Open Streets in Observatory: The Magic of Open Space!

On Saturday, October 26th, Open Streets held a second event in Observatory, Open Streets Transport Month & 100and1Day. In the afternoon, Lower Main Road was closed down to cars from Main Road (near MacDonalds) all the way until it intersects with Salt River, creating a lovely long stretch of tarmac for the community to make use of! As a long standing resident of Observatory and the owner of a small business that works with children, I decided to make a contribution to the event by running an intervention called “A Family Zone!”. I wanted to create a space for families to come together and enjoy the open street. Last time we had play dough, finger painting and a jumping castle. This time it was going to be a jumping castle, bunting painting and games!

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Apart from that I also just love these types of events, for no other reason that it brings people together and creates the possibility for some sort of urban magic. I noticed the magic during the first event held in May for Africa Day. People were happy, their faces open, eyes smiling and accessible. There was laughter, casual banter, relaxed interactions and joyful children. In a place like Cape Town, this easy open public interaction is something special. Generally it is like other big cities I have lived in, you avoid as much eye contact as possible and focus on what you are doing when you are out and about. In May, I could not believe that all it took to create this easy connected, community of people was to remove cars. Could it be that it is the presence and threat of cars which contribute so significantly to the urban alienation that we experience?

Let me describe the experience here so you can share in it too (just in case you were unable to make it!):

At first the street became still. There were a few cars driving slowly down the road as Janet and I stood waiting on the sidewalk, uncertain of when the street was transitioning between a space for cars and a space for people. We waited, chatted, organised our supplies and planned where we wanted to work. Janet hung up her colourful bunting, we plugged the extension cord in for the jumping castle, placed a carpet in the gutter and waited. It was a few minutes after the hour the event was beginning when I decided to simply claim the space. Feeling like an empowered citizen, I stepped off the curb and into the street. Even so I have to admit it felt strange, even a little dangerous. There was a part of me that was still waiting for a car to go racing by, driven by someone who refused to accept the barricades. In a funny way, it was almost a small act of faith that took my feet off the sidewalk and into the street! I chose to trust that people were going to embrace the spirit of the event, the open space and support what it stood for…and they did!

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Janet was setting up space for children to paint colourful bunting on the side walk and I rolled out my carpet in the street, creating space for people to relax in the emerging family zone. As we did this a slow stream of walkers, bikers and skaters began to amble past. People made eye contact, smiled, asked what I was doing and suddenly the emptiness became a space of shared anticipation – the magic was beginning! I thought, “I wonder what this event, will bring?” as I was dusting the carpet down before tackling the larger task of the day, setting up a jumping castle for the first time. On this note, for those of us without our own children, when do we have an excuse to set up a jumping castle? Another reason to love community events like these, they create opportunities for us to grow and learn. Thankfully though I was happy to find out that setting up a jumping castle in the street is not too hard, especially when you have lots of eager children to help out!

Janet and I unpacked the heavy object with the help of the Observatory Community security guard, we unfurled the edges, pulled it straight, plugged it in and began pumping air inside. The castle began to rise and the children waiting to climb on were overjoyed! It was finally standing tall and everyone climbed in, it was the launch of a non-stop, 4 hour jumping feast that continued with unabated enthusiasm throughout the afternoon! At this point though, I had long forgotten that there was any need to be hesitant about stepping off the sidewalk and into the street and it is was less than 15 minutes later. All it took was a shared project, an act of faith, collective enthusiasm, participation and curiosity and the community of Observatory was transformed!

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By 5pm, when the jumping castle came down, the bunting was all painted and the games were finished, I had a deep sense of personal satisfaction that it had been the most excellent day! The pleasure of the whole experience leaves me with a question though – if the creation of a space designed to bring people together is all that we need to be better human beings, then why does this not happen all the time? Personally, after another delightful open streets event experience, I think having access to such experiences should be placed up there with our other basic human rights…don’t you?

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