In Praise of Public Space


In the history of European colonisation, the world could roughly be divided into those colonised by the Southern Europeans, who brought good food and architecture. Those who suffered the indignity of the north got good roads and law and order; not to be confused with justice. By and large you couldn’t enjoy both scenarios.

South Africa clearly inherited the latter, well, the roads were good. There is no single panacea to resolve this urban issue of public space, as there are a number of models around the world that work and they generaly revolve around food and transport. South African cities are essentially American cities based on the motor vehicle which separates them from the ‘walkable cities’ of Europe and other countries in Asia or South America. Even downtown Johannesburg at one stage worked as a place to live and work; and the model continues in cities like New York, Chicago, São Paulo or Tokyo. Where it has not worked is where there has been large scale urban flight followed by decay and crime. The attraction for suburbia remains very powerful for many people and in some cases; suburban strips are active and attractive for example Parkhurst in Johannesburg or Raleigh Street in Port Elizabeth andObservatory in Cape Town. The extreme version of this is the gated communities of northern Johannesburg or east of Pretoria et al. A single activity (residential) that offers security but drain the environment of any of the life that makes us human.

Pic 1 Doha Market Area
Doha Market Area

So where is our contemporary space? Although Johannesburg is broadly based on a suburban model with historically comparatively large stands (now reducing), there are still over 2300 parks in the city. Some are well used, others eschewed for various reasons. The prime attraction remains the plethora of malls that foul up our urban landscape. A one stop shop for everything from grocery shopping to lifestyle activities that are evolving as online shopping imposes itself on our lives; a place for teenagers to hang out, easy prey for the franchises and chain stores that standardise the landscape from Pietermaritzburg to Polokwane. The concept of a mall is not necessary poor, it is essentially a market and they have existed for centuries; but how they accommodate the car is what tears our public space up. Malls are not public, try performing an act that is perceived as contrary by the owners and an individual will quickly be marched off the property. Try walking the streets of Sandton from the Gautrain station and there are scant opportunities for interaction with public space.

Pic 2 Walking Doha Suburbia
Walking Doha Suburbia

Probably the greatest influence on the design and life of our cities is transport, specifically public transport. If people cannot be encouraged to leave their cars, then our cities will remain barren. As long as our cities are not walkable, then there will be no street life. There are examples; the movies of William H Whyte on the social life of urban spaces; or George Stoney’s ‘How to live in a City’ both clarify the difference being the quality of public space.

Pic 3 Themed Doha Shopping Centre
Themed Doha Shopping Centre

It is distressing the even societies that are offered an opportunity to learn from existing urban lessons, choose to ignore and pursue a Disney approach to theme living.

On a recent visit to Doha, I visited 3 areas. One was the Souq Waqif downtown market area (picture one) and even though it had been ‘touristed up’, it retained some of the qualities of its original life. The second was a 5km walk to a new shopping centre (picture two). The walk itself was as barren as any through the north of Johannesburg whilst the shopping centre itself was a laughable mixture of gondolas, canals and shopping centre. Over (picture four) the bay meanwhile, a risible collection of forms vies with each other to proclaim the modernity of their new society, all with no interstitial public space.

Pic 4 Doha Skyline
Doha Skyline

The availability of money is clearly not a guarantee of healthy urban design. The matter rests firmly in our own hands. There are signs of the reclamation of public space with street activities and local communities taking ownership of their parks, but there remains a long way to go, with local authorities reluctant to take the lead.