Cape Town: How good design could help the poor

Gavin Silber says WDC2014 is in danger of becoming a missed opportunity

Cape Town has been awarded the right to host the World Design Capital 2014 (WDC2014) against stiff competition from cities across the planet, in large part because of the Cape Town Partnership's bold and candid bid. The bid promised to use the year-long event to "deal with the vast imbalances that exist in our society", by focusing on "community cohesion" and "infrastructure development".  The event is supposed to build partnerships and encourage productive critical debate around Cape Town's past, present and future design plans.

Unfortunately the City of Cape Town's recent announcement that it will lead the management and coordination of WDC2014 threatens this vision.

The City is one of the main providers of Cape Town's basic services including sanitation, water, electricity, roads, safety and (increasingly) housing. It also approves most design plans. As a service provider, whose leadership will always have re-election as a foremost concern, it should not be leading this process; it is a plain conflict of interest. The city has too much vested in promoting its own way of doing things to the exclusion of critics.

This is not a specific criticism of Cape Town's leadership; the same argument would apply in any city. Government leaders - be they local, provincial or national - are reluctant to admit when they have made mistakes or when policy needs to be changed.  They worry that publicly admitting mistakes reflects poorly on them politically.  Rather, there is a growing tendency to mislabel difficult questions and necessary criticism as politically motivated attacks. 

Government across the country also has a dismal track record when it comes to meaningful engagement with communities, often adopting a "my way or the highway" approach. This often causes poor communities and the organisations that represent them to feel ostracized and services to fall short of their needs.

Government's inability to accept criticism and facilitate dialogue was highlighted in the recent vociferous debate about whether Cape Town is a "racist city".  The phrasing of the debate is unproductive, but the truth is that there are few cities in South Africa where our nation's divided past is so stark.

Although our city has made some progress since 1994 in providing services to historically neglected communities, we must accept that Cape Town's racial and class divisions remain largely intact. You just have to drive the short distance from Cape Town's leafy suburbs to the sprawling shantytowns at the city's margins to see this.  Finding lasting solutions requires us to be honest about these difficult realities.   

WDC2014 is a perfect opportunity to do this.  Unfortunately, the combative response to this debate from senior leaders in Government has been unproductive and does not bode well for such discussions being facilitated by a government run organizing committee.  The multi-sectorial task team organizing the event should instead be led and coordinated by an independent body, which can bring stakeholders to the table as equal partners.

The City's press statement (20 Janaury 2012) announcing the WDC2014 decision further entrenches our concerns about inclusion. The statement calls for partnership from "key stakeholders", namely "the Cape Town Partnership, the design community, and other private sector partners". It says little about the important role that needs be played by community organisations, academic institutions, NGOs and religious bodies.

This reinforces the widely held belief that design is merely about shiny objects - a table, or a sculpture, or an office block - and the reserve of the largely middle class "design community" - furniture designers, artists, architects, and consumers who are able to afford their wares.

This contrasts with the view of the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), a Khayelitsha based community movement campaigning for improved sanitation in informal settlements. We welcomed the WDC2014 bid as we see it as an opportunity to enlist design to improve the quality of life in the city's poor and under-developed communities.  We also see WDC2014 as an opportunity to highlight the challenges of these communities and to promote dialogue between different groups and organisations in our city that traditionally have little meaningful contact.

Our work shows an array of problems that could be resolved through collaborative and meaningful design interventions - from small and simple refinements to the construction of entirely new communities.

Here is an example of a modest intervention. Solid waste is currently disposed through floor-to-ceiling doors in unmodified shipping containers.  These doors are often left open during the day to allow residents to dispose of their rubbish.

This contributes significantly to poor hygiene and high disease burden in informal settlements.  Children sometimes wander into these filthy and dangerous depositories. Rodents routinely feed on the rotting waste inside, contributing significantly to the spread of disease.  Diarrhea in communities like Khayelitsha remains one of the leading causes of death for children under fiver years old, largely due to poor sanitary conditions.

This could be swiftly addressed by designing an efficient and affordable system to retrofit the containers to have a safe and hygienic mechanism through which to deposit refuse.

Another example of a provision that many of us take for granted is the toilet.  There are approximately half a million Capetonians without access to basic sanitation facilities. In many informal settlements hundreds of residents need to share one toilet stall. People have to walk long distances to find a toilet, often without area lighting at night. This is very dangerous.

Residents are often robbed, assaulted and raped simply trying to relieve themselves.  Despite the new City administration's commitment to addressing sanitation challenges, it is struggling to find technical expertise to design and build toilets that are hygienic, efficient, safe and accessible.

There are larger design challenges for housing provision, roads, pathway construction and transport systems. Addressing these should be at the forefront of  WDC2014.

If the City is committed to the vision outlined in the original WDC2014 bid, it must ensure the coordinating committee is as independent as possible.  The organizing process must not be limited to the "Design Community" and "private sector". It must commit to meaningful engagement with communities - from Khayelitsha to Constantia, Mitchells Plain to Hout Bay. 

These communities must be involved throughout the planning process, not just at intermittent and superficial public events.  It must ensure that WDC2014 stays true to its mandate of encouraging critical introspection, and not become a public relations exercise that creates an idealistic fantasy vision of the City, its government and its people.   

Gavin Silber is the Coordinator at the Social Justice Coalition (SJC). This article first appeared in the Cape Times.

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