Play the City meets Cape Town

Cape Town as the World Design Capital 2014 makes a good test case for 'design' to prove its relevance to social, cultural and economic development.

Braai Stands

This time there was no time to watch cult movies, do some basic tourist research or even check the wikipedia entry for ‘Cape Town’. I found myself there, somewhat unexpectedly, with colleagues from the vanguard of dutch design: Christine de Baan, Renny Ramakers, Willem Velthoven and Pieter Bannenberg. We were there to investigate the design challenges facing South Africa and see how designers back in the Netherlands could relate to and engage with these questions. What better excuse for this than Cape Town’s preparations to become design capital of the world in 2014?

Voortrekker Road, Belleville, Cape Town

The next morning breakfast was accompanied by a briefing from Alayne Reesberg, the CEO of World Design Capital. Dealing with a highly competitive and fragmented design community, with more than 500 design proposals to curate for next year’s events, and political elections overshadowing all decisions, her role is not a simple one. “If you are interested in being meaningful here, go to townships. Not the rich clean city core but Belleville is the real center of Cape Town, although many people would not like this.” Reesberg is a focused, strong woman with great humor. In the course of our visit, we discovered that Cape Town is full of strong women like her, happily undertaking the challenges and responsibilities that come with key positions in the city.

Cape Town WDC 2014 Dutch reconaissance trip

Ekim Tan discussing Cape Town's urban questions with Cape Town Municipality planners

That same night we met Catherine Stone, the director of Cape Town’s urban planning office. This smart lady leads a team of about forty planners, urban designers and architects in an inspiring attempt to manage the unmanageable; she has been working on re-densification of the existing city fabric and simultaneously battling sprawl. To many it would be shocking to hear that Cape Town’s mayor Patricia de Lille, another woman in power, has been pushing for a new town for 800,000 people outside the city’s borders, and outside all the legal plans being processed in the city hall. In my Istanbul experience, however, it is business as usual when politicians get overenthusiastic in planning visions of the city’s future. In Istanbul, politics from Ankara has been injecting a third bridge over the Bosphorus and a new town for 2 million inhabitants into the city vision, despite the fact that both are outside any legal plans created by Istanbul’s planning bureaus. Exchanging stories about Istanbul, Cape Town, Portugal and Amsterdam with Catherine that night was fantastic, and later that week I visited her office to hear more on Cape Town planning and explain the co-creation methods of Play the City.

Khayelitsha from the Highway, Cape Town, July 2013.

Hearing about Belleville and Cape Town’s urban densification plans took us to Shahid Solomon, the urban planner working for the Greater Tygerberg Partnership. Shahid, a wise man with a great smile, shared with us the plans for the redevelopment of the Voortrekker corridor, a key nexus that connects the historic center, the Cape Flats and the western suburbs. Voortrekker is the most American road of Cape Town, populated with a high density of car dealers. The plan is to turn Cape Town into a South African Curitiba by introducing Bus Rapid Transit along Voortrekker and increasing the urban density all along this corridor. Wouter Grove, a colleague of Shahid, is working on introducing gaming into the Tygerberg development – the part of the plan which I obviously loved most!

Wouter mentioned Rashiq Fataar, the young founder of a think tank who often work on social media projects. Future Cape Town, Rashiq’s promising think tank, focuses on social media space and runs a very up to date blog that explains the city’s most burning issues with great story-telling talent.

Sun Collectors in a township, Cape Town, July 2013.

During these intensive five days in Cape Town we met amazing Capetonians. Here I must mention the legendary Edgar Pieterse, director of the African Center for Cities, which probably runs the most comprehensive urban knowledge source on Cape Town. Pieterse is an academic who does not believe the efficiency of academic writing to have a real impact on society’s urban questions. Instead, he tackles these questions in ‘Cityscapes’, a great magazine that he publishes with Tau Tavengwa, and which would be impossible without his amazing network of research on African cities.

Edgar Pieterse and Tau Tavengwa from the African Center for Cities

Learning about a city through her most energetic personas, organizations and institutions before even having an hour to linger in her streets turned out to be an effective method of immersion in Cape Town’s urban present and future. These five days of amazing people and projects was made possible by Bregje Wijsenbeek of the Dutch embassy and Ian Harris, Keith Sparks and Michael Letlala of Coffeebeans Routes.

Khayelitsha's Hair Dresser Entrepreneur

I don’t yet know how, but my next visit to a new city will need to be organized by such a dream team on such an engaging program. In the meantime, Cape Town convinced us to come back to her and deal with her intricate questions in the coming years.

Ekim Tan
CEO Play the City