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A new way to think about our city

Ideas for city improvements must be drawn from a pot filled with sugestions from citizens, says the writers.

Ideas for city improvements must be drawn from a pot filled with sugestions from citizens, says the writers.

Published Nov 24, 2011

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Mokena Makeka and Rory Williams

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Our politicians have been quick to latch onto the idea that design is part of the city-building process, and that public transport is something that should be designed to create a more equitable and inclusive city.

This is true, of course, but what the World Design Capital (WDC) brings to the exploration of our future is the concept of a design-led approach that responds to the needs of residents in meaningful ways. Designers need to be at the foc’sle of the ship, watching for hazards and routes to our destination.

It’s not enough to say that we need better public transport, or more tourism and foreign investment. What are the drivers, the forces that we can harness in designing the city?

WDC is about leverage. Not just leverage of the international attention it will garner, but also of our own resources.

In some ways, this is why it is difficult to grasp the real benefits of the WDC. The bid book, which helped us secure the title, identifies many different projects that have been started or conceptualised by a wide range of individuals and organisations. Some are actual building projects, others are programmes or events. Some are one-off initiatives, others are ongoing. Some have funding, some do not. It’s difficult to see what ties them all together, other than the theme of designing for transformation.

But this is not an exercise in repackaging a diverse set of projects under the unifying banner of the WDC. It’s not primarily about showcasing our design skills, though that is a useful by-product. Nor is it about making Cape Town more appealing to visitors, though that too is an outcome of good design.

It is about reinventing the process of city-making.

The projects in the bid book are seed capital. The flow of ideas has begun, with people contacting the Cape Town Partnership, which is charged with managing the WDC on behalf of the city, to suggest ideas and ask how to get involved.

For the WDC to succeed in its mission, it needs to create an avenue for ideas to flow and become reality.

Buildings, roads and spaces are the most obvious manifestation of the city, but for making the city more than the sum of these parts, it needs to be designed for living, and for all the things that allow us to enjoy life.

Unfortunately, the design process – which encompasses the fields of architecture, engineering, urban planning and a raft of creative disciplines – tends to be limited by design briefs set by clients who have very specific objectives in mind. Occasionally, far-sighted clients will see the benefit of appointing a multidisciplinary team of design professionals to create an extraordinary product that meets a broader range of social and economic objectives beyond the client’s narrow interests. But this is rare.

Rarer still is the appointment of sociologists and other experts, or the inclusion of community representatives on design teams.

We are not suggesting design by committee, or that citizens should be directly involved in every aspect of design. But there are points in the process where it is useful to step back from individual professions to see whether a wider range of interests can be served through better design.

The fundamental question is how we define the design challenge, not how we turn everyone into a designer. In designing for change, we need to raise the bar by involving designers and users more effectively at the right stages of projects.

With public transport, providing the means for people to move from one part of the city to another is only one of many possible outcomes of the design process. And yet we rarely look beyond this objective.

The designers of Cape Town’s new Integrated Rapid Transit system have indeed looked further than the usual utilitarian requirements to establish a new benchmark for the quality of public transport services in this city. If they succeed in their objectives, this new system will attract people in greater numbers and reduce traffic on our roads, creating a more functional city.

However, we could push the system beyond its traditional role as a mover of people. If we imagine stations as hubs of activity, not all related to transport, new opportunities would present themselves for extracting more benefit from the investment in station infrastructure. Design then becomes truly meaningful as an exercise in city-making, as we set objectives that influence the shape and location of stations.

We start to think about how to integrate stations with their surrounds, so that adjacent activities can benefit from the passenger traffic, and conversely the buzz of activity can improve the safety and attractiveness of the public transport system. We think of ways to expand the reach of stations by creating pedestrian-focused zones with activity that continues into the night. These considerations then begin to influence the configuration of the IRT system as a whole – for example, whether stations are at the side of the road, or in the middle; or whether platforms are raised or at street level.

If citizens are given a forum to express needs and ideas for city improvement, there will be greater likelihood that promising new directions for design and planning will not be overlooked. Imagine a virtually endless supply of ideas flowing into a pot for designers to incorporate into their projects. Any time the municipality or a developer initiated a new project, they could draw from the pot anything that might produce a more favourable outcome. And government policy, which helps define what we mean by favourable outcomes, would also be influenced by citizens’ contributions to this store of ideas.

This, in essence, is what the WDC could provide as a lasting legacy.

The WDC is an opportunity for disrupting established processes by opening up new spaces for collaboration in design. For turning the rules of the game upside down. For establishing closer alignment between what this city needs and how we meet those needs.

It can do this by creating new avenues for expression, and by focusing minds on a specific target. The 2010 Fifa World Cup focused minds on a fixed deadline, giving a taste of how we could achieve objectives more efficiently than normal. What we need to do with the WDC is establish a new “normal”.

This new way of planning and designing needs to be bold. Not by creating a few big landmark projects – though that may be one outcome – but by finding a way for thousands of small and medium-sized projects to bubble up from below. Each individual project might not make much of a splash, but together they can be much more effective in making a difference in the lives of a greater number of individuals.

It’s also bold because it’s an inversion of the normal process and, in a way, a loss of control. We like to create strategic plans and prioritise projects that will fit the plans. But what the WDC creates is the possibility for a city-making strategy to emerge as a product of thousands of individual decisions.

Designers, in partnership with civil society, become creators of the plan, defining the limits of possibility through entrepreneurial experimentation.

There will be events to showcase this process and its products, but the most powerful testimony to design will be the city itself. Visitors will see how we have designed for context, creating projects that serve local needs.

For this purpose we should think of “cutting edge” as defining and responding to a social and economic agenda, using a “design filter” that scrutinises projects and tweaks them or combines them.

This filter asks how a road project can build community, how a sewage treatment plant can make us aware of how we use water, or how construction methods can create jobs that match the skills of the labour pool. In a city of limited resources, good design also means using money wisely. We should not look for a massive injection of finance from the WDC, but for ways to make better use of what we have. The processes we develop over the coming two years must be sustainable.

We did not win the WDC title because we are the best at design, but because we are beginning to grapple with the question of how design can be used to bring about change. This is our signal to develop an understanding of our strengths as a city, and to use those effectively.

Cape Town produces exceptional design talent, but designers are held back by a lack of appreciation of the role of design, by limited design briefs and by a suspicion that we are not quite good enough. As a result, people who want to stay and contribute end up going to cities where they can flourish.

We need to learn from others, but also learn to trust our own talent and instincts for what works for us. We seem driven to enter international competitions to prove our worth and feel that we belong on the world stage. These are great opportunities to test our mettle, but we need to think through what winning really means for us. We need to be able to write our own narrative.

This is our moment, our chance to create Massive Change.

l Makeka is founder trustee for the Museum of Design, Innovation, Leadership and Art (MoDILA), and a Cape Town Design Network committee member. Williams is a transport planner with Arup. Together they write the weekly Cape Times column Men about Town.

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