Taking streets seriously

Harber, Jesse
Parker, Alexandra
Joseph, Kate
Maree, Gillian
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Gauteng City-Region Observatory
In many parts of Gauteng, streets are congested with cars, trucks, minibus taxis, pedestrians, and informal traders. In other parts, streets are quiet, underutilised and frequently underserviced. The surface quality of the city-region’s streets varies widely – from the engineering marvel of the Gauteng Freeway Improvement Project to those (relatively few) remaining gravel or dirt roads. Besides these contrasts, there are many other degrees of quality by which Gauteng’s streets vary. In some parts of Gauteng, streets have become privatised or heavily securitised. The phenomenon of ‘gated’ communities either manifests as enclosed streets within private estates or as closed-off existing public-road networks in older suburban areas. Some streets are patrolled by security guards, lined with high walls and electric fences, and surveyed by CCTV cameras. In busy areas, informal traders sell their wares on the pavement or at traffic lights, adding to the congestion on narrow sidewalks. These activities are subject to varying levels of control and police harassment, where by-laws dictating the use of roads and pavements are haphazardly enforced, with trading goods or café tables randomly confiscated across the city. And, like many other features of the urban environment, the quality of Gauteng’s streets is highly uneven. This Research Report, ‘Taking Streets Seriously’, interrogates how what is considered good urban design and liveability of streets may shift in different contexts. Through a series of case studies it attempts to understand the various logics at play in Gauteng’s streets – not only the logics of their designers, builders or managers, but also of those who inhabit, use, or otherwise interact with them. The studies unearthed a complex interplay of actors on Gauteng streets, with street users, property owners and the state each operating according to their own, diverse agendas, contingent on the particular street in question. The result is streets that are chaotic, contested, and changing over time. It is fair to say that, with only a few exceptions, Gauteng’s streets were and continue to be designed with hostility or a studied disregard towards anyone not behind a steering wheel. Yet despite the dominance of cars, pedestrian activities do proliferate. While indubitably car-centric, they are nonetheless sites of diverse and vibrant 'non-motorised' life. This vibrancy is no thanks to those who constructed and now control our streets. Non-car users have only made their mark by contesting the territory of the street using a variety of tactics. With this Research Report, we hope to prompt a re-imagination of our streets, not least as streets rather than roads, but also as public spaces. Streets comprise by far the majority of public space in contemporary Gauteng, where other forms, such as plazas and parks, are woefully inadequate. Streets taken seriously – not by users, who have little choice, but by their designers, planners, and managers – have enormous potential to enable and encourage public life in Gauteng’s cities. Conversely, streets that are poorly made or neglected outright can constrain both the society and economy of a city. Ultimately, we hope to correct an official urban discourse that overlooks the many uses to which streets are and could be put. In a time of enormous excitement and corresponding investment in our cities, we would like to see some of both these factors directed towards the (re)development of our streets.
streets , urban design , urban environment , informal trade , transport , public space