Tag Archives: cape town

The Beautiful Ones

24 Oct

I have been privileged in my life time to have known almost all of them, but what makes them unique? Why are some cities so darn awful, qu’on veut juste les oublier, and others so inviting that we can’t stop going back for more.

Apart from being far away from everything, Cape Town is a magnificent city. Capetonians enjoy stunning scenery, a largely car-free urban centre, outdoor markets, patios, beaches, and unparalleled cultural diversity. I consider myself fortunate to have it permanently stamped in my passport as “place of birth”, despite all the life implications it had for myself and my family for so many years.

Rio de Janeiro was briefly home back in the early 2000’s. It was there I fell in love with urban cycling, as even back then A Cidade Maravilhosa had an impressive cycling network, which allowed one to ride from the most southern of Rio’s suburbs all the way to the city centre. It is my understanding this network has grown significantly as the centre becomes safer, though, as in Cape Town, it remains hampered by the reality of Rio de Janeiro’s large income disparities.

I spent a year there – London is an imposingly beautiful city, which is remarkable considering it is one of the most densely populated centres in the world. Driving through London is intolerably slow, with average speeds around 10 miles per hour; everything about the place is expensive, even a sandwich at M&S will set you back 4 pounds. Yet London is teeming with parks, the city has a magnificent Thames River Walk, and its transport system is remarkably clean and efficient given its age.

Barcelona has blocks and blocks of pedestrian promenades, plazas, and street patios. The beach side features one of the greatest sea walls in the world, stretching for miles between the city of Gaudi and the shimmering beaches of the Mediterranean. At sunset one can dance to music on the beaches without the complaints of residents, while at night the city is alive with street life and live music. A gem I was fortunate enough to spend time in as a student while at grad school.

Other beautiful cities populate lists of all kinds, for all sorts of reasons. Vancouver is often on those lists, which is of no surprise. Our city is blessed with an improbable combination of sea, mountains, moderate climate, and an ethnically diverse population. Vancouver is free of the poverty of Rio de Janeiro, or the slums of Cape Town, it is far from the political instability of the Mediterranean that fronts Barcelona, it is out of the spotlight that shines without pause on London, Paris, and New York. Yet our city also has its downsides. There are no pedestrian corridors in the city centre, no plazas, no bike share programs, limited bikes lanes, a small and neglected public transit system, increased income disparities between east side and west side, and an unsolvable housing crisis.

At home on a Friday night, I am also acutely aware that in Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, or Barcelona, the last thing I would be doing is sitting in front of my computer alone. Yet this is one of the realities of a city that is terrified of noisy public places and the outdoor consumption of alcohol. I have no desire to mingle in a hockey lovers ghetto on Granville Street with rowdy 20 year olds hiding whisky in their pockets, just like I have no interest in listening to a tirade of Miley Cyrus songs pouring out of the doors of many of the establishments that are supposed to represent the night life of a city convinced it is the “Most Beautiful Place on Earth”

Vancouver has many of the elements in place to be the best of great cities, hopefully we can take an eye away from the mirror to learn a bit more about the successes of our rivals, so that we too can take our urban landscape to the next level.

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Room for Improvement – Better Pedestrian Public Space in Vancouver

13 Oct

Trees, wide side walks, a varied composition of shopfronts and residential spaces, low levels of traffic noise, good lighting, pedestrian walkways, shelter from rain in the form of tree cover, canopies, and awnings; walking distance to amenities. These are the elements that create an appealing walker’s public space.

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Piazza in Konstanz, Germany

Most of Vancouver’s inner city neighbourhoods such as Kitsilano have high walkablility scores because their streets contain many of these elements, however, apart from the Westend, Vancouver’s downtown streets are a striking contrast. In the majority of cases, they are automobile thoroughfares offering limited shelter from rain or noise for pedestrians.

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Typical downtown Vancouver streetscape

After spending a month travelling in central and southern Europe, I was once again reminded how walkable European cities are. They are of course this way because they were developed prior to the automobile and stitched together during the golden age of rail travel.

Europeans are accustomed to efficient train travel, connecting seamlessly from foot traffic to a metro to an intercity express. I did this several times on my travels, catching a train from Barcelona to Lyon, another from Lyon to Milan, and from there to Lake Como and the gateway to the Helvetic Confederation. Travel was easy, inexpensive, and at each destination I was greeted by yet another inviting walkable inner city playground, a sort of pedestrian and cyclist’s Disneyland, populated with water fountains, trees, and restaurant patios of all shapes and sizes.

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Lyon Bike Share

Europe is not the only part of the world with this sort of infrastructure, even the centres of cities such as Melbourne, Cape Town, Tel Aviv, and Buenos Aires, where rail is almost non-existent, are a cyclist and walker’s paradise, urban oases providing respite from the noise of cars, motorbikes, and abrasive sirens.

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Cape Town Gardens

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Greenmarket Square, Cape Town

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Confederation Square, Melbourne

And what about downtown Vancouver? Where are our piazzas, our alcohol friendly sidewalk patios, our pedestrian malls, and our central squares? Why do we fight and squabble for 20 years over a bike lane, when in most other cities this sort of infrastructure is considered normal, an essential part of urban infrastructure in much the same way as the construction of sewers, roads, and powerlines?

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Buenos Aires

There is no clear answer to this question. This is the very reason why some societies are highly successful and others fail miserably, and why even with free access to near unlimited information, this divide persists. Why is Detroit not like San Francisco, or why does Norway have a sovereign wealth fund and Greece an economic crisis, or why is Ukraine a failed state, while Poland is an economic miracle?

I remain optimistic that Vancouver is connected enough to the rest of the world that eventually we will see the need for more walkable public space in our downtown core. We may live in the “Best Place on Earth”, but there is always room for improvement.

Cape Town

31 Dec

I was born in South Africa, and while Vancouver is definitely home for me, there is no doubt Cape Town is still the most visually stunning city in the world. I’ve lived in Rio, studied in Barcelona, travelled to Hong Kong, and visited San Francisco, but all of them are just not as beautiful as the Cape.

Here is neat video of how Cape Town’s transit system operates. It has no LRT or subway, rather they use a system of separated bus ways. The bus ways enter into enclosed stations with boarding platforms. To enter the stations, one has to tap in with a MiCiti smart card. When leaving the station one has to tap out. The stations are secure and monitored by CCTV. Out on the road, passengers board at designated bus stops and must tap in on a tap in pad, and tap out on a tap out pad. Riders pay according to distance travelled – travel farther, pay more; travel less, pay less.

How simple it is! And oh yes, Cape Town is also working on a bike share program. So why so much hassle here in Vancouver?