Building for community - future cities

In this article, I would like to explore some tangible, specific building blocks which can quite literally build communities …or at least, build for community. By this I mean physical spaces and infrastructure, and related initiatives - which foster a sense of shared living, and create spaces conducive to multi-layered connections, dynamic interactions and inclusive relationships...

Briefly, a ‘healthy’ community can be pictured as being composed of residents who are involved and engaged; have a sense of ownership of local issues and community resources; and are active in local schools, clubs, social events and municipal meetings. 

This sort of community is:
organic: growing slowly and naturally – unforced and unengineered;
dynamic: involving constant change and often messy interactions;
- inclusive: open to all, with no exceptions and no exclusions;
multi-layered: consisting of people of many different races/ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, age groups and religious/worldviews; and
connected: like a ‘healthy’ family, through respectful communication and interactions.

As I also noted elsewhere, the key principles of intentionally building a community like this, especially in a place like South Africa, would be:
1. Conflict transformation: viewing conflict as creative rather than destructive – if resolved constructively, through proactive, loving and humble communication; forgiving; growing in mutual understanding; and forging a better way ahead together.
2. Celebrating differences: creating a ‘safe space’ for people or groups to be accepted – not simply tolerated, and not ‘regardless of differences’, but embraced and celebrated because these very differences make the community more vibrant and resilient.

Furthermore, the foundational principle of any ‘healthy’ community or society, is the importance of balancing personal freedom (being allowed to ‘be’) with mutual respect (allowing others to ‘be’). I find this level of mutual respect and empowerment to be particularly lacking in South Africa.

In addition, this is a particularly divided society – the legacy of decades of ‘apartheid’ of course – and it lingers in people’s lives and attitudes, despite the achievement of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ in the past 18 years. There can never be full health of any body or system, in this case the community, when there is fragmentation and disconnection between the parts. ‘Health’ requires wholeness.

Although many people and organisations are ostensibly attempting to restore or redesign communities, sadly most of them are simply building their own little kingdoms, according to their many and varied agendas and patterns. There will be little true progress in ‘building community’ until the government, nongovernmental organisations, community groups and business sectors work together and with one accord…

In the meantime, and without this level of consensus, what can we do in terms of changing the unfortunate physical division which perpetuates the alienation between different groups, and within our communities?

The solutions are complex, potentially requiring much debate, long-term strategies and even more funding… Redesigning Cape Town’s suburbs and transport systems to counter the physical separation that is the lingering legacy of apartheid planners would be a lengthy and perhaps controversial project (if the prevailing culture and mindset remains unchanged).

But having said all of that, how does one plan and build tangible spaces to allow for community growth or restoration (even if only in a gradual, incremental manner, precinct by precinct…rather than city-wide)?

Although I have pointed out above that community cannot be ‘engineered’, there really is hope and potential in this regard - remember that the often nebulous concept of ‘community’ is daily encountered in physical spaces such as schools, shops, beaches, parks and sporting venues. Private homes may also be the setting for interpersonal and cross-cultural exchanges, but public spaces are far more likely and ongoing meeting places. So designing these well is fundamental, and a great start – providing the physical spaces that facilitate social encounters and nurture communities.

I passionately believe that in multicultural countries like South Africa (and many others), well planned and designed public spaces have the potential to inspire, nurture, maintain or restore highly diverse, ‘healthy’ communities. 

This can be done in the following ways (just ‘for starters’):

1. ‘Village hubs’:

Neighbourhoods or city precincts each need a focal point, a ‘heart’… These local meeting points enable residents to encounter others from ‘all walks of life’ in commercial, recreational and ‘green’ spaces - reasonably ‘neutral’ zones (if well planned/designed). In addition, from a sustainability (and lifestyle!) perspective, it is important to decentralise our cities, enabling residents to stroll about, shop, meet friends and generally relax in their own neighbourhood - without the need to drive far, or at all.

These ‘hubs’ need to be planned/ designed with the following key ‘community nurturing’ features in mind:
shared space: preferably a plaza-style area, i.e. pedestrianised and open air - shopping malls or strip malls along busy roads are not conducive to gathering or lingering;
free space:  where anyone can sit, walk, read or eat their own sandwich - as opposed to food courts and other areas where one must pay to enter/sit; and
- functional overlapping with social: shops, cafes, restaurants, launderettes, hair salons etc. – where people ‘bump into’ each other while buying their bread/milk/newspaper.

It should go without saying that these spaces must be safe, accessible, clean, visually pleasing, inclusive and ‘mixed use’ – designed for children, the elderly, dog owners, cyclists, skateboarders, the disabled, etc.

These areas can then also be creatively utilised for Community and Peace-building initiatives like art installations, murals, street theatre or other forms of public display - to reinforce shared values; celebrate different cultures; raise awareness of minority groups; educate about important social issues; and tell stories of reconciliation, transformation and hope. 

Community engagement would also be further nurtured through shared, free form activities like festivals, markets, and other events in these communal spaces. However not all community activities and resources need to be in one area of course – ‘clubs’ are a great resource for communities, e.g. bowling or lifesaving. 

Also, many initiatives do not require a building, e.g. yoga or ‘nippers’ – lifesaving/swimming training for children by volunteers on the beach, or ‘mums n tots’ groups in a local park, etc. Other ideas include creative use of spaces for communal gardens, or schools allowing the use of their grounds, basketball courts and so on…

I have mentioned all of the above because they should be recognised and included in any ‘holistic’ planning or design of neighbourhoods and precincts – the only limits here are the levels of creativity and forethought exercised (or allowed) by the professionals responsible for planning, designing and developing these spaces.

2. Mixed residences and residents:

Neighbourhoods or municipal zones need to aim for a diversity of residents to avoid ‘ghettos’ of immigrants or the underprivileged;  islands of wealth isolated from the rest (and hiding even from each other, behind huge security fences); or unnaturally ‘homogenised’ communities, e.g. where the elderly or children are not welcomed or catered for.

This is not intended to sound like some scary futuristic form of societal engineering – ‘mixed’ neighbourhoods can be achieved quite simply, by requiring (through developmental guidelines, construction/property industry rating tools, municipal bylaws and incentives) a range of types of accommodation.

The recommended range of accommodation should include:
- varying sizes and price ranges, from apartment blocks to houses;
- a quota of rental properties and low cost housing for young professionals, minimum wage workers and new families;
- housing or estates specifically tailored to meet the needs of the elderly, disabled or even single parents (but mixed together, and with shared communal spaces, to avoid isolation and unnatural separation from others, especially other age groups);
- government subsidised housing, to avoid the formation of ‘ghettos’ of the underprivileged and the associated social issues; and
- ‘upmarket’ housing distributed about in pockets, to avoid exclusive enclaves where the wealthy never encounter people from ’lower’ social strata to themselves…

Admittedly, as I already pointed out, this would be a controversial approach – especially for the last group mentioned above… But if this sort of mixed community could be achieved, no one group would feel as if they ‘own’ the neighbourhood, or have the right to dominate the community discourse when allocating resources or resolving issues. It would also mean that a simple trip to the local village ‘hub’ is a multi-cultural and cross-cultural experience – without even ‘trying’.

3. Accessibility and transport:

If the village ‘hub’ is the heart of any neighbourhood or municipal zone, then the transport routes are the ‘veins’, circulating life-giving blood and oxygenating this blood when it has ‘spent’ itself. In other words, enabling people to move about easily within the area, and connecting or moving people back and forth between areas…

Without going into too much detail here, the obvious ingredients include:
- pedestrianised areas and better planning around roads for people to cross safely and freely (footbridges and other innovative access paths are preferable to traffic lights);
- cycle lanes which are safe and thoroughly linked (i.e. don’t suddenly end, expecting cyclists to, well I don’t know, fly? … like E.T., to make it to the next bit of cycle lane a few roads or blocks away?), with cyclist facilities at key points, like near train stations and shops;
- public transport that is efficient and reliable, including trams, buses and light railway (South Africa especially needs to work on ‘joining the dots’ here – e.g. buses linking train stations to important shopping areas, sporting venues or other recreational areas…a complete and convenient network…); and
- ‘green’ belts connecting transport routes, ‘village hubs’ and other key areas, comprised of parks, riversides, public paths and other natural spaces… (these are obviously more conducive to happy community interaction than crowded sidewalks and concrete ‘dead’ zones which one usually has to walk through, with not even a pot plant or mural to bring relief to the eyes…).

In other words, transport in the much broader sense than just investing in ‘roads, roads, and more roads…’ Transport and access plans that consider people’s health, comfort, and convenience; environment and aesthetics; and community - not just cars and traffic control.

4.  ‘Re-localised’ economy and energy:

Finally, a discussion about planning and building spaces conducive to community growth and wellbeing is not complete without briefly touching on the importance of ‘re-localising’ the economy and energy production of cities, and even individual zones or precincts. This is undoubtedly ‘the way of the future’, with major benefits for the economy, the environment and the social fabric of cities and neighbourhoods.

‘Re-localising’ could include some of the following guidelines and initiatives:
- locally sourced construction companies, workers, contractors and service providers: creating local employment, as well as encouraging higher levels of accountability and consideration;
- locally produced materials, products and services being preferred and supported over imported or ‘chain-store’ goods: supporting the local economy and counteracting the usual draining of people and resources away from the local area;
- locally generated energy using public infrastructure, especially through wind, solar and ‘tri-generation’ installations, e.g. solar panels on roofs and bus shelters: enabling greater local control over energy supply and security, as well as reducing costs and negative environmental impacts incurred due to current centralised systems, e.g. between 7 and 10% of electricity generated is lost in the processes of distribution and transmission… and you are still charged for this! (In South Africa, poor infrastructure and other particularly South African issues mean this may be much higher)*; and
- local businesses taking ownership of local community problems, i.e. ‘walking the talk’ of ‘corporate social responsibility’ (‘CSR’) in their own neighbourhoods: a great example of this in Muizenberg would be if local businesses would sponsor the restoration of Muizenberg station!! Reinvigorating this historic and iconic area would be of mutual benefit, and I am surprised no one has yet bothered, and that no food/hospitality entrepreneur has yet leased some of its empty spaces. Also (while I am on the subject), if cafes and restaurants would feed local homeless people from their surplus, instead of just placing posters in their windows telling people not to give to beggars…

With these broad principles informing urban design or regeneration projects, we would certainly see much improvement in local community spaces and interactions… It is my fervent hope that all the recent talk and interest around this subject will be realised in tangible projects in the near future, which focus on nurturing and strengthening the communities they are intended to serve.

*In South Africa, for example, “Campaigns encouraging consumers to switch off and unplug or face the consequences of load shedding this winter often overlook how much South Africa’s ageing and poorly maintained electricity supply network is contributing to power loss. While the amount of energy lost to poor connections and power spikes on overhead cables and other transmission infrastructure is currently unknown…” [italics mine] (from ‘Energy News’, available at

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