Tactical Urbanism: Creating Appropriate Street Furniture

Tactical Urbanism _
Mphethi Morojele

Given the highly diverse nature of South African society and its very high gini co-efficiency, its public spaces are fraught with a myriad of complex and competing urban infrastructure demands. Historically South Africa’s apartheid cities spatially designed people’s presence out as much as possible denying and prohibiting any real opportunities for urban interaction amongst its diverse designated groups.   

A lot has been written about the post-apartheid urban culture and associated urban spaces, as both formally and informally constituted and whether through state, community or private agency. These writings and discussions recognize the importance of safety and security in public spaces in order to engender feelings of well-being, ownership and belonging and that promote social cohesion.

Critical to the sense of belonging in the design of public spaces include aspects such as accessibility, legibility, visibility, passive surveillance, and easy wayfinding. At a more detailed level it is the design of the tactile and “placemaking” elements such as comfortable pavements, curb-sides, landscaping, street furniture and amenities. Public spaces are also appealing because of their character and identity often borne out of their historical place in the city and the memory of stories and events that may have happened. These characteristics can be drawn out through the idea of “Placemaking” the use of public art, and street furniture elements and designs such as we attempted in the Greater Ellis Park re-development for the 2010 FIFA World cup.  

Placemaking suggests not only the design elements but also the management, maintenance and the continued purposeful activation of spaces in conjunction with local communities. Public spaces are the glue that hold communities together.

Tactical urbanism is a form of participatory design wherein public spaces are activated in order to test certain design ideas on a temporary basis, seeking feedback to further inform and solidify a more permanent implementation informed by input from communities and their stakeholders as they are directly affected and impacted.

It understands the importance of understanding who the stakeholders are in a space and what their needs of the space may be through various participatory design methods. Some of these might include temporary road closures and prototyping furniture installations to test the more successful designs.

Some projects that come to mind include: Durban 2014 UIA where the OTHER-ing of architecture and planning was discussed, workshopped and publicly exhibited in the conference themed Architecture Otherwise. Parts of the city were temporarily re-purposed with street closures and public performances in the hope that these would trigger new ways of using public space within an African context of Durban in particular.

Tactical urbanism seeks to promote new and inclusive planning strategies that reflect and align with the needs, aspirations, values and concerns of local communities. 

The Johannesburg Development Agency’s “HELLO Joubert 2021” designed by Local Studio, had an objective of improving the safety of traders and pedestrians in a densely populated part of Joburg CBD, whilst increasing the retail turnover for traders and improving the public’s mobility and access in and around Joubert street. 

Stiemens Street project in 2018 Building the Public City which looked at increasing seating options at Eland Square area with some level of defensible space. It also sought for better connectivity across Bertha/Jan Smuts by removing vehicles parking which cluttered otherwise pedestrian-friendly spaces. Some of the objectives included creating visual connected-ness between main pedestrian routes; improve street lighting, encourage activity in currently underused spaces, increase the perception of activity and maintain visibility at eye-level.

There is also Open Streets Cape Town who are a “citizen-driven initiative working to change how people use, perceive and experience streets.” They create recreational events where spaces/streets become car-free environments promoting the prioritisation of pedestrian movement for social interaction facilitating ways for people to come out of their imposed social clusters.

MMA Design Studio in collaboration with ASM Architects and Urban Designers delivered a study in 2019 titled West Braamfontein Innovation Precinct and Pedestrian Safety and Environment upgrade detailed proposals in 2020, complementing and building upon the Gateway projects implemented by Wits University in previous years. 

These initiatives and projects are motivated by the commitment of Wits University to introduce safe and effective ways of integrating the campus with its neighbourhood and the city.

In the WPSFD – The Wits Edge Strategy: Participatory Street Furniture Design Project – the initiative is driven by the aim of incorporating public and community input in the conceptualization and design of Braamfontein urban furniture, drawing from best practice and experiences, to represent a localized version of “Creative Placemaking,” setting up a new precedent and model for the city and the country with the objective of benchmarking a collaborative design process. This includes engaging with local stories and content that inform decisions and prioritise interventions. The work will be guided by principles embedded in environmental justice principles and practices, centring on the following aspects: Participatory design, Evidence based outcomes, Learning and applying Best Practice collaborative design techniques, Creativity Partnerships, and Equity.

This seminal work will inform other activities to be undertaken involving interactive testing and collection of ideas that will be conducted to understand important issues, such as what makes a street ‘work’, who are its ‘users’, what ‘safe’ means for different users of the street, which kind of ’improvements’ are most desirable to be prioritised by different users and stakeholders. The interactive interventions and on-site testing will focus on delivering street furniture and elements that put people first. Surveys interview provides local narratives and bases data on key opportunities and challenges under the identified under the categories 

Mphethi Morojele,

Founder and architect

MMA Design Studio



Amey Kandalgaonkar

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