When I first heard that Cape Town had been named the World Design Capital for 2014, I didn’t fully appreciate what that really means. Images of Project Runway filled my brain and I weakly congratulated my Cape Town hosts when I heard the news, secretly wondering why they were so excited. But then I sat down with some of the organizers of the bid and slowly I began to understand what design can really mean.
For Cape Town, design is about fusing urban planning with modern efficiency and the goal of the residents is to find ways through design to make the city more accessible and open to everyone. This in turn will give people more opportunities to work and better themselves and in general should revitalize parts of the city that are in desperate need of change. This change through design is best seen in the perpetually up and coming neighborhood known as the Fringe.
The Fringe as a moniker has such a strange connotation to it. It’s not entirely positive, nor is it entirely negative. Instead it conjures images of a mix of the two, a place of change and disruption, of abrasion and promise. Turns out it’s the perfect name for this area of Cape Town learning to straddle disparate legacies and to create a path to a more hopeful future.
The name Fringe comes from the district’s geographical location, abutting the infamous District Six. In 1966, the apartheid government declared the district a whites-only area under the Group Areas Act, with forced removals starting in 1968. By 1982, more than 60,000 people had been relocated to the sandy, bleak Cape Flats township complex some 25 kilometers away. Almost everything was bulldozed; the only remaining buildings were places of worship and police stations. The government left the area undeveloped.
Since the fall of apartheid, the government has recognized the claims of former residents and the process of rebuilding has begun. Due to its proximity to the District, the Fringe has long been an area of run down buildings next to thriving shop fronts. It’s also an area of intense change, especially since Cape Town won the World Design Capital title.
Walking around I was reminded of certain neighborhoods in my own Washington, DC. Obvious neglect tarnishes a few of the buildings and years of contempt pile up like unwanted garbage in hidden alleys. But there are also new signs, new people and a new vitality peeking around every corner. As I strolled through the Fringe I found modern and bustling coffee shops, quirky bakeries with delicious pastries and a lot of happy people. The individuals who live and work in the Fringe are happy to do so; happy to help themselves and the city they love. More importantly, I learned that real work is being done here and as in most urban renewal projects, artists are leading the way. Sometimes this means designers and commercial artists but other times it’s the little touch of street art gracing a chain link fence that signals change in the neighborhood.
The Fringe is a different side to Cape Town, one that I didn’t necessarily expect but one that I was happy to have found. It added a certain level of complexity and depth that I didn’t know had been lacking and reaffirmed one of the key takeaways from my visit – that the residents of Cape Town are enormously proud of their city and want to work hard to make sure the rest of the world knows just how amazing it is.