“[…] there are no ‘answers’ in urban planning but if we ask the right questions we may get better ideas on how to approach the challenges we face in “managing our co-existence in shared space.””
When I first visited the small South African town of Darling in April 2016 as a guest and partner of the Fontys project Darling Collection, I noticed it to be a pleasant, hospitable and relaxed place. While breathing the quiet atmosphere of a small rural community (10,000 inhabitants), it also became clear that Darling could be considered a microcosm, representing some of the pressing social issues of contemporary South African society. The main issue that is quite obvious to observe, is a high level of spatial segregation which also happens to be an ethnic segregation. This is by no means a remarkable fact in South Africa, considering its history. Nevertheless, it is one of the challenges for the current and future generations to overcome the negative effects of this spatial and ethnic segregation.
Ill. 1 Aerial view of Darling (Google maps) showing spatial segregation between townships (North) and town (South)
One of the areas where a meaningful result can be achieved is the design of public spaces in order for these spaces to intentionally foster and invite intercultural exchange. Quoting for a second time the American professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and planning, Julian Agyeman, he observes that:
“Public spaces can be sites of huge intercultural opportunity. They may be the only sites where various groups interact at all and organized events, such as soccer matches, festivals or youth group events may offer important opportunities for inter-group contact and for generating shared experiences. [Julian Agyeman]
These two quotes provide some insight in the importance and opportunities of well-designed public space. Even many ‘public spaces’ can feel inaccessible or uncomfortable for groups in society, because of a whole range of causes, the most common of which include:
– a lack of and/or the poor condition of children’s play spaces;
– the presence of undesirable users and uses;
– the feeling of safety or other psychological issues;
– and litter, graffiti and/or vandalism
In Darling, I sense there is an opportunity to address this very concrete social issue and link it to public space design. On the image below it is quite visible how the separated parts of the town (town and township) are linked (or separated, depends on your perspective) through an open, green space, called ‘De Vlei’. Since many urban services are located in Darling around Voortrekkers-street and Arcadia Street (shops, banks, restaurants) many people from the townships walk or drive to this central space on a daily basis. This creates a flow of people, many of whom (the pedestrians) use the sides of the main road or the footpaths through De Vlei park area.
Ill. 2 Open space between townships and Darling town
Ill. 3 Picture from ‘De Vlei’ Park area – footpath
This green open space has some wonderful natural qualities. The trees provide much appreciated shadow, there is the view to the surrounding countryside and there are some places to take a rest or play. In general, however, the place feels not well taken care of, is quite full of litter (especially glass bottles) and might feel dark and unsafe at night as well. During the winter season this area floods and acts as a rainwater collection area. The footpath remains dry. The area is also used for some collective events, especially the Passion Plays during Easter. It might very well be a wonderful spot for a design intervention, creating opportunities for a higher quality public space with more uses for varied usergroups such as elderly and children.
One such attempt has been realized lately in the form of a small painted wall, with a prize-winning poem by the town’s children. Even after a few years, the wall is still in perfect shape, while otherwise one would have expected that this piece of public space furniture would have suffered the same kind of lack of care and maintenance we see with regard to the other furniture elements in the park. The conclusion might be that a sense of ownership is the missing link to secure the park and public space to be maintained and taken care of. The children of all the schools in the community participated in the poetry competition and the erection of the wall has been a community project with as many stakeholders as possible. This is clearly a requirement if we want to produce something with a lasting quality and impact.
ill. 4 and 5 the poetry-wall, with a prize-winning poem by one of the town’s children
Stadslab Workshop ‘Designing Intercultural Space’
So, here is the idea. Stadslab European Urban Design Laboratory will plan and organize a 10-day workshop on ‘Designing Intercultural Space’ in Darling in the Fall of 2017 (Spring in Darling). Since Stadslab operates as a think-tank and design lab we normally apply the design thinking methodology and design as a tool to create urban strategies and scenario’s to address specific urban challenges. Darling could be different. It is a small community with a modest formal governance structure and no real ‘planning department’. Strategies are nice but will have little impact in a place where there seems to be only minor urban dynamics. That’s why we are now considering to take a different approach and link a design thinking method to the actual realization of a prototype design. In addition, while we usually gather a team of young professionals in architecture and urban planning to come up with such design strategies, in Darling this team set-up will be complemented by a group of local co-developers and ‘builders’. The ambition would be not only to come up with an idea but also to create at least the start of the realization process. This blog is just the first sketch of the idea in order to generate feedback and support. In the following weeks I will try to contact local stakeholders such as the Municipal authorities and NGO’s such as The Darling Trust, which partnered up with Fontys in 2016 as well.
Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas or to team up with us as we approach the moment of a project kick-off.
Director of Stadslab European Urban Design Laboratory, Fontys School of Fine and Performing Arts, Tilburg (Netherlands)