It's a sunny Sunday afternoon in Addis Ababa, and a newlywed couple strolls hand-in-hand down Menelik II Avenue, posing for photographs. Their blue-themed wedding party is behind, admiring and waiting patiently, sometimes taking their own selfies. Their backdrop: Addis Ababa Park, a beautifully manicured green space that is encircled by the avenue. It's a picturesque location, save for the fact that the park is fenced off and closed that day, like most days.
It's a typical Sunday afternoon scene, explains Mahder, an architect who points out that the wedding parties' parked cars take up avenue lanes, block traffic and cause a commotion. But what other options do they have? "We don't have real parks here, so this is how people use public space now," he says.
Ethiopia's economy is growing and diversifying. Addis Ababa has become the fourth largest diplomatic centre in the world, with more than 90 embassies and consulates. The government-led infrastructure expansion has seen an increase in roads, a new light rail system and construction works on every skyline. Future offices, hotels and condominiums are rapidly transforming the city's streets, filling in vacant plots and replacing older homes and buildings.
"The city is shining, but who is this development for?" asks Hailemelekot Agizew, born and raised in the city and a senior expert in heritage management at the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage. "When I was a child, Addis was beautiful. There were wild animals, rivers were clean, indigenous trees, green fields... It's like it was a dream. How could we lose such scenery?"
His sentiment is common. But, while parks are diminishing, people in cities like Accra, Lagos and Cape Town are using everyday public spaces like streets and pavements – even walls – in new ways. Preparing for its sixth edition later this year, Chale Wote Street Art Festival in Accra takes place in the historic but economically deprived Ga Mashie neighbourhood. For two days in August or September, artists and residents take over High Street, and it becomes a teeming, energetic, connected space for murals, graffiti, music, art installations, bike stunts, performances and people. The festival attracted hundreds of visitors in its first year in 2011 and thousands in 2015, ushering in a new art-inspired economy that thrives in the public space.
"I was sceptical before I first went in 2013," says Kwesi, an IT specialist from nearby Tema. "The roads are always for cars, trotros, taxis – never for people. Maybe we can't build new parks, but this festival shows me what's possible with what we have already."
The name of the Vision: Eko Atlantic
In Lagos, the private sector-led vision of urban modernity is Eko Atlantic, Nigeria's most expensive and exclusive district. Just off Victoria Island, the high-profile, 10-square-kilometre land reclamation and development project will include lifestyle locations, malls, a cinema and a Miami-inspired landscaped promenade. The intent is for "private" public spaces tailored to Eko Atlantic's affluent market and consumers, and that's a key selling point, explains Haleema, a sales agent. When asked about plans for "public" public space at Eko Atlantic, Haleema adds that plot owners are welcome to construct parks or plazas within their purchased developments. The only catch: plots are selling at a minimum of $200 per square metre.
© Obuh Christopher Nelson
Despite this trend of exclusivity, local initiatives are tapping into what draws people to Lagos's public spaces to make them more inclusive. "The space where I see things happening is leisure," says Olamide Udoma, urban practitioner and director of Future Lagos. "People say Nigerians don't want parks. I think Nigerians do enjoy open space and they do want it and need it."
Simple and spontaneous ideas are effective in reclaiming the city. Olamide points to Picnickers Anonymous of Lagos, an open group that organises picnics in public spaces around the metropolis, and a cycling group on the Island that organises rides on the last Saturday of each month, taking advantage of city-mandated environmental cleaning, which keeps cars off the roads.
Party on downtown
Architect Papa Omotayo and his team at A Whitespace Creative Agency organise block parties in Lagos. In November 2015 they took their party to the two-block stretch of Broad Street on Lagos Island (from the historic Printing Press building to Freedom Park). The Sunday event brought together artists doing live work, street performers, music, local vendors and food purveyors. "It's all about providing platforms," Omotayo says. "The private space can feel elitist, so we take things out to the public and give them platforms where they can engage and see art and be immersed in the collective."
In South Africa, the Open Streets concept has come to Cape Town, in which streets are closed to traffic for an entire day, allowing for full community recreational, social, art and entertainment activities to fill the space. Marcela Guerrero-Casas, co-founder and director of Open Streets Cape Town, says what made her organisation's work creating open streets possible was "long-term engagement" and existing city government interest in inclusivity and commitment to non-motorised transport. "[We fit] into a series of different objectives that are aligned with city policies," she explains.
© Obuh Christopher Nelson
Some interventions are vertical. In Dakar, graffiti artists engage walls as art canvases for public commentary. Using their spray cans as speak-pieces, and with waves of colour and imagery, artists like Ati Diallo transform what would be segregating, bare walls into platforms for community dialogue. "The aesthetic is our strategy," Diallo says, explaining how he uses techniques otherwise employed in advertising to the public good. "Imagine a wide wall. If it's empty, it doesn't interest anyone. When we add colours to the wall, it forces people to look. [...] If we put a message against violence at one side and the face of a beautiful girl on the other, when someone passes by they'll first notice the beautiful girl, then automatically they'll read what's there. That's how we speak our message."
Streets are public spaces and drivers of prosperity for cities, a 2013 UN-Habitat study concludes, and they play a key role not only in infrastructure and urban productivity, but also equity, social inclusion and citizens' quality of life. In a gauge of how much city space is given over to streets Accra ranked among the lowest with 11.1 per cent, while Addis Ababa and Lagos were marginally higher, at 13.4 per cent and 14 per cent respectively. Cape Town streets made up 25.2 per cent of city space. The study's 'Composite Street Connectivity Index' assessed how connected cities' street networks are. Again Accra was on the lower side of this spectrum at 0.287 on the index, Addis and Lagos approached middle ground at 0.428 and 0.449, while Cape Town's score of 0.832 ranked highest in Africa.
The presence and connectedness of streets is just the first step. Securing streets for festivals and other community actions means getting through the red tape required to pedestrianise the street and opposition of those who are wed to their vehicles. In Cape Town, Guerrero-Casas says the process of getting the permits is still cumbersome, expensive and not always clear, making it daunting for other neighbourhoods or organisations who would like to open up their streets for more public uses. In Lagos, block party organiser Omotayo says securing the permit took months, and approval didn't come through until three days before the event. Security is also a concern, and in both Accra and Lagos festival organisers must pay for police personnel or government officials to monitor their events.
In Lagos and Accra, you've got the ocean. But in Addis - where should you go?
A common thread running through the experience of all these activists is that volunteerism and partnerships across community and government stakeholders have been key to transforming regular streets into vibrant public spaces. "Open Streets Days would simply not be possible without the committed volunteers who have joined our organisation," Guerrero-Casas says. "Furthermore, we get in-kind contributions to the organisation as a whole because people believe in what we are trying to achieve."
At the heart of these efforts are ordinary citizens who want better public spaces they can enjoy, in whatever form, like Hailemelekot in Addis Ababa. "In Lagos, at least they can see the Atlantic Ocean. So can they see the beach in Accra. But in Addis - where should you go? You can- not see a beach where you can take your children, you cannot see a field where they can go and play."
First published: The Africa Report: Urban Living - Streets ahead