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Greenmarket Square: shared benefit through shared understanding

Categories: ALL THE NEWS , Environment & Bio-diversity, Government, Social & Community

How can the principles of co-design make the everyday lives of traders on Greenmarket Square a little easier? Following an Informal Trade Summit held by the City of Cape Town last year, the Cape Town Partnership, City of Cape Town, Greenmarket Square Traders’ Association and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology have come together to address infrastructural concerns and explore the possibilities of a new approach.


Imagine how a Greenmarket Square trader sees her stand. Perhaps she is from a different part of Africa, where outdoor markets are a way of life. Perhaps she has been fine-tuning her stand for fifteen years, responding to fluctuating constraints and opportunities of season, weather, tourist trends, personal finances and her proximity to other traders. She has packed up the stand countless times, put it on a trolley and pushed its heavy weight up a hill in rush-hour traffic. She has watched how one kind of fabric bought to cover the stall disintegrated too quickly in the summer sun, and developed her own, far superior alternative. She has learned – the hard way – who the neighborhood’s best welders are to fix damaged stands, and how to make their work last longer. All of this (mostly subconscious) nuts-and-bolts expertise is what a trader means when she says: “stand.” How could she ever explain all of this to anyone? There is far too much to say.

Now, consider how a City official sees the stand. Perhaps her job is to keep track of informal trade patterns across the broader city. She must balance traders’ needs to make a living with the finite amount of space in the city available for informal trade. Other City departments (Heritage, Solid Waste, Environmental Resource Management, for example) will have influenced her perspective with their own related concerns. Her view of a stand will be the result of these many complex, official dimensions – of regulations, policies and by-laws. Although there are overlaps between her perspective of a stand and a trader’s perspective of a stand, there are large areas of each perspective that are completely invisible to the other.

Now, consider a third group: a class of Industrial Design students who have been given a brief by City officials to redesign a trader’s stand. For the students, a stand is something with which they have hardly any experience at all. For them, it appears to be a relatively simple structure, with certain dimensions, made of specific materials with particular properties. What could be easier than redesigning such a simple thing?

Transporting a trolley of products through St. George’s Mall Photo by Andrew Putter

Transporting a trolley of products through St. George’s Mall Photo by Lisa Burnell

These are some of the disparate perspectives that the Cape Town Partnership has tried to bridge during the last year. With the assistance of the Partnership, the City of Cape Town has partnered with Greenmarket Square Traders’ Association and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Through their work together, they have begun to gain a shared understanding of some of the infrastructural concerns raised at the Informal Trade Summit held by the City last year. The hope is that this process will continue in a program of increasingly pragmatic design projects, ideally undertaken using the principles of co-design.

Some insights from the Informal Trade Summit, 2013

Trade makes up 46% of the informal sector Photo by Lisa Burnell

Trade makes up 46% of the informal sector. Here manikins are seen on Station Deck. Photo by Lisa Burnell

Did you know that the informal sector contributes 8 – 10% of the national GDP? Did you know that traders make up 46% of this sector? Considering that currently, about a quarter of employable South Africans are without work, this sector has powerful potential for job creation and improving the lives of a large component of the country. Though many members of this sector make a small amount of money on an individual scale, its overall economic contribution is substantial – not to mention that the goods and services they provide are often more affordable than those provided by the formal sector.

But the benefits of the informal sector are more than economic, and include health, social and environmental benefits. In general, members of the informal sector have a larger number of dependents relying on them at home than members of the formal sector.  The fresh produce that fruit and vegetable vendors sell is generally of a higher quality than those sold by supermarkets, and offer their buyers a more direct relationship with their food and where it is grown. Waste collectors recycle waste and divert it from municipal dumps, where it would serve no function and be damaging to the environment.

These factors considered, it is clear that the informal sector should be championed and supported as much as possible. But it emerged from the Summit that informal traders have historically felt marginalised and neglected: a lack of infrastructural support for traders evokes painful associations with apartheid, and a need for greater support is about more than economic development – it is about human dignity, social cohesion and healing from the wounds of history.

Traders have to move when there are large events on Greenmarket Square or the Grand Parade, and battle theft. Photo by Lisa Burnell

Traders have to move when there are large events on Greenmarket Square or the Grand Parade, and battle theft. Photo by Lisa Burnell

Other grievances included a restrictive permitting system that does not allow traders to work from their home or outside certain demarcated trading hours. Traders have to move when there are large events on Greenmarket Square or the Grand Parade, and battle theft. There is also a common misconception of a development continuum from informal to formal business, locking people into an attitude that informal trade is smaller, or “lesser than”, in turn influencing the way traders are treated by administrators and the general public. In fact, statistics from a range of developing countries suggest that instead of disappearing, the informal sector grows along with development. Alternative terms like “public trading” or “citizen trading” were suggested.

Most concerns raised related to the physical infrastructure within which traders have to operate. For example, many traders have to place their handcrafted goods on sand, they battle extreme wind and rain in the winter and physically exhaust themselves daily by setting up, packing up and carrying their products and the heavier components of their stalls. Trolley pushers have to push trollies that are badly designed for our streets, often enduring the thoughtless impatience of drivers.

It was these infrastructural concerns that presented the Cape Town Partnership with an opportunity for a project that will hopefully – as time goes by – use co-design approaches with the various stakeholders of Greenmarket Square trade.

What is co-design?

‘Co-design’ is a way of designing which recognises that in many projects designers are only one component of the larger group of experts who are necessary to formulate a good project brief and find good solutions to that brief. It recognises that some of the expertise necessary for good design must come from outside the design community – not just from those who are formally trained.

What is a co-design event?

A co-design event is any meeting in which members from more than one interest group make things together as a shared project. This co-making can take any form, including just talking, but usually uses methods of collaborative communication drawn from art and design: drawing, model-making and video, for example. These methods are used in ways that make them easy to use even for those who don’t usually work with them.

The project

Project manager and social researcher Andrew Putter of the Cape Town Partnership is an experienced design teacher, having founded an experimental design department at Rondebosch Boys’ High School. Putter’s work on the Informal Trade project takes place via his role as facilitator of the Neighbourhood Communication Project – which is where Cape Town Partnership focuses most intensely on communication in complex social contexts. Putter has been involved in the day-to-day work of the students, and regularly spends time on the Square, communicating with traders.

The needs of Greenmarket Square traders coincided with a desire of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) to form a greater connect between the theory and practical components of their teaching, and bravely open themselves to the daunting complexities of working in the real world.

A third-year class of students were asked to redesign a trader’s stall on the Square. For the first time, the CPUT Design Department structured the project so that students could spend the first term on fieldwork, while also learning the theory that helped students better conduct this on-the-ground research. Before interacting with the traders, the students spent hours on the Square, observing each phase a trader’s stand goes through during the course of the working day: the set-up at 6am in the morning, the peak of business at noon, and packing up in the evening. Through this observation, the students were able to gain a much more pragmatic understanding of what a stand is. By seeing the stand as something dynamic, students became more sensitive to potential unintended consequences of their designs. They were also able better to understand the many different consequences that their intervention might have. This pragmatic understanding would not have been gained just by describing the stall when it is in its stable phase at midday.

Various kinds of expertise are recognised by the Informal Trade project: the accumulated day-to-day, long-term knowledge of the traders, the accumulated strategic knowledge of the City of Cape Town, the theoretical, practical and institutional knowledge of CPUT lecturers, the knowledge of Greenmarket Square recently acquired by the CPUT students as well as the partnering and inter-group-communication knowledge of the Cape Town Partnership.

It was made clear from the outset that this is delicate territory, through which all parties would have to tread with respect for one another. For example, some of the more rigid aspects of planning and implementation of CPUT’s project requirements would have to make way for the more flexible and organic approach needed in this project. The point was made by a member of the Traders’ Association that traders are regularly the object of student enquiry, with no real benefit to the traders. Many traders are suspicious of outsiders who propose to help them, and feel that they have been tricked into legitimising by-laws which have been used against them.

The project represents an opportunity to try and do things in a new way. An important part of this approach will be to find appropriate ways to communicate to the traders what it is that the students are trying to do, what the students are able to do, and how the traders can connect meaningfully with the design process. This represents a significant communication challenge, one which requires forethought, experimentation and resource-allocation. At this stage, there is still much work to be done.

“This project has reminded me just how different our experience of something can be compared to someone else’s experience of the same thing,” said Putter. “If a student is to redesign anything that really works in this complex context, they will first have to learn what a stand means in two universes that are as different from each other as they are from the students’ universe: the universe of the trader, and the universe of the City official.”

The outcomes of this first project will be presented at a follow-up Informal Trade Summit in June 2014.

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