worked on the corner at (the best bookstore in the country) The Book Lounge; lived down the road from a police station, up the road from a pharmacy and across the road from the ever-busy Kimberly Hotel bar. The street never died. If I needed a Redbull for my all-nighter, the 2am independently owned formal “spaza” was a 2-minute walk away. It works.
Diverse cities automatically create intersectional spaces of opportunity. With the choice of an Ethiopan restaurant on the corner, a little pizza resturant up the road, or a basic family Spur in the vicinity; locals are bound to feel comfortable with one another, learning to negotiate space, and (NB Cape Town!) less reluctant to feel greater user based ownership in public space which is shared amongst us all- from the business man on the street in a suit, to the homeless man on the corner, the sidewalk belongs to all of us.
So how do we generate boisterous diversity in cities? According to Jane it’s a 4 point list of needs (maybe she mentions a few more later in the book, but we can read it together and enjoy talking about it in the comments section). They are:
- The district must serve more than one primary function ensuring the presence of people being outside on various schedules for various reasons with the constant use of the same facilities. (eg Neighbourgoods Market in Braam as a parking lot during week days and a vibrant market every Saturday morning). In Johannesburg, activity is heavily time dependent. The biggest problem about the city: The daytime is extremely pedestrian and vehicle heavy, with everyone rushing off to their next meeting. Lunch hours are packed with people lining up at the closest convenience food store for a bite. Late afternoons are similarly a transit hour, taxi ranks are crowded, buses are full, and people gravitate toward Park station to get home. Then it becomes awkward; everyone has gone back to their respective places. I mean don’t get me wrong, people do live in town, and Braam is a new booming residential area with gentrification taking its usual toll. But the streets become silent, and dark because the public interface is no longer active and does not accommodate enough of a night schedule for people to flourish on the streets, and in doing so, keeping their eyes on the street without feeling endangered.
- Blocks should be short– meaning that proximity and the ability to turn corners should be frequent. This is pragmatically safer.
- The district must be comprised of both old and new buildings that vary in economic yield.
- Density – high density generates activity. With population growth this is inevitable, but the sneaky South African culture of flat land estates and suburbs are a hindrance to successful cities, particularly for Johannesburg in Gauteng. In addition, this population should be made up of familiar individuals who keep the city safe by simply existing constantly in the city. At the moment, Cape Town City faces the greatest struggle with maintaining local residents in the city ,“The high-rent tenants, most of whom are so transient we cannot even keep track of their faces, have not the remotest idea of who takes care of the street and how” (Jacobs 1961) .This is a big threat to Cape Town’s functionality particularly at night , due to exceptionally high air bnb rentals and no locals and permanent residences in the city. We’ll save the classist exclusivity of Cape Town for another article, but in the interim please do check out @therealcityofcapetown Instagram account, a well curated series of photos depicting Cape Town outside of it’s mountain ocean best-life pseudo persona. According to The Library of Congress, Germany has taken a step towards combatting it’s housing shortage by regulating Airbnb. Library of Congress stated, “On May 1, 2016, a law prohibiting the illegal repurposing of residential housing without a permit took effect in Berlin, following the end of a two-year transitional period. The law aims to combat the growing housing shortage in Berlin.” (Gesley 2016). Here we realize the implications of the economy on the vibrancy and safety of the city.
All four of these characteristics are necessary in order to generate diversity; particular to the culture and context, once this has happened “a city district should be able to realize its best potential”
To conclude, because the post is getting rather lengthy, I decided that Jane was a great theme for an early blog post because her work sets a good pragmatic tone of the intangible issues Matri-Archi seeks to speak about, which is greatly encapsulated in her words when she says “The next step is to examine some of the workings of cities at another level: the economic workings that produce those lively streets and districts for city users.” Design cannot purely be seen on an isolated drawing board, some things are intangible, and how cities work goes beyond the discipline of architecture and planning. I hope that this space serves as a space of discourse between these various disciplines.
The next time you bump into someone from a different Great South African city, pose some questions.
- Gesley, Jenny. Global Legal Monitor. May 24, 2016. http://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/germany-law-restricting-airbnb-and-other-vacation-rentals-takes-effect-in-berlin/ (accessed March 10, 2017).
- Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books Collection, 1961.
- Sejake, Mamello. The Dark City. November 29, 2016. http://www.jhblive.com/Stories-in-Johannesburg/article/the-dark-city/106085 (accessed March 10, 2017).