Langa closes its streets to cars

25 March 2015

The usually frenetic streets of Langa, the old township on the periphery of South Africa’s Mother City will be filled with activities of a different kind on Sunday, 29 March.

Open Streets, a concept originating in Colombia and growing in popularity in Cape Town will take over from midday to 5pm. During these hours, several streets in Langa will be closed to vehicles and open to the community.

Jungle Walk, Rubusana Avenue and part of Washington Street will be car-free, allowing people to walk, cycle, skate and connect while enjoying the space in whatever legal way they like. An invitation has been made to the broader Cape Town community to use the opportunity to experience Langa’s street culture, by taking over the streets together for a few hours.

Open Streets Langa is a free community event and will be the second Open Streets day for Cape Town in 2015. The first took place on 18 January, when the Bree Street in the city bowl was closed to cars.

The concept of Open Streets originated in Bogota, Colombia and has been held in Cape Town several times over the past few years.

Public input

Understandably, buy-in from the public is crucial to the success of the day. For its latest outing, over the past five weeks, Open Streets Cape Town has been planning the day with local residents. From collectively designing a poster to discussing heritage issues, these meetings have been genuinely open platforms of engagement, says Open Streets.

Inspired by Bogota’s Ciclovia, the largest recreational programme in Colombia which turns 120km of city streets into car-free space for everyone to enjoy freely every single Sunday, Open Streets in Cape Town has been mobilised by a group of passionate volunteers committed to a more equitable, integrated, safer and vibrant city. They are guided by an Open Streets Manifesto.

Open Streets was founded in 2012 as a citizen-driven initiative, working to design and promote streets which embed and generate respect for people, regardless of who they are, and how they move. There is no entry fee to take part in Open Streets, which connects communities through healthy recreation, creative expression, local economic activity and alternative forms of transport.

To get into the spirit of keeping it as car-free as possible, the group has advised people to use public transport to get to Langa on Sunday – use the train, bus, taxi or your own steam to get there, they say.

Volunteers will be on hand at Cape Town Central Station to make it easier. Join this group and catch the train to Langa Train Station, where Open Streets volunteers will greet visitors. There will also be Open Streets volunteers at Cape Town Taxi Rank, pointing out minibus taxis heading to Langa. Look out for the taxis with Open Streets Langa Posters in the window.

Bicycle Cape Town is also organising a group of cyclists to ride together from the city centre, or take a Golden Arrow bus.

There is nothing new about the open streets concept. For the past 32 years Bogota, Colombia, has cleared its streets of automobiles every Sunday, and opened them to the community. Open streets are about breaking down barriers and connecting communities.

“The philosophy is to transform the way we experience streets,” says Open Streets founding member Marcela Guerrero Casas, a native of Bogota. “It allows us to see streets as more than just transport thoroughfares.”

Cycle lanes

It’s a simple concept, but shutting the streets to motorised traffic challenges the status quo. South Africans are used to cars and taxis. Yet as Guerrero Casas stresses, traffic is a logistical issue and can be overcome through working with the city officials and residents.

“The main thing is to get people’s support – so they see the value of it and don’t view it as an inconvenience. It is about showing people what a street could be. It must be a gradual approach, and practical. We are selling an experience, a philosophy.”

In the long term, there can be hard infrastructural changes, such as installing more cycle lanes, as well as soft changes, such as getting people to participate fully. “The concept of Open Streets is easy to sell. After all, we all want safer streets, and the lack of safety on our streets is a daily reality,” she adds.

The group says that by embracing the philosophy, all residents can create shared places that embody respect for all and help to bridge the social and spatial divides of their city.

In its manifesto, Open Streets says it believes that streets should:

  • Enable safer and more cohesive communities;
  • Provide platforms for creative expression of local cultures and values;
  • Be places for recreation and social interaction;
  • Contribute to job creation and local economic activity; and,
  • Provide choice in how we move around the city.

It is not the first time Open Streets will be in Langa. Rubusana Street was closed to traffic on 12 October 2013. Homes were opened to arts and the street to people’s activity and creativity. Part of Maboneng Township Arts Experience, a permanent arts route, was opened on the day in the Langa Quarter.

Activities on the day included yoga, street drawing, skateboarding and games for children, as well as cycling.

Open Streets has other activities, such as its Talking Streets series. The group leads some guests along a pre-selected street “to imagine together what is required to turn it into a genuine ‘open street’ that embeds respect for people regardless of who they are and how they move”, says Guerrero Casas.

The aim is to engage friends of Open Streets to share ideas, experience together and ‘walk the talk’ in helping to pave the way for a street revolution of sorts in Cape Town. The day starts by walking along the street to learn what is already happening and to explore what else can be done to maximise its potential.

SAinfo reporter