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Shaping Our City Around Our Children

by | Apr 18, 2014 | News | 0 comments

Imagine if we saw our city through the eyes of a child? muses Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana. That would give even greater meaning to the term ‘Mother City’.

A highlight of my daily drive into the Cape Town CBD is the sight of school children walking to their morning classes. (Tens of thousands of scholars and students come to the city centre each day, many of them travelling from township to town via public transport.) I see them, on the way to my office on Bree, at the corner of Waterkant Street, as they make a beeline from the Cape Town Station to the pedestrian bridge on the Fan Walk, en route to schools in Green Point and Sea Point. They generally walk in small, animated groups, chatting with their friends and – in stark contrast to the grim determination of car-commuting grownups – their carefree abandon is infectious. Unfortunately, it can also be deadly.

Cape Town’s city streets are not yet the safe, pedestrian-friendly corridors we would wish for.

Pedestrian fatalities, often involving young people, are an uncomfortable reminder that navigating our roads on foot requires extreme vigilance and a healthy respect for cars. But they also speak to a much deeper issue, one that fundamentally questions our priorities when it comes to urban development in our city.

Fred Kent, who runs Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a nonprofit organisation based in New York, dedicated to creating and sustaining public places that build communities, says: ‘If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you will get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you will get people and places.’

At the Cape Town Partnership, we have started to take this thinking a step further. We live in a country where almost 30% of our population is under the age of 15.

What would happen, we ask, if we planned cities for and with children?

Children are, after all, our next generation of active – or potentially disengaged – citizens. They are also among the most vulnerable groups, and any society (or city) should be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable.

Former mayor of the Colombian capital, Bogota, Enrique Peñalosa – renowned for his contribution to transforming one of Latin America’s most violent cities into one of its safest – is oft-quoted as saying: ‘One common measure of how clean a mountain stream is, is to look for trout. If you find the trout, the habitat is healthy. It’s the same way with children in a city. Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people.’

I often ask myself how welcoming Cape Town is for children?

Are the streets of our city easy to navigate with a pram or with a toddler in tow? Is the street where a child grows up a safe place to play? Do these streets lead to safe and interesting public spaces, where children can flourish? Is our city a positive place for young people? Does it encourage their development as contributing members of society?

Having raised two children in Cape Town, I’ve learned that children like to move – most kids have their initial taste of freedom when they start to crawl or take their first few steps, and later when they discover the thrilling liberation and independence of skateboarding or cycling. Children also love to discover, explore, learn, create, socialise, be close to nature and, most importantly, to play.

Despite my conviction that Cape Town’s streets need to be safer and more walkable, it must be said that our city offers a host of fantastic child-friendly spaces and places for those who can access them.

The freely accessible Green Point Urban Park – with its waterwise lawn garden that invites little feet to test the textures of various indigenous grasses between their toes – together with the Company’s Garden, are surely among the most kid-friendly parks in South Africa?  I have fond memories of my children feeding the squirrels and chasing the pigeons in the shade of the Company’s Garden oaks.

The Company’s Garden will also soon feature a new vegetable garden – an official World Design Capital 2014 project – that the City of Cape Town hopes will become an educational resource for local communities. Similarly, the Oranjezicht City Farm and its Saturday Market Day – both community-led initiatives – offer urban kids the opportunity to experience and appreciate the wonder of nature by picking food at the source and discovering how it grows.

The Sea Point Promenade and Swimming Pool offer families an opportunity to enjoy healthy outdoor activities together, especially since leisure cycling and skateboarding have been allowed on the Promenade by the City. Cape Town’s well-maintained beaches and dedicated cycle lanes are another source of free, outdoor family fun.

When it comes to free indoor entertainment, Cape Town’s Central Library is an ever-popular destination, attracting over 3 000 people (many of them youngsters) a day. Apart from an extensive range of books, including a large children’s section, it offers study spaces, computers, free WiFi, reading programmes, storytelling, craft activities, holiday programmes, crèche and school visits.

Community initiatives, like the annual Claremont Chess Festival that takes place in Sunclare Square – via a partnership between the Chess Lounge and the Claremont Improvement District – also contribute to making Cape Town more child-friendly. In a family-minded move, the CID has decided to support chess as a social pastime, and has installed a giant chessboard for casual enthusiasts to enjoy at any time of the day, 365 days a year.

Safe spaces for children

Safe spaces for children

We still have much room for improvement in Cape Town. As a rule, children of low-income families are forced to navigate public transport and busy, car-dominated city streets alone when travelling to and from school. For children of wealthier parents, the problem is often one of isolation. These children are almost entirely denied the opportunity to engage with city spaces – except by car. In both cases, we risk creating a generation of children who do not have a sense of connection or ownership of our shared spaces.

In an article featured on the in 2012, Brooklyn-based writer Sarah Goodyear cautioned that ‘kids who get driven everywhere don’t know where they’re going’. By way of explanation, Goodyear referenced the late urbanist researcher, Donald Appleyard – who showed how heavy traffic in cities erodes human connections, contributing to feelings of dissatisfaction and loneliness – and his son Bruce Appleyard, who has followed in his father’s footsteps by looking into how constantly being in and around cars affects children’s perception and understanding of their home territory.

As it turns out, children who are driven everywhere aren’t able to accurately draw how the streets in their community are connected. They also have a diminished connection to community and neighbours. Conversely, as exposure to traffic volumes and speed decreases, a child’s sense of threat goes down, and ‘their ability to establish a richer connection and appreciation for the community rises.’

In Cape Town, access to safe public transport is receiving a boost with the roll-out of the MyCiTi bus system across the metropole.

This past weekend saw the introduction of six new routes operating from Atlantis. A survey by the City of Cape Town shows that a significant number of commuters making use of the MyCiTi system are learners travelling to and from school.  With new routes coming to Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plain soon, Cllr Brett Herron’s vision that “every resident in the city of Cape Town should be able to access transport within 500 meters of their home” sounds attainable.

I am deeply grateful to have been able to raise my children in a safe southern suburb neigbourhood that has given them the freedom to walk or cycle safely to and from school or their friends’ houses. I also know that the safe and walkable neighbourhood of my children’s upbringing is extremely privileged and most certainly not shared by the majority of families across the Cape Town metropole.

At the Cape Town Partnership, our hope for the children of Cape Town is that each and every child feels safe to use and enjoy the street where they live, that this network of safe streets leads to a diversity of public spaces and schools and that those places are populated by a diversity of people.

Traffic calming measures and dedicated cycle lanes are a good start. More importantly, an attitude shift from ‘cars first’ to ‘kids first’ is urgently needed. And perhaps, at the heart of a caring and sustainable city is the idea that children are our future – whether or not we are parents – and that we have a shared responsibility to nurture and appreciate them, to involve them in decision-making, and to keep them safe.

Imagine if we saw our city through the eyes of a child? That would give even greater meaning to the term ‘Mother City’.

Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana

Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana


From the series MY URBAN HEART by Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana, this article first appeared in The Cape Times.

Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana is CEO of the Cape Town Partnership. Talk to her @darksjokolade


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