Re-thinking Cape Town World Design Capital

| October 1, 2013

Cox & Kings’ Katie Parsons visited Cape Town earlier this month to find out what being named World Design Capital for 2014 means to the South African city.

View from Grassy Park

Previous holders of the World Design Capital title have typically focused on promoting traditional elements of design, such as furniture, architecture and fashion. But in 2014, the accolade moves to Cape Town and the city is taking the title to a whole new level.

For so long divided by its politics, Cape Town is now looking at how design can improve people’s lives. Through a programme of events, projects and activities that will showcase services, products and objects developed through design, the city is inviting people to think about how to change for the better, continuing long after 2014. The key concepts are design that: improves the community (health, wellness, urban development projects); builds sustainability (ecology, food sources, nature, water supplies); unlocks education (schools, development, exhibitions); enhances lifestyle (fashion, furniture, culture, sports); builds business (social entrepreneurship, community projects); and connects people (infrastructure, communication, transport). Perhaps the most ambitious is a plan to move the city port away from the centre so the coastline can be taken advantage of and opened up. This is obviously something that will take longer than a year to develop, let alone create, but the point is that the World Design Capital has got people talking about using design to change the city for the better.

I was fortunate to visit some local projects that are using design to change their communities. The little-known Langa Township Heritage Museum, once a pass office and court in the apartheid era, has been reopened by the community to tell the history of apartheid, and the curator, Alfred, has brought his father’s stories to life. Langa, which means ‘sun’ in X’hosa and is one of the oldest townships in Cape Town, has been home to many well-known musicians and sports stars, including the late Brenda Fassie.

There are plans to create the Langa Quarter, a place to hear live jazz musicians play, and a permanent art gallery on a street using local homes to display the works. A Christmas market, in partnership with the city centre, will take place in Langa’s main square for the first time. For a suburb that was the scene of so much resistance, it is really fighting back.

In Grassy Park, another of Cape Town’s suburbs, a local baker has reclaimed the land at the bottom of his garden and replanted native plants. Running along the shore of one of the vleis, or lakes, Kelvin has encouraged his neighbours to do the same and together they have created a true oasis.

To welcome in the official World Design Capital year, Cape Town is planning a huge New Year’s Eve party, with music and fireworks across the whole city. There are plans to illuminate Table Mountain at night in yellow. A competition will be launched in the New Year to design a central exhibition space that will be the focal point for visitors to Cape Town to learn more about the year’s project.

Having no previous knowledge of what World Design Capital means, Cape Town’s approach was not easy to grasp. There have been conflicts between traditional artists and designers saying the concept is too off-piste and is not true design, plus communities have not fully understood how it can impact them. But the main hope seems to be to get people talking about using design in society, and encouraging people to change their own lives. For me, the most positive outcome will be using design to join communities back together; the difficulty is how to remove structures – roads and railway lines – that were built specifically to divide.

For more information about World Design Capital visit their website here.

View Cox & Kings' holidays to Cape Town.

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