From Cape Town to Brighton: The Power of Open Spaces to Shape Urban Life

14.03.2023, Annabel Fenton

Inhabiting space - whether it be a rural town or a massive metropolis, is an integral part of the human experience, and within our urban encounters lie many stories about the lives we’ve led. Drawing on my experiences of open space in four of the places I’ve lived - Johannesburg, Amsterdam, Cape Town and Brighton - I’ve had a glimpse into the differences and similarities of urban life in these places. #What is open space and why do we need it? Open spaces - which include greenspaces and man-made grey spaces - play a vital role in planning cities more sustainably. Open space can be defined as: “Any unbuilt land within the boundary or designated envelope of a neighbourhood which provides, or has the potential to provide, environmental, social and/or economic benefits to communities, whether direct or indirect.” - Campbell (2001), cited in Al-Hagla (2008) The origins of open space as part of the city’s fabric date back to the ‘town square’ of ancient Greece. These are spaces of urban convening, intersection, and collision - of the built and natural environment, of work and leisure, of climate impacts and mitigation tactics, and of people from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. From what I’ve found, there are two approaches to thinking about open spaces: The first looks at the technical and environmental elements of how greenspaces and open spaces promote carbon neutrality, reduce the urban heat island, and improve flood resilience and future-proof cities for climate change; while the second focuses on the socio-cultural benefits and creative possibilities of open spaces, including cultural exchange, recreation and civic life. However, as an urban dweller myself, my conceptualisation of open space is mainly defined by my first-hand encounters with parks, promenades and streetscapes in the various cities that I’ve lived in. While there is extensive nuanced debate about how and when it is possible or useful to compare cities across geographies, in the context of growing discourse about including ‘cities of the South’ into urban theory, I’ll rather be using my first-hand encounters and anecdotes as a tool to write the city. The fact that we, as urbanists, are also urban dwellers means that how we theorise and research the city is framed by our own personal encounters. By looking at my own experiences in open spaces in cities around the world, I am able to draw insights which may reflect how we understand urban spaces more broadly. #Killarney Park in Johannesburg {{Pic5: Killarney Park, Johannesburg, September 2021. Photo by Annabel Fenton}} Johannesburg is the city I grew up in, and my love for its dynamic, bustling and complicated nature is what first drew me to urban studies. Most of the formal urban research I’ve conducted has also been in Johannesburg, too: it is a city characterised by inequality, crime, and danger, but also cultural mixing, diversity, aspiration and complexity. Pulling some of these strands together, my Master’s research looked into the living conditions and discrimination against domestic workers living in workers’ quarters apartment buildings in what were historically ‘white-only’ neighbourhoods during Apartheid (Rosebank, Killarney and Illovo). As part of the fieldwork, I visited a few of the parks in the study areas to approach people to be interviewed. A park I visited which encapsulated so many of Johannesburg’s complexities was Killarney Park. One of many open spaces in Johannesburg’s Northern Suburbs, It is a strip of green grass in between the apartment buildings, dotted with a few benches, which is used by many as a walkway between streets. Like so many parks in Johannesburg, what makes it distinct from open spaces I’ve been to in Europe is the element of waiting. At any time of the day, on any day of the week, you’ll find urban dwellers lying or sitting in a place like Killarney Park, not doing anything in particular. Some of the people ‘waiting’ were construction or domestic workers on a break, but others were not necessarily on their way toward or away from anything - a symptom of the high levels of unemployment and homelessness in the country. As well as this element of waiting, while in Killarney Park, I also saw lots of parents or nannies playing with younger children. The stretch of green was one of the only places to do so in the immediate area, given the fact that some apartments have no gardens. The ‘nannies’ also provide an interesting insight into the dynamics of urban life in South Africa: how predominantly black women are employed by wealthy, often white, families to look after their children while the parents work. A legacy of racial labour relations under Apartheid, domestic work is a complex combination of black women being seen as ‘part of the family’, while simultaneously being paid below minimum wage and working overtime or in difficult conditions. And so, just from observing people in the open space of Killarney Park, I got a glimpse into the more complex underlying socio-economic complexities which shape urban life in South Africa. #Flevopark in Amsterdam {{Pic2: Flevopark, Amsterdam, September 2016. Photo by Annabel Fenton}} Open space - and greenspace, particularly - takes on an entirely different role in urban life in Amsterdam, compared with what I’ve experienced in South African cities. Rather than being spaces for waiting, I always felt that parks in Amsterdam played a central role in urban life. Especially in the summer months while I was on my exchange at the University of Amsterdam in 2016, parks were a meeting point, a place for picnics, and a destination in and of themselves. Each park in the city also had its own distinct character: Vondelpark for winding adventures and summertime possibilities, Museumplein as a resting point after soaking up art, Amstelpark for playing and adventure, Oosterpark for post-lecture lunches - the list goes on. The greenspaces in Amsterdam add dimensions to the city’s personality and improve its livability. Flevopark was one such space that made an impression on me, which is now inextricably linked to my urban imagination of Amsterdam. Slightly tucked away in the East of the city, the park was a throughway on my bike-ride home to Diemen. On an especially hot day in September, I remember wanting to go for a swim in the dam in the park (Nieuwe Diep), but all of my friends were unable to join me. I decided to go alone, even if it felt slightly uncomfortable: a way of me claiming the urban space. Cycling into the park, I remember the buzz of people soaking up the sun, and more than anything - I remember the freedom I felt overcoming the unknown, wading into the dam, and not being judged by anyone. This freedom is such an intrinsic part of Amsterdam’s history and energy and also frames the experience of its urban dwellers. #Sea Point Promenade in Cape Town {{Pic3: Sea Point Promenade, Cape Town, November 2022. Photo by Annabel Fenton}} Moving from the greenspace of parks to the seafront, a different story unfolds. Boardwalks, promenades and any walkways that run alongside the sea give cities a new urban dimension. Public space, such as this open space, plays a role in democratising the cityspace, giving free access to all urban dwellers to meet, mingle, and experience the city. In Cape Town, another South African city characterised by extreme inequality - where so often more private spaces such as houses, restaurants and shopping malls are segregated - even though no longer by law - open spaces provide a rare arena in which people from different socio-economic backgrounds and different neighbourhoods, can experience the city in the same way. While completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Cape Town, and on the occasions that I visit Cape Town, the Sea Point promenade is one of my places to go for a walk or jog. Even though Green Point and Sea Point itself is now a mostly expensive and exclusionary neighbourhood - with a history of forced removals of non-white residents -  the promenade remains an open space that all can access. While this access, of course, is influenced by inequities in travel distances and costs, my experience is that the promenade still attracts Cape Town residents from all socio-economic groups. While jogging along the crashing waves of the Atlantic ocean, I still witness the waiting associated with unemployment and homelessness, but I also see a diversity of residents enjoying walking, spending time with family, or selling things.  My personal perception of so much of Cape Town’s urban spaces - especially restaurants and bars - is one racial and class exclusion. Much of Cape Town’s city centre and surrounding neighbourhoods have histories of forced removals of non-white people during Apartheid, during which many of those urban residents were moved to informal settlements on the Cape Flats. This history lingers in the present: many newly gentrified areas, such as Woodstock, exclude the urban poor, or deny access to people of colour. While race relations in the city is a more nuanced issue which I’m unable to fully unpack here, it is worth noting that, to me, is something special about meeting and mixing that takes place on the Sea Point promenade: it provides a rare glimpse into the urban possibility of an inclusive Cape Town. #Seafront in Brighton {{Pic4: Seafront, Brighton, March 2022. Photo by Annabel Fenton}} Brighton is quirky. After living here for just over a year - that’s something I’ve come to learn and love about this city. Nestled in and amongst the contrastingly conservative East Sussex countryside, Brighton is an oasis of freedom, self-expression, and nonconformity. This was a surprise to me when I first moved here. Coming from South Africa, I hadn’t heard much about Brighton, other than it was a seaside town. Thus, when I got offered a job at the Institute of Development Studies - and an opportunity to move across the world to this unknown seaside city - I was pleased to learn about the quirkiness and accepting energy that defines Brighton as an urban space. As an urbanist, I also began to wonder: what is it that makes Brighton ‘quirky’? As I walked along the seafront, from the glitzy Palace Pier, past the ageing Old Pier, to the colourful beach huts of Hove, I experienced the urban dynamics that make Brighton what it is. People in Brighton wear what they want, and do what they want. In less than half a mile, you’ll see people dressed in designer labels, or in full drag, skaters, and dog-walkers. It is the self-expression of urban dwellers that makes Brighton dynamic. People also use the open space as they please. The seafront is always dotted with buskers, dance troops, slackliners, and jugglers. Much like Amsterdam, there is a freedom to Brighton that anyone who visits can understand. Abstracting my own observations from a walk along the seafront, I can  see how these anecdotal observations represent the urban dynamics defined by the city’s off-beat history and open nature, which corroborates it recently being named the city with the highest percentage of people in the UK identifying as LBGTQIA+. #Living the city; writing the city My experiences as an urban dweller in Johannesburg, Amsterdam, Cape Town and Brighton are all deeply personal, and are, of course, influenced by my biases. Experiences living in a city are influenced by socio-economic status, access, as well as worldviews. Regardless, through these personal encounters, I can make sense of the urban theory I’ve grappled with in my research. Unemployment and homelessness become tangible when I see people waiting in parks; the improved livability from greenspace is experienced firsthand when I swim in dams in Amsterdam; the role of open spaces as cultural meeting points makes sense when I see diverse Cape Town dwellers all enjoying the promenade; and Brighton’s quirkiness becomes visible in the dancing and fashion on the seafront. Before we are urban researchers, we are inhabitors of space. And perhaps, by understanding that and embracing what our personal encounters can teach us about urban space, we will become better at writing the city, too. #About the author Annabel Fenton is an urban geographer and research communications professional currently working at the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton. Previously, Annabel worked across international development sectors in South Africa, including youth advocacy, strategy and development consulting, and leading strategy and impact at a charity in rural Kwa-Zulu Natal. She holds a MA in Geography from the University of the Witwatersrand. For more information and references regarding the article, please [contact the author](