Gated and ungated communities in the World Design Capital

Tariq Toffa, Cape Town Community Manager

All South African towns and cities are marked by wealth and race segregation. Among the major cities, Cape Town probably more than any other contains a deeply segregated socio-spatial form. With such effective separations, its middle-class suburbs have not experienced, like their counterparts in Johannesburg, the extreme fear of crime and of the 'otherness' of poverty, and its shaping of a culture characterized by security as a way of life. Gated communities too have not reached the levels of those in Johannesburg (in 2002 there were 25 gated communities compared to approximately 300 in Johannesburg).

Notwithstanding the global similarities among gated settlements, there are also many nuanced local realities. Although Cape Town contains relatively few gated communities per se, together with industrial and urban agricultural areas there have been over 1000 public space closures over the last four decades, which appear to have more to do with a culture of privatization and exclusivism than a fear of crime. Moreover, where many affluent households in the large metropolitan areas desire to insulate themselves from the worlds of 'otherness' beyond, in areas affected by poverty the case can be strikingly different. There, beyond concerns of safety, there is also its apparent opposite: the desire to open up and dismantle spatial and economic structures which entrench poverty upon generations, seeking instead wider linkages.

In Langa and Gugulethu, two black townships closest to Cape Town CBD, the Maboneng Township Arts Experience (MTAE) is one project which seeks to link these segregated areas to wider networks and to develop economic and cultural hubs. Launched in 2001 in Alexandra in Johannesburg, MTAE runs an annual national public festival over two days in several townships around the country, where public outdoor spaces are turned into performance arts districts, and residential living rooms are remarkably turned into public art galleries, where visitors follow guided door to door visits. Rather than separation and exclusivism, here a culture of radical openness, artistic unity and paying it forward is advocated.

Several strategies were employed in this 'ungating' of communities. First, MTAE works with existing resources in communities, as well as city projects, privately sponsored development programs, and art galleries. Second, to help achieve sustainable socio-economic conditions beyond "poverty tourism," MTAE has strategically synchronized its festivals with major national cultural events and hopes to itself also become a top destination-maker. Third, in 2013 the project also began creating physical linkages for its festivals through the introduction of shuttle buses, and through MTAE's first city-based gallery in the luxurious Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town.

With these innovations MTAE is beginning to receive increasing recognition, most notably being chosen as one of the projects for Cape Town 2014 World Design Capital. Radically innovative projects of this kind, however, were compelled more out of a position of need than choice, and their grassroots embracement is an indication of the latent desire in these communities for greater economic opportunities and collaborations. These segregated, yet 'ungated' communities, when measured against exclusivist gated communities, also reveal that notions of safety, sustainment of life, and inclusiveness do not take a single or conventional form but can translate very differently in different contexts. Such projects, especially in this "World Design Capital," reveal that designing within contexts of radical inequality is not an even-handed practice in neutrality. Rather, since socio-economic and physical landscapes are so unevenly negotiated, safe and inclusive spaces must be thoughtful, nuanced and strategic. If design will not be for social change, then at least it must be for the most humane assembly of differences. Close.

Photos: Fig. 1: Gated community of Marina da Gama, Muizenburg, Cape Town. Fig. 2: MTAE, Langa, Cape Town. (Pictures by Author)

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