Utopia without walls

Johannesburg is characterised by walls, many of them exceptionally high and intimidating, topped with electric fencing, broken-glass shards, barbed wire and closed-circuit television.

Although the social engineering of apartheid ended nearly 20 years ago, there is little apparent trust between sectors of the community or individuals within a community.

Privacy and security are at a premium and boundaries are maintained through rigid control. As a result, many public places are also inaccessible and their boundaries are not porous, concerned more with keeping people out than providing access or inviting users in.

As a part of the Cracking Walls project, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) organised a seminar called “Boundaries; how we define safety in public spaces”. The seminar consisted of contributions from practitioners and researchers, a lively panel debate and discussions with representatives from community forums, police, city government and research institutes and was conducted by Joachim Fritz of the GTZ.

GTZ is—among others—supporting initiatives on the prevention of violence and crime in South Africa.
A lively debate about the nature of the divisions between places, private and public, historical and prospective developed in the course of the seminar.
Graeme Gotz of the City of Johannesburg described Jo’burg as an urban forest with luxurious homes for the few, where exclusion remains an objective. In reclaiming previously unused public spaces tools such as a public transport spine for the city would create a new mix of income levels and density, and enable the development of positive public spaces.

City safety manager Nazira Cachalia talked about creating an environment that fosters economic development for all, redresses poor environmental management and neglect, and explores the relationship between service breakdowns, frustration and crime.

Like other speakers, she emphasised the need to have a separation of spaces—public and private—and to manage the transition spaces between public and private spaces.

She envisaged Jo’burg as a place of active citizenship and local creativity rather than of CCTV and private security.

Oscar Oliphant, the City Parks manager, said: “Sometimes people are more at risk where there are non-porous boundaries than where there are not, since nobody can see either in or out to help if there is a problem.” He said we have developed a gut response to walls and fences, which make us believe we are safe within their confines.

The city’s aim is to set new high standards for the design and management of public ablutions, as well as to ensure that public places are child-friendly and offer elderly people a safe recreation space, Oliphant said.

“The key to planning and successfully managing a safe public place is in the combination of professional skills and knowledge and vibrant engagement with the community,” said Michael Krause, of Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading. He presented a case study of work done in Khayelitsha in Cape Town. He suggested a vision in which people trust one another to value the same things and to respond positively to sound investment. He talked about the way in which people in Khayelitsha had begun to use the design principles of new and appealing public places by creating pleasing gardens in their private spaces.

Ultimately, we all want to live in a more open and friendlier world. Therefore one needs to ask: if we hadn’t built the walls 20 years ago, if instead we had built houses for those who needed them, would we need to build them today?

If we can imagine a place where we live together in trust and respect one another and one another’s property, where we share public places with a sense of common ownership, then dropping walls will be the start of a great new future.

Barbara Holtmann is an expert for defence, peace, safety and security at the CSIR

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