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Tuesday Jun 18, 2013

Cape Town needs a 'Department of Delightful Discoveries'

Wouldn't it be great if the City of Cape Town had a Department for Delightful Discoveries?

Or at least an individual who reviews designs of buildings and public places with the aim of asking whether they meet acceptable standards for bringing smiles to the faces of Capetonians.

Once the Transport Department has decided if a proposed building has the right number of parking bays, and Urban Design has ensured there is respect for heritage and neighbourhood character, Delightful Discoveries could check if there are enough smile-inducing features per linear metre.

Special competitions could look for creative ideas for improving the mood on public streets. And instead of just handing out fines for bad behaviour, law enforcement officers could be given the authority to issue spot rewards for people falling to the ground in uncontrollable laughter.

You think I'm joking?

I bet the return on the investment in one official's salary could be justified easily, based on the positive energy created when people started to realise that there were hidden treasures around the city designed to induce mirth and curiosity.

Buildings and public places would become tourist attractions, and half those tourists would be locals.

There are buildings in cities around the world that are viewed and photographed because they stand out for their unusual features. Construction site hoardings that are educational and entertaining. Structures that are designed with optical illusions to encourage people to question what they are experiencing. Public art that encourages people to play with it.

The city can be an interactive science centre, museum and art gallery all wrapped up in one.

The Open Streets day held on Lower Main Road three weeks ago was deliberately planned to lure people from one part of the street to another, so that they wouldn't just cluster around the familiar areas. A person standing in one place could see that something else was going on down the street, and when she got there, she would see another activity farther on.

More of Cape Town should be like that if we want to achieve the city's true potential as a place that draws people and investment. It's not about putting up signs pointing to the obvious destinations, but creating landmarks that are naturally intriguing.

Seeing the Youth Day activities at the Department of Coffee (a coffee shop, lol) near Khayelitsha station on Saturday, I realised this was what was missing to draw visitors in and create more interaction with local traders: delightful discovery. The maze of streets, alleys and buildings needs to be a welcoming place for exploring and shopping.

If we want to change the city and create robust local economies, rather than exhorting people to change, we should build new realities.

I am not sure if the recent conflict between Metrorail and traders at Khayelitsha station is fully resolved, but such situations typically involve finding alternative locations for traders where they can benefit from the flow of train passengers without creating excessive congestion.

But if all affected parties first allowed themselves to imagine doubling the activity and trade, then worked together to figure out how to do it, everyone could benefit from an environment that was not just safer, but demonstrated the power of changed perspectives.

Messages that make us feel good are more likely to gain our endorsement - not just our verbal approval, but getting our feet on to streets. As I mentioned last week, design can help achieve this.

Using design to create Delightful Discoveries can generate buzz and a sense of urban adventure. It's not just a question of having fun. It's about the confidence to explore new things, whether you are a visitor to unfamiliar territory or a trader deciding whether a particular course of action will be good for business.

The Financial Mail reported last week that the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2012 annual survey found that 14 percent of South Africans intend to open a business in the next three years. If we were in line with similarly developed countries, this could be 27 percent.

We don't need more shopping malls, we need places where the risks are lower and the mood is brighter. Can we create the confidence needed for a growing entrepreneurial class that can spot opportunities all over the city?

Rory Williams
Man about town
Cape Times

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