In the year of completing my masters, I was delighted to see that the topic of my study was already getting traction from influential women already in the space. My master’s dissertation focused on the safety of public spaces in Nyanga, a township in Cape Town, and it captured the attention of social designer Joke Quintens and her team, leading to me being part of this amazing project in Cape Town.
My approach on studying the safety of public spaces from a gender-sensitive perspective aligned with Wetopia’s approach implemented by Joke Quintens. This is a regenerative development approach which puts the power of “us”, power of “place” and the power of “doing” (Quintens, 2023) at the centre of all its processes when working in neighbourhoods with local communities. We got together as five passionate female social impact entrepreneurs to address the pressing issues that we all feel strongly about, surrounding gender inequality in public spaces. Thus, ‘GIRLS MAKE THE CITY’ is a Wetopia Project with a regenerative development approach, executed under the custodianship of Open Design Afrika and in collaboration with other Wetopian partners in Cape Town.
As a young academic – researcher, social impact entrepreneur, architect-urbanist, interior design lecturer, advocate for safe public spaces and founder of THE HUE (a knowledge storehouse), I was happy to learn that I was already onto something of great importance for the regeneration of our cities. Having a background in architecture and urban planning allowed me to wear many hats as a project team member. I primarily served as an urbanist researcher, project facilitator, community liaison and I documented the project progress alongside one of my team members, Sune Stassen.
When Sune and I started the selection process of the girls who would fit the project, we invited 4 organisations namely, Love Life, Just Grace, Project Playground and the Hurricanes female netball team, all from the township of Langa. As they were more familiar with the girls, these organisations were tasked, using a criterion that we provided them with, to help us identify 20-25 Langa girls from their organisations. We ended up working with 17 amazing girls.
When working on the project I could start making the connections between theory and practical work. During my masters, I learned from theorists like Dyme´n and Ceccato, 2012, who mention in their work that girls and women from marginalised communities are often the ones whose voices are rarely heard and who suffer the worst consequences of poorly planned cities and under-maintained public spaces. This was evident in all the genuine stories and experiences that the girls shared with us. When we had the workshops with the girls in October 2023, they were able to freely express themselves without holding back. This allowed us into their worlds and to understand how they navigate public spaces in Langa as young girls and women.
When Joke Quintens approached me in December of 2022, she told me about this project that she was busy with in Brussels and that she felt it would be important to roll it out in Africa (as there is a need for an authentic view from the south – indigenous knowledge). After Joke put together the team, Sune and I approached the local stakeholders who were also happy to jump on board. Later when we approached the girls, they also loved the idea of the project as they saw it as an opportunity to finally express themselves and voice out their frustration on the quality of Langa’s public spaces, who they are serving and whom and how they think the spaces should serve. The project also allowed the girls to think critically and express whom they think the appropriate stakeholders would be to help make their neighbourhood safer while allowing them (the local residents) to be involved in the urban planning and design processes of public spaces. This alighns with what we learn from Madanipour, 2010: 11-12, that “social and spatial issues such as the quality of public spaces and safety can be addressed” through the bottom-up approach where the local knowledge is used to come up with solutions to such issues.
During the first workshop, the girls were generally shy but 2-3 workshops into the project they started feeling confident and felt like they are important citizens and that their voices are valid in contributing to safer neighbourhoods in cities.
Some quotes that were shared by the girls on the 28th of October 2023:
Wanda (20): “I want girls to trust and believe in themselves and know that they are strong and powerful.”
Ithinati (16): “I want girls to walk free without having pepper spray for their safety.”
Lonezo (16): “I want to see many young girls learn how to stand up for themselves and to be independent.”
Nontando (20): “I want girls to walk freely in public without feeling low self-esteem. I want them to be confident.”
As the team we were in awe of what a project like this did for the girls and the community of Langa. Forging new alliances between girls and young women in a community and looking at public spaces of the place under study - in this case the township of Langa – and its potential provided 9 potentials: safety, community involvement and engagement, history and heritage, culture and diversity, arts and sports, entrepreneurial activity, youngsters and education, tourism and food. This meant that the girls could start allowing the solutions to come from the potential of their township. Though there was a limited budget for the project, we all understood how important it was and thus the level of commitment was far beyond what we had expected. We got a concrete output with the girls and even with the potentials that the girls came up with, they understood that the solutions did not necessarily have to change the public space but understood that by reclaiming this meant that they had to reintroduce how the space(s) could be used differently for example, having a sister hike trail with pink painted footsteps, educating young people (girls and their alliances) by informing them on the impact of gender inequality and the safety of our sisters, mothers, aunts, cousins in public spaces etc., letting girls take on new “masculine” roles in the community e.g. taxi drivers and lastly having a public remembrance/ memory wall of icons from the community to inspire the next generation of icons.
In all this, witnessing how passionate and expressive the girls were during the four workshops proved that there is an absence of women’s voices, lived experiences, emotions and expressiveness in urban planning and design processes in our cities, especially in townships/neighbourhoods like Langa. However, what gave the girls confidence in freely expressing themselves 2-3 workshops in, goes back to Viswanath and Mehrotra, 2007:1543 statement that “a sense of ownership of urban spaces can be built by allowing users to be involved in design strategies and initiatives for safer urban environments, rather than the top-down approach to crime: an exclusionary approach to creating safer spaces”. This is exactly what the girls felt, they felt that they could say what type of public spaces they wanted, how they wanted to occupy them and what safety meant to them in such spaces.
Additionally, when we asked the girls to imagine themselves as stakeholders such as “the activist, the langa boy, the urbanist, the politician” etc and think of how they think such stakeholders would be involved to help promote safe public spaces, these were some of their responses:
THE ACTIVIST/ ARTIST: “I can help by giving away pepper sprays to girls for safety”.
THE LANGA BOY: “A boy can educate men and boys about the importance of respecting girls and women”.
THE URBANIST: “Your Town is My Town. Create colleges, therapy sessions, open a girl’s club and create short courses or events for girls”.
THE POLITICIAN: “Give girls safe spaces where they can plan, implement their ideas and more”.
From this experience I could already make the connection between what the girls were saying and what Siragusa argues, that if urban planners work together with other spatial designers and community members to ensure that public spaces are organised and well-integrated into the urban environment and “facilitate and encourage” (Siragusa et al., 2016: 4) the use of the public spaces this could then enhance their sense of character, meaning and appropriateness in the urban environment to its daily users.
In the next month or two we will be reconnecting with girls to roll-out the 5 interventions that the girls came up with during the workshops last year. In this process my team and I will continue to remind ourselves of Navarrete-Hernandez et al. (2021) theory that participation and the active use of public spaces can alleviate high levels of social exclusion, isolation and crime in public spaces.
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Dyme ́n, C. & Ceccato, V. (2012). ‘An international perspective of the gender dimension in planning for urban safety’, in The urban fabric of crime and fear.
Netherlands: Springer, pp.311–339.
Madanipour, A. (2010). Whose public space? : international case studies in urban design and development. Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge.
Navarrete-Hernandez, P., Vetro, A. and Concha, P. (2021). Building safer public spaces: Exploring gender difference in the perception of safety in public
space through urban design interventions. Landscape and Urban Planning, [online]. 214(104180), p.104180. doi:10.1016/j.landurbplan.2021.104180.
Quintens, J (2023). Wetopia’s 3 superpowers. [online] Wetopia. Available at: https://wetopia.blog/2023/03/02/wetopias-3-superpowers/ [Accessed 24 Jan. 2024].
Siragusa, A., Garau, P., Camargo, W.F., Camarinhas, C., Chabbi- Chemrouk, N., Chong, J., Dobson, R., Fortes, T., Gillet, C., Hoeflich de Duque, S., Kent, E.,
Martinez-Bäckström, N., Miao, P., Mwongo, N., Odbert, C., Permezel, M., Petrella, L., Sepe, M., Silva, R., Siravo, F., Spada, M. & Zamorano, L . (2016). Global
Public Space Toolkit From Global Principles to Local Policies and Practice. Nairobi GPO Kenya: UN-Habitat, pp.4–125.
Viswanath, K. & Mehrotra, S.T. (2007). ‘Shall We Go out?’ Women’s Safety in Public Spaces in Delhi. Economic and Political Weekly 42(17):, pp.1542–1548.