KNOWING AND ACTIVATING JOHANNESBURG CITY STREETS WITH CHILDREN
The Open Streets Auckland Park event was held in a section of Auckland Park on 7 April 2019. Ditton and Twickenham Avenues were officially closed from Henley Road up to and including Cookham Road to allow for a fully pedestrianised and non-motorised vehicle use of the area. The closure lasted from just after 08h00 in the morning – to allow for set-up and preparation before the event start-time of 10h30 – to just after 14h00 in the afternoon. Officially the streets were meant to open again at 15h00, once all activations and stalls had been packed away, but on the day the barricades were lifted just after 14:30.
The initiative started with interest from Judith Browne and Heather Barclay from Mimosa School in having an Open Streets-like event in Auckland Park and was quickly picked up and championed by Lerato Mabaso and Stefan van Niekerk, respectively from Johannesburg’s Transport Department (in line with their Streets Alive programme) and the City Transformation and Spatial Planning Directorate. Mark Schaerer from Brixton Community Forum (a volunteer-run organisation dedicated to making Brixton a safe, livable place for all who reside there), Ann Simmonds from Play Africa (a not-for-profit and social enterprise company focused on working with children and city spaces) and Kyla Davis from Well-Worn Theatre Company (a physical theatre company with a strong environmental ethos) came on board as organising committee members early on in the process. A number of organising committee members were parents of children at Mimosa School, as well as having a vested interest professionally in a children-orientated Open Streets initiative. This was an event realised through a collaboration between city official programming, non-governmental advocacy and activist organisations and civically and environmentally conscious individuals. Centred around Mimosa School and with the committee members invested ideologically in children and their relationships to the world the event had a children-and-family-centred ethos in creating activations for making Johannesburg streets more socially vibrant and functional as public spaces.
Many event attendees were residents, pedestrians and users of the streets such as families connected to surrounding schools, and university students in nearby student housing. Many came from neighbourhoods around Auckland Park, like Brixton, Melville and Westdene – but others, drawn by the Open Streets concept and the idea of children-friendly streets, travelled in from as far as Orange Farm and Rustenburg. All the people interviewed said they came either because they had a connection with children and/or because they were invested politically in the idea of people being drawn together in public spaces for recreational activities.
The research desks at the official entrance points to the closed-off area, counted 252 people, made up of 92 men, 74 women and 86 children. These numbers provide a conservative estimate of the amount of people attending on the day as many did not use the official entry points. Organisers estimated nearer 400 people, making this a well-supported, small-scale public event.
The JMPD provided 51 officers and 23 cars. The organising committee, including researchers, but not stall holders, numbered 20. The number of storeholders/activation organisers was 28. The volunteers working as marshalls and assisting with set up and packing numbered 100 and were either from Riverlea or attached to the Brixton Community Forum. Phyllis Kramer from Region B Citizen Relationship and Urban Management assisted Mark Schaerer of the Brixton Community Forum in securing the help of the volunteers.
Activities on the Day
Street activations on the day included: a pop-up playground provided by Play Africa, a skate park provided by Skateistan, a street theatre production Galela and roving puppets provided by Well-Worn Theatre Company, a bike school provided by BreezeBlock, involvement of patients and staff from Netcare Rehab Hospital, attendance by a group of children from Children of Fire, a team of roving artists managed by Art House Melville, a mud kitchen and inside-out school hosted by Mimosa teachers, an activation of an alleyway with invented games by Mimosa School Grades 1, 2 and 3, planting with Kelsey Glennon from Wits’ School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, slacklining, a trash to treasure art station, chalk art on the street, a wire workshop with Daniel Muchunju the Wire Doctor, a weaving plastic bags workshop with Maria Motshweni, food trucks and picnic tables, with families invited to set up picnic blankets and chairs and enjoy the space together, face painting and book exchange hosted by Hope Church, art activation and exhibition of work done in the Brixton social cluster by #ArtMyJozi, a hip-hop stage and hip-hop lessons with Leon Andrew Labuschagne, storytelling for kids (available every hour on the hour) at a reading picnic set up Smangele Mathebula, the African Reclaimers Organisation and a dance activation by OThandiwe Sekhibane.
Research activities on the day included an exhibition of children’s research into neighbourhood streets, welcome desks with interactive maps, questionnaires and verbal interviews, a philosophy circle, teams of children interviewing local residents in their homes, audio interviews for a podcast conducted by Candice Nolan, photography by Chris Anderson and filming by Adel van Niekerk.
A subcommittee focused on the research opportunities that the project presented. This was comprised of Judith Browne and Heather Barclay from Mimosa; Philip Harrison from the South African Research Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning attached to the Wits School of Architecture and Planning and one of his postdoctoral fellows, Alex Halligey; Theresa Giorza from the Wits School of Education Foundation Studies Division; Iginio Gagliardone from the Wits Media Studies Division and at various stages members of the City’s Transport Department and City Transformation and Spatial Planning Directorate. This group dialogued about the research exercises on streets Mimosa School was already running and proposed new ones in the lead up to the event and for the day itself. The primary intention of the subcommittee was to document and critically reflect on Open Streets Auckland Park as a children-centred intervention into streets.
Several other stakeholders connected to Johannesburg City became involved over the course of the organising process. In early March the #ArtMyJozi team, managed by the Trinity Session, commissioned by the Johannesburg Development Agency, got in touch with Mimosa School to run a workshop with Mimosa children towards an exhibition for the Open Streets event day as part of the #ArtMyBrixton programme. This was another valuable contribution to the overall research focus for the event. With the Region B theme as part of Johannesburg City’s Streets Alive programme being Sports and Recreation, this department came on board in the last week before the event, helping with chairs and tables.
The Open Streets Auckland Park event was very well-received. Parents reported that they took pleasure in seeing their children play on the streets and in not having to worry for their safety in terms of traffic or crime. Children took great delight in all the activities of the day and the reflections from Mimosa School children subsequent to the event have been extensive and are ongoing. Their conceptual thinking in drawings, verbal narratives and games is reflecting the notion of connectionsthat roads inspire. Children are verbalising a curiosity in streets in their normal, daily use, as well as reflecting back on the freedom and exceptionalness of the streets during the Open Streets event. Interviews with participants on the day as well as with pedestrians in the lead-up to the event offered data on public opinions of streets in different areas in Johannesburg and as a city on the whole, as well as desires for how Johannesburg streets might function and what the perceived obstacles to achieving these desires are. Details of this research can be found in the attached report.
Thandeka Mlaza-Lloyd and Stefan van Niekerk for City Transformation and Spatial Planning both felt the day was very positive in offering an alternative experience of how streets could be used. Van Niekerk felt that the majority of people were engaging with it as a carnival, rather than seeing the longer-term implications the event proposed for shifting daily street-use. He felt that a more overt framing of the activist intentions of the event would have made for a greater self-aware involvement among participants on the day. In a similar vein, several organising committee members thought having the JMPD involved earlier on in the organising process would have allowed for a greater integration of questions of road safety and how this affects different road users - cyclists, pedestrians, children, differently-abled people, motorised vehicle drivers. Mlaza-Lloyd expressed the need for more publicity in general to alert people to the event and the need for more of these events to happen in all areas of the city with greater frequency.
In attendance were also former MMC for transport, Rehana Moosajee, and current MMC for development planning, Reuben Masango, as well as executive director for transport, Lisa Seftel, and ward councillor for region B, Bridget Steer. All of these officials expressed pleasure in the event and viewed it as a positive intervention, advocating for a more active use of streets as public spaces.
The organising committee felt the event to be a great success in terms of turn out, the responses of participants and in the range of activities available on the day. There were disappointments: wanting to have bring-and-share, free food and water distributed from tankers rather than in bottles which proved too difficult to organise in terms of city legislation on health and safety requirements; certain activations that were planned one way and then had to shift and be improvised differently in the situation of the day. There was also a hope that more schools in the area, University of Johannesburg Residents and other local organisations would get involved and that there would have been more capacity for marketing, as Thandeka Mlaza-Lloyd among other participants expressed a need for. The organising, especially to have the event as an official road closure, took a great deal of planning, teamwork and perseverance, but the committee assessed all this labour as well-worth the results on the day. Having a group of committed people with a network of connections made it possible to realise the event in its eventual form and the disappointments were minor in relation to the overall effectiveness of the event in creating a children-and-family-centred activation of the streets as motorised vehicle free, freely available public space for four hours.