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Khayelitsha Township via The Guardian

How can designers improve the quality of life for residents of the poorest and most dangerous parts of cities? It is a daunting problem, and the temptation is either to say that the problem is too big or that a huge infusion of cash is needed to even get started. What if some of the problems of the poorest and dangerous places could be ameliorated, at least, by design that does not cost a fortune? The figure for total world population living in cities by 2050, cited in the Gary Hustwit film, Urbanized, is 75%! And 1/3 of those people will be living in slums. It’s time for creative thinking!

One of the many interviews with Gary Hustwit on Urbanized is found in Urban Omnibus. Hustwit describes a project in a township outside of Cape Town, South Africa that is striking in its success, both as participatory design and as a well-conceived, modestly priced solution to improving quality of life for area residents. In Hustwit’s words:

the idea of participatory design — of using the public as a design compass instead of just getting a reaction to projects that are already proposed — is not being employed as much as it might. It’s really inspiring when you see it happening and working, like the VPUU (which stands for Violence Prevention by Urban Upgrading) project in Khayelitsha in Cape Town.

And on the process:

They spent two years talking to residents before they even started thinking about their first plan. They trained volunteers to go out into the community and talk to people about the problems they face. The biggest priority turned out to be pedestrian walkways, which were where most crime was happening. Khayelitsha has a series of stormwater overflow channels that run through the settlement that were just undeveloped, garbage-strewn land. They weren’t lit, and harbored gang activity and all kinds of criminal activity. But those stormwater floodways were also the informal pedestrian route between the train station and the township. So what VPUU did was formalize the informal pedestrian paths, or desire lines, by paving and lighting the barren channels and turning them into these amazing walkways and public spaces. People are now turning their homes to face these routes because they’re so well designed, and that increases passive surveillance, puts more eyes on the spaces. The murder rate has dropped by 40%. It has become a great pilot program, which they’re now expanding into other townships and to other areas in South Africa. Also, they have trained the people who live in the area to maintain and program it. The project is still evolving. They didn’t just say, “here you go, we built a path, see you later” and step away from it.

 For more on Hustwit’s thoughts, check out Urban Omnibus – or see the film!

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