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Monday May 08, 2017

Move to make Cape Town's Church Square 'sticky'

The problem with Cape Town's Church Square is that it isn't "sticky".

If that sounds more like a recommendation than a deficiency, another way of putting the problem - as Future Cape Town urbanists Rashiq Fataar and Sophie Jésus describe it - is that it "operates as a large pavement", a perfectly located public space, rich in history and civic opportunity, but one that is more of a thoroughfare surrounded by blank façades than a place where people are inclined to "stick around".

Finding ways to change that is the essence of the brief given to Future Cape Town by commercial property company, Urban Lime, which describes itself as "regeneration specialists", and the owners of several key properties on the square.

The result of the collaboration is a range of "immediate, short and medium-term" initiatives to stimulate public activity in the square during the day and after-hours, and, in short, make it "sticky".

These include launching a range of food and beverage outlets, to operate from 7am to 11pm, improving lighting, enhancing the free wi-fi service, working with the city to reduce traffic (possibly cutting the number of lanes through the square from four to two), "activating" blank façades (by, for instance, hosting free light-andsound shows, using the walls as screens), providing for a temporary summer-time amphitheatre for public events, creating a simpler process to enable people to use the square for non-commercial events or initiatives, and forming a non-profit steering committee to manage and monitor the square.

An impression of some of the interventions to change the Church Square experience, including reduced roadways, street-level eateries or cafés, and the installation of a temporary summer-season amphitheatre.

Urban Lime, whose first regeneration project in Cape Town in 2006 was the transformation of upper Bree Street, where it is the largest private property owner, argues that - as marketing director Katie Friedman puts it - "public space is as important, if not more important, than our buildings".

Thus, investing in public space was a critical element of regeneration.

The project is scheduled to launch in April.

For Fataar, who founded Future Cape Town in 2010 (it is part of the non-profit Our Future Cities, which also incorporates Future Lagos) combining private sector investment with urbanist goals - using public spaces to help create more liveable, sustainable and inclusive cities - makes for a solid foundation. In the case of Church Square, it was a way to "begin to address local, precinct-level challenges so the square becomes a more vibrant public space which attracts a diverse range of people".

He said enlivening the square would be a "process" that would be governed by how the public responded.

"The square has a lot going for it - it has beautiful buildings, it's accessible, but what's missing is public life. So the question is, how to create soul? Through events, we will learn what works and what doesn't. The outcome must be determined by how people feel about it, and how they use the space."

Urban Lime chief executive Jonny Friedman noted that research had shown "Church Square is potentially an important asset for the city but is not performing as a dynamic public space".

Creating "an inclusive, exciting and vibrant space" was the objective both of the company's investment in properties around the square, and of its collaborative relationships with Future Cape Town, the city, and other partners, including Iziko museums, the Cape Town Partnership and the Central City Improvement District.

Katie Friedman said giving people a reason to visit, and linger in, the square was the chief rationale behind the concept of launching a variety of ground-floor food and beverage retailers - from entry-level coffee bistros to dining options, from early in the morning until late at night.

"This becomes self-fulfilling - and it will create a lot of jobs," she said.

There were also plans for a classy restaurant on an upper floor in the square, the drawcard being "a Michelin-star chef, who is one of South Africa's top five chefs", Friedman said.

"But the key is maximum accessibility and diversity… the square will only work as a public space if people want to be there. And that includes anyone wanting to come and have their lunch in a brown bag."

Various ideas were being explored to bring out Church Square's place in history, from the earliest days of the Cape settlement and the founding of South Africa's distinctive society.

An early photograph of Church Square.

  • Every corner of Cape Town has a tale, but Church Square's story is possibly unrivalled for sheer breadth.

    One dominant vestige of its history is the Groote Kerk, after which it was named. The first church on this site - the oldest place of Christian worship in the country - was built in 1678. The present church was built in 1841.

    The square might, on the other hand, have been named Slave Square, for, just a year after the first church, came the Slave Lodge, built in 1679 to accommodate the Dutch East India Company's slaves.

    It is estimated up to 9 000 slaves, convicts and mentally ill people were kept here until 1810, when the building was modified to serve as government offices. Over the next two centuries, the building was home at times to the Governor's Advisory Council, the upper house of the first parliament, the Cape Supreme Court, the first library, the post office, the Deeds Office and the Women's Auxiliary Services of the SA Defence Force. The building was restored in the 1960s, opening as the SA Cultural History Museum in 1966. In 1998 it was renamed the Slave Lodge. Not far from the lodge is the site of what was called the Slave Tree, under which many thousands of slaves were leased, sold or auctioned to farmers and households in the first century and a half of European settlement at the Cape.

    The tree itself, thought to have been a species of fir, was removed in 1916. A modest plinth - on the traffic island in Spin Street - marks the spot where the grim transactions took place.

    The building has since gone, but a Gothicstyled church elsewhere on the square was the centre of operations for some years in the first half of the 1800s of tireless abolitionist Dr John Philip, whose efforts in the colony and in Britain led to the ordinance of 1828 granting all free "coloured" persons at the Cape every right to which any other British subjects were entitled.

    The later struggles of the Afrikaner Bond to assert "Dutch" interests under British rule are memorialised in the bronze statue of "Onze Jan" Hofmeyr.

    By the 1930s, the tables were turning and a coffee shop on the square, Die Koffiehuis, was the rowdy focal point of Nazi-sympathising nationalists. It was at this establishment that a meeting of extremists resolved in 1936 to mount a protest against the arrival of the steamship Stuttgart, bringing the last Jewish refugees South Africa allowed into the country from Nazi Germany.

    In 1951, Church Square was in the news when police violently assaulted Torch Commando protesters, demonstrating against the Nationalist government plans to strip coloureds of the vote in the Cape.

    In the ensuing years, numerous protests against apartheid - and, post-1994, against the ANC government - have traversed the square, given its proximity to the heart of political and executive power in the parliamentary complex nearby.

    As a civic space, for much of the 20th century Church Square served the increasingly dominant agent of city life, the motorcar, with parking bays marked in the open area.

    Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)

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