“The idea is to start to grow it organically so that one day we can have a car-free CBD. To show the people of Cape Town that a city centre doesn’t need vehicular traffic. Not to change it radically every day, but perhaps start to have it once a week,” said Open Streets managing director, Marcela Guerrero Casas. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, where the programme was implemented in the 1970s and includes more than 120 km of the city’s road infrastructure on Sundays and public holidays, Guerrero Casas and her team envision Cape Town streets that that are people-friendly – and not limited to vehicular traffic.
Doing my very best to stay in line with the city’s efforts to cure congestion and create a cleaner space for all, I carpooled to within walking distance of the event attempting to keep my carbon footprint to a minimum. City officials and volunteers were clearly visible along Longmarket from Adderley right on time at 10:00, managing the slow trickle north to where the event takes place.
As the crowds started filling Bree, attendees between Buiten and Bloem were entertained with the soulful ballads of teenage music band, the Skyscrapers and a handful of guest artists. Following the official opening of the event at 11:00, I ventured toward the East City and was quite surprised at the efficient management of pedestrians and cyclists crossing the major intersection of Strand.
Speaking of cyclists, they were there in the dozens, some coming in with the bicycle bus from the southern suburbs (not an actual vehicle, but rather a group of cyclists sticking together for safety). They ranged from lightweight racers and shopping basket-equipped utility bikes to lowrider-esque choppers and even a trike or two with toddlers in the saddle.
Not to be outdone were the skateboard enthusiasts who were enjoying the easy downhill gradient from Orphan Street on a variety of longboards, snakeboards and classic hardware – while kick scooters and hoverboards were other forms of non-motorised transport in use on the day.
Local establishments were serving up refreshments and cuisine, but that’s as far as trade goes for Open Streets.
“We don’t hire anyone, everyone doing something is a volunteer, and there isn’t a programme. Those who participate aren’t allowed to bring infrastructure, scaffolding or big banners, so it’s very low-key and most importantly non-commercial. On the day, there’s no selling stuff aside from those businesses already on the road, except for some food vendors that have been invited to keep people fed. It’s not a market,” Guerrero Casas emphasised.
People not listening to music or whizzing up and down with wheels, could choose from several kerbside activities including yoga and pilates, jump rope or chalking up the tarmac with their choice of words. Some painted a large mural as part of the Tafelberg 270 initiative which addresses some of the integration issues Cape Town is faced with. Those who are rhythmically inclined could mix it up with a street salsa crew or even simulate a battle in a Capoeira roda.
While South Africans are still getting used to the idea of having road closures on a regular basis for nothing more than just to be able to walk run and play safely, local government is still treating Open Streets as an event, and the organisers therefore must go through the tedious (and expensive) processes and necessary channels to make something like this happen.
Guerrero Casa stressed the importance of the eventual goal. “At the end of the day, we only take responsibility for officially organising road closures, and then we invite people to do stuff. Because the streets are so foreign to the public, people are dancing and cycling and skateboarding and doing yoga so there’s obviously a lot of enthusiasm, but there isn’t enough street space. To get the sense of what you get in Latin America – because you can cycle for hours and not get the sense that a specific area is crowded – we need to create a network of roads that are closed to vehicles for a set number of hours.”
Call it what you want, Capetonians are warming to Open Streets, so much that it’s becoming popular in other areas of the city including Bellville and Langa. The next one takes place in Mitchells Plain on Sunday 2 April. It’s free, so dress comfortably, wear adequate walking shoes and become a part of this global trend.