The irony of modern cities is that the bigger they get and the closer people live to each other, the less they interact and step out of their comfort zones. Marcela Guerrero Casas, co-founder and managing director of Open Streets, is working hard to change just that.
Open Streets is about transforming how city streets are perceived, utilised and experienced, by creating car-free streets for a few hours at a time, and inviting diverse people to come together and creatively use the space.
The concept is inspired by a 41-year-old movement started in Bogotá, Colombia, where Casas grew up.
Every Sunday 120km of Bogotá’s streets are turned into pedestrian areas where people can socialise, take part in recreational activities, and support local businesses.
Arriving in Cape Town in 2010, Casas was struck by the deep cultural, racial and class divisions in the city.
Being an avid cyclist, she also lamented the lack of car-free streets and soon found many others who felt the same way.
“It became clear the concept of Open Streets would resonate strongly in this city,” explains Casas.
Establishing the movement in the Mother City in 2012, Casas and her co-founders joined more than 400 cities around the world that have developed similar programmes.
So far there have been Open Street days in Observatory, Salt River, Langa and Bree Street in the CBD.
Casas admits that at first they faced scepticisim that this would be just another hipster event, but she says:
“There is a much deeper agenda to the initiative … I think the Langa event helped people see it differently. Many outsiders came to the township for the first time. It was about opening networks and lines of communication … and about supporting local economies.”
Casas and her team are currently in discussions with City of Cape Town officials to find ways to reduce costs and enable more communities to have Open Streets events. She dreams of helping local groups to start Open Streets in other South African cities, and further up in Africa.
What does her ideal city look like?
“A city where people smile at each other and recognise the humanity in each other… I really think that can happen if streets are more people-friendly.”