Building the Public City: Public space and public engagement practices in Johannesburg’s inner city

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager, and Costanza La Mantia
Johannesburg, 14 March 2016

Inner-city Johannesburg’s regeneration is a well-stated priority for the current administration. While private-led evictions have intensified since the City’s regeneration strategy was launched ten years ago, it is also trying to counter-act gentrification with a series of programmes and projects targeting both the provision of better public spaces and services, and a series of activities aimed at building a stronger sense of citizenship. We spoke to Jennifer van den Bussche from Sticky Situations, who is working on a series of these projects.

What projects are you workingon lately in the inner city?

Our team is currently working with Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo (JCPZ) on a project focusing on a public park in Hillbrow in inner-city Johannesburg, experimenting more creativelywith processes of stakeholder engagement. The project is trying to engage all interested and impacted parties, big or small - Ward Councilorsand Ward Committees, local NGOs, residents, businesses, park users (including people who sleep in the park), schools, interested individuals and groups, cleaners, cooperatives, Community Policing Forums (CPFs), street patrollers, government departments and its employees, while learning from other nearby neighborhood approaches and from Wits University students as well.

Do you think these are signs of a more inclusive approach to inner city regeneration?

To me, this project represents a sizeable government department thinking and experimenting outside of currently practiced participatory processes, while complimentingits existing methodologies. Our goal is to get more people interested – to build a relationship between the neighborhood and JCPZ and to see if all groups can work more closely together in public spaces. Adoption of these as more long-term methodologies by JCPZ, as well as how they could compliment rather than hindering responsibilities of JCPZ officials and staff, are yet to be clarified and explored in more depth.

Do you think these kinds of activities can impact on social fragmentation and inequality, or offer opportunities to marginalized groups?

I believe they can, but it is hard to measure. We have seen that there is a clear need for interactive play for children, stimulating activities for the youth, for parents to have a breather from their kids and at the same time know that they are in a safe environment, and to take the issues of safety into all of our hands. We are currently engaging the local CPFs and Street Patrollers in both Jeppestown and Hillbrow neighbourhoods, who are supported by the South African Police Service (SAPS).

However, no process is perfect. We are, for example, noting a lack of people from other African countries venturing into the Park during our activations, which could be a sign of broader social concerns that we do not understand sufficiently, or that we are not reaching out wide enough.

Do you believe active public space can help build citizenship?

Of course, but it needs to be an equal public space and in Johannesburg there aren’t many. The Durban Waterfront for examplefeels to me like one of the more inclusive spaces in South Africa. Spaces that exclude one or another group of people (e.g. differences in incomes, drivers/walkers, language groups, safety typologies, etc.) are disruptive toa senseof citizenship. However, making a public space that is 'everything to everyone' is quite possibly an impossible task.

Photo credit: Stick Situations

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