Urbanists’ street view
Cape Town’s young urbanists are, in their respective fields, revolutionising the cityscape – and the perceptions associated with it.
Zahira Asmal | Publisher and curator
As the founder of multimedia publishing and research company The City, Zahira’s newest venture is the much-anticipated anthologies, Movement, on the cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town, with a ‘posterzine’ for Durban. Her interests in design for socioeconomic change have led her to work on innovative projects such as her first book, Reflections & Opportunities: Design, Cities and the World Cup (2012: The City), as well as a ‘place-making’ project in collaboration with architect David Adjaye at Jozi’s Park Station.
‘Our concepts of identity are being reimagined. It’s not about nationalism any longer but more, in my view, about a sense of place and belonging. When this is secure, people are free to express themselves socially, politically and culturally but also to create, reimagine and develop the cities they wish to live in’ – Zahira Asmal
Q: How did The City publishing company come about?
A: Given the fact that South African cities have the highest Gini coefficient (which means our cities are the most socioeconomically and spatially divided in the world), and 64% of our population reside in them, I wanted to gauge the attempts to make them more integrated and inclusive. I also wanted to understand the influence of design in these city-making efforts – in the private, public and academic sectors – in order to plan for a more considered way of developing our cities and ultimately to influence policy on urban regeneration. In February 2010 I founded The City for these purposes; and to produce a multimedia report, a book and a series of seminars and tours on city-making and design developments in our democracy. With particular reference to the 2010 Fifa World Cup, the bigger aim was to service Designing South Africa (DZA), a social organisation and programme I initiated in 2009.
Q: Talk us through your two books, Movement Cape Town and Movement Johannesburg.
A: This innovative series of publications and experiences uses movement as a conceptual device through which to read three major South African cities: Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. While Durban was presented as a graphic posterzine, Cape Town and Johannesburg have been explored in greater depth. Functioning as both a guide for visitors and a resource for residents, the Cape Town and Johannesburg books re-read the historical and contemporary forces that continue to shape these cities. They explore fraught histories, poetically question contemporary decisions, and critically reflect on social change, thereby allowing for an engaging and inspired reading of each city. What’s more, all the content is presented by these cities’ accomplished residents – authors, academics, photographers, researchers, designers and artists.
Q: What are the biggest challenges facing South African cities?
A: Something to consider when understanding our cities is to look at what we all inherited and what we feel entitled to; there’s a distinction between the two. In 1994, depending what race and level of privilege we were and had, we inherited a set of circumstances that in turn caused us to behave in a certain way in our cities today. It plays out in service-delivery protest, in crime, in complacency, in the brain drain, etc. At the moment, we feel entitled to a number of things that are causing us to be complacent rather than being engaged urban citizens. Yes, there are some mavericks out there but not a sufficient number to turn South African cities around. We need to make some bold moves – not just government but all of us – to make our cities more equitable and more inclusive for residents as well as visitors.
Marco Morgan | Planner in the Western Cape government and skater
Marco has been working at the Department of Transport and Public Works as a planner for the last eight years. More recently he’s moved to the Regeneration Directorate to assist rethinking the use and development of public land and properties. He’s also a member of the National Skate Collective, an advocacy group for the skateboarding community, and was instrumental in the development of the city’s first skatepark in Mill Street, Gardens.
Q: What projects fall under your new position?
A: I’m the newest member and part of a really diverse team of dreamers and pragmatists who approach each project collectively. I’m currently working on the Two Rivers Urban Park project and Tygerberg Hospital Estate, among others. The work I do is a bit transversal, and I still find my way back to strategy and planning from time to time, most often to check up on and nurture the projects I really got stuck into, like the Western Cape Infrastructure Framework 2040.
Q: Tell us about the Skate Collective.
A: Our passion for skateboarding is deep-rooted, and our thoughts centre on the possibilities that this simple piece of wood can engage in the urban landscape. For most skaters, the objective is as simple as ‘skate every damn day’, but to do this, we need to advance the skate culture and community. The Skate Collective is a vehicle to help with these plans, creating a single loud voice and platform for skaters to engage on issues affecting them. One of the projects the National Skate Collective is currently busy with is the formation of the South African Skateboarding Federation, a collective body to govern the sport of skateboarding, unite fragmented pockets of skaters and guide the development of this choice sport for South African urban kids. While my knowledge of advocacy and the ability to navigate the systems and networks of Government does help a lot, I’m just a skater.
Q: What’s the current policy of the city towards skateboarding?
A: At the moment the lines are blurred. The city is charging ahead with policy and infrastructure to encourage a non-motorised-friendly city, and public spaces are being redeveloped to satisfy a broader spectrum of users. However, skateboarding is still plagued by outdated legislation and planning methodologies relating to the use of streets and public space. The Skate Collective has been working with the city of Cape Town’s Skateboarding Task Team on identifying these obstacles and addressing them, but the process has been a long and perplexing journey. After three or four years of meetings, it seems that we’ll soon finally have a position on skateboarding as a mode of transport, and we’ve set up a working group with skaters and city officials to develop and guide skateparks in and around the city.
Q: What’s the most memorable project you’ve worked on?
A: Beyondtheskatepark, a programme of projects that has set out to challenge the perception that most people have of skateboarding. The programme included performances in the public arts festival Infecting the City, which symbolised the reclamation of space, to unlocking the Western Cape Government’s entrance halls fora once-in-a-lifetime skate event called Redbull Unlocked. Each project undertaken as part of Beyondtheskatepark has been incredibly memorable in that it challenged the status quo and inspired others to do so as well.
Kirsten Wilkins | Urban designer and urban cycling advocate
Having recently taken up a position created just for her at the Cape Town Partnership, Kirsten is looking forward to bringing some strategic planning to the various projects in her portfolio as well as creating synergy between them – all the while advocating for urban cycling and the overall benefits it has not just for individuals but for the city as a whole.
Q: You’re an urban designer and an urban cyclist. How do the two tie together?
A: With almost half of the city living under the poverty line, and the average cost of transport being roughly 30% of monthly income (often more), we need to be looking at how to change this and not simply tweaking old methods of development and urbanism. Urban design by its very nature is a public-good profession, and so bicycles as a tool for social justice ties these two aspects together well. There’s a strong economic case for bicycle-friendly cities, which the private sector understands, and we’re seeing more developers and corporates getting involved in some wonderfully practical projects. Easing congestion, lowering carbon emissions and cultivating a healthier population are all ancillary benefits of an uptake in bicycle usage, but without giving people a chance to escape the poverty trap, these paybacks mean very little.
Q: What was the most memorable project you have worked on?
A: For the past 18 months I’ve been assisting with rethinking the East City Precinct with the team from 75 Harrington Street (see page 44 of the October issue where we featured the co-working hub of 75 Harrington Street). We wanted to create a thriving open-source co-working space, but to do so we’ve had to put substantial effort into understanding the neighbourhood and its rhythms. This is tactical urbanism at its finest. We’ve been very agile and open to new ideas, and experimented with all manner of urban interventions, in order to attract young creative thinkers, revive street culture and create opportunities for urban upgrade. The outcome can best be explained as creating ‘engineered serendipity’.
Q: What is the biggest challenge facing South African cities, and Cape Town in particular?
A: A lack of agility. The people, businesses and ideas that are thriving are those that are underpinned by a robust and transparent leadership style that can quickly absorb and adapt to change. Our governance structures, both within cities and regionally, simply can’t cope with curve balls, be they economic, social or structural. There are talented and committed people drowning in our bureaucracy. It saddens me – but there is a positive side: citizen engagement is undergoing an incredible metamorphosis, sloughing off complacency and getting involved in practical change. It’s an exciting time to be in advocacy.
Q: What are your hopes for the future of this city?
A: An immediate fascination of mine is disrupting the tourist/local nexus. What I hope for the short term and going into the holiday season is that the city pushes for a more authentic representation of our urban reality. The thinking is that if it works for locals, it will draw tourists.
Ilze Wolff | Architect and facilitator of new understandings of the built environment
Ilze is a founding member of Cape Town-based Wolff Architects (her husband Heinrich is the other), and is also at the helm of Open House Architecture (OHA). The latter is concerned with the coordination of various events, publications and other forms of communication about Cape Town’s built environment.
‘The exhibitions, tours, documentaries and publications we create through OHA stimulate our curiosity about our built environment. OHA is a vehicle to explore and produce our reflections, and runs parallel with the work of Wolff Architects to encourage a deepened creative architectural practice of consequence’ – Ilze Wolff
Q: To what do you attribute your fascination with the built environment?
A: I developed an interest in the politics of space during graduate work in African Studies at UCT. I learnt that buildings and architectural space are never neutral but signifiers of power, privilege and exclusion. Architectural interventions could subvert social conditions to produce positive change – but only through the will to dispel one’s blindness, see things for what they are, and critically engage with the challenges to change conditions.
Q: What have been your biggest insights since you began hosting the OHA events in 2007?
A: The events encourage a different way of looking at architecture. We try and contextualise, and in some cases re-contextualise, the buildings that make up our city. History has a huge role to play but even more powerful is how historic perspectives can inform contemporary practices. The events can raise interesting questions, some obvious but not often discussed. For instance, why are there so many vacant industrial buildings along Salt River Main Road? What does it say about global economies and the spaces that it produced? How were these spaces shaped in the conditions of racialised labour and gendered practices of the past? Have the conditions remained the same or morphed into new ways of building? The OHA events establish a platform for discussion and conversation about how buildings came to be as they are and what they currently represent.
Q: What changes would you like to see to this city in the years to come?
A: There’s an urgent need for the repair of the segregated city. The city administration should lead and enable this agenda and, as architects, private investors and ordinary citizens, we should all perpetuate an agenda to reduce structural poverty and urban exclusion. I’d like to see the same focus on and investment in the development of the public urban sphere (parks, public transport, inclusive housing) as there currently is in the private urban domain (office parks, security housing estates, gentrified industrial zones).
Sizwe Mxobo | Town planner and community developer
From a young age Sizwe always wanted to know what it would take to transform an informal settlement into a formal one. His story and the work he does with NGO the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC) have helped him get closer to an answer. His approach critiques traditional town planning as a profession that has always focused on space as opposed to the people who use it. His methodology of subverting this when applied to informal settlement planning (focusing on how people use the space and what the habits are that form around it) won him the South African Planning Institute (SAPI) Young Planner of the Year Award in 2014, and secured him a spot on this year’s programme for TedX Cape Town. sasdialliance.org.za
‘It’s amazing the power people have to change their situations just with the knowledge that they have someone on their side to help them’ – Sizwe Mxobo
Q: What have been the most memorable projects you’ve worked on with CORC?
A: The first reblocking project (repositioning shacks in very densely populated informal settlements) I did in 2012 and 2013 will always stand out. It was to restructure a whole community in the informal settlement of Mshini Wam outside Milnerton. I project managed it, not just from the design and the actual planning side but from the implementation of these and getting the community involved. There was a lot of pressure on us to make it work and the biggest lessons I learnt during this project were firstly, the importance of empowering the community so they could drive the project and eventually take ownership of it, and secondly, the line between the technical or scientific side of town planning and the human and social side of it is becoming ever more blurred, especially in the context of informal settlements.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges facing the city of Cape Town?
A: Post 1994, we still value buildings more than people; and, even more so than during apartheid, we place more importance on the financial value of land rather than its social value. Cape Town was structured to serve apartheid and it broke our society. Today we’re still reeling from this and nothing is being done to change this structure.
Q: How should we address these issues?
A: We need to try to find core values that are socially inclusive and begin the process of planning our cities around them. Apartheid fragmented our society and we need to find cohesiveness again for a new, inclusive definition of what being South African means. In an interview with the Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) South African Alliance, I summed up a key element of the role of a planner as being to ensure the relationship between people and land: ‘Public participation should be more than drawing up plans and asking for a community’s approval. It should be about supporting people to come up with their own development plans for their communities.’
Meet the Igers
Instagram is the perfect platform to capture the energy of today’s continuously evolving contemporary cities, their people and their buildings. It’s for this reason that we chose some of Cape Town’s most creative Igers, with burgeoning careers in photography, film and social marketing, to capture the urbanists in their respective contexts
Ockie Fourie | @theworldsyoungestman
As brand manager for international surfwear company Hurley, Ockie believes that Instagram provides another platform for people to interact with brands. While he loves portraits (and the stories they come with), he also has a keen eye for everyday details – check out his #ManholeMondays series. ‘People now send me images of manholes from Canada, Iceland, Amsterdam – all over.’
Gear of choice: iPhone 6 Plus, Canon 5D MKIII and Fujifilm X-T1.
Interesting fact: Ockie is colour-blind and struggles to edit colour-heavy images.
David East | @daveast
David is a freelance film director and cinematographer with a particular fondness for street photography and portraiture. He has a distinctive urban shooting style, and enjoys the visual effects that come from playing with perspective. He sees Instagram as a means to get good practice in honing his photographic skills.
Gear of choice: iPhone 5s, Panasonic GH4 and Sigma 18-35 1.8 Art.
Interesting fact: He shoots for a lot of local bands and footwear brands.
Jessica Stafford | @jessbinxx
Jessica, who’s studying full time at UCT towards a medical degree, has a style with a distinctly feminine touch, and her aesthetic has garnered her a relatively large following. She uses the social-media platform as a means to not only expand her photography skills but meet interesting people, and her Instagram feed is full of fashion, architecture and nature.
Gear of choice: Samsung S4 Zoom and Canon 100D.
Interesting fact: She’s a final-year Medical Bioscience student.
Thoban Jappie | @thoban
Thoban co-founded his content-production and visual-communication agency Mobile Media Mob (MMM) based on his and partner Roy Wrensch’s love of Instagram. Their real-time live social-media broadcasting and production have brought them success as well as big-brand clients like Samsung, Gallo Music and Johnnie Walker.
Gear of choice: iPhone 6S and Fuji XT1.
Interesting fact: Thoban was a winner in last year’s iPhonenography competition. Although he uses his Fuji XT1 to shoot, he still edits images on his phone with VSCOCam, Afterlight and Snapseed.
Grant Payne | @mynameisgrant_
This professional photographer shoots from the hip with an edgy editorial style that has gained him recognition from the fashion community and earned him gigs like the Kluk/CGDT’s Big in Japan 2015 campaign, a collaborative editorial with Levi Strauss, and seen him featured in Gaschette and Elle magazines. He feels Instagram and its networking opportunities have been instrumental in his career. He especially relishes being able to get a portrait shot without the subject even knowing it.
Gear of choice: iPhone 6 and Fuji x100.
Interesting fact: He’s only in his 20s.
- The City: thecityagency.co.za
- National Skate Collective: facebook.com/National-Skate-Collective-313344875389908
- Cape Town Partnership: capetownpartnership.co.za / bicyclecapetown.org
- Wolff Architects: wolffarchitects.co.za
- Open House Architecture: oharchitecture.blogspot.com
Compiled by: Genevieve Putter
Photographed by: Grant Payne @mynameisgrant_
Photographed by: David East @daveast
Photographed by: Jessica Stafford @jessbinxx
Photographed by: Thoban Jappie @thoban
Photographed by: Ockie Fourie @theworldsyoungestman