Braamfontein participatory street furniture design project

West Braamfontein is planned to be adorned with new “street furniture”, the design and placement of which will be determined by the stakeholders of the area, in consultation with Wits and the architects and urban designers tasked to do the job. Nobethu Jolobe, Architect from MMA Design Studio and Urban Designer Aviwe Mandyanda from ASM, were interviewed to get the skinny on this exciting project.

The collaborative aspect has already begun — it was launched digitally on 14 March on the Love Braam website here and on its social media platforms. The research and data collection phase of the six-month project is in process; a street audit has been completed; and survey questionnaires have been drawn up. The unique co-design-led process will be shared and recorded on an existing open digital platform for the benefit of wider communities of users, thinkers and doers.

“The main purpose is to have a co-creation journey; we don’t want to impose our own ideas,” said Jolobe. “We are looking for opinions from all stakeholders: students, property owners and tenants. The participatory aspect of the process is what is so very exciting, as the professional team (led by MMA) is looking to be truly inclusive, engaging, innovative, and collaborative in its process that will lead to the co-creation of options.”

Mandyanda said that the Reimagining Wits Properties Programme received grant funding for the participatory design and testing of street furniture elements specific to the Wits Edge Project area. It has been sanctioned as a Centenary Project, and is just one very small component of the Wits Centenary Programme, which is running for the entire year, and includes funding, donors, building launches, and a myriad of events.

So, what exactly is street furniture? “It comprises functional and placemaking elements, addressing basic requirements such as sitting, good lighting, wayfinding to assist people with orientation and directions, and places to wait for transport,” said Jolobe. “Other kinds have to do with the identity of the place, appealing to the predominant user group, which in the case of Braam is very diverse: the youth, creatives, commuters, and business and shop owners.”

Mandyana added: “Street furniture is the tactile interactive fabric of streets that serve our functions as we move through spaces between building blocks to sit down and rest, eat a sandwich, meet people and share an experience.” Another aspect of street furniture is lighting, which is being considered to improve night-time visibility on pavements and in squares.

Street furniture is also what brings visual delight, elements of play, and it can create landmarks through sculptures and 2D or 3D installations. An excellent example is “Eland Square” situated on the corner of Jan Smuts and Ameshoff streets, where the iconic sculpture designed by Clive van den Bergh has created a landmark that people can easily remember and, for example, choose to meet at.

Asked how the street furniture will look, Jolobe said: “It must resonate with the demographic, it must come from the people in the area, and it will be both aesthetic and functional. The focus is to set up a process that is open and inclusive, to generate diverse ideas and priorities which will be put to digital vote and will be displayed (in a venue to be confirmed) for the public to be able to engage and provide input.

“The intention is to set up a process that can be replicated and extended; the residents of Braam might have great ideas that fit different locations. We are open to listening and learning from all the input we will be receiving.”

It hasn’t been established yet who will build the street furniture: students, residents, professionals, or all three? Jolobe said: “We are looking at a two-staged process — ideation followed by plans for implementation — which will be confirmed through the stakeholder engagement process.”

The funding that Wits has allows for the planning for five possible prototype elements for the physical construction of the furniture. The team itself cannot dictate what these will be upfront, as it is dependent wholly on what the stakeholders/role players/participants come to the design table with.

“Part of the process is to explore alternative materials, bearing in mind that they have to be robust to resist wear and tear from the elements, and be easy to maintain. We have completed a survey of all existing furniture types, including observations regarding the way they are used. It was an informative process, using digital survey tools to record and analyse the current conditions, devised specifically for this purpose.”

Mandyanda said that the projects’ process aims to yield 2-D and 3-D elements of some of the ideas that will be put forward, and then test them on the three sites that have through extensive collaboration been identified: adjacent to Eland Square, the niche space between Wits OLS Steps and WAM, and in front of Solomon Mahlangu along Jorissen Street.

She said: “The final products will have to comply with specific standards; some of the selected elements might require to be manufactured by specialists, while others might be possible to integrate into existing buildings’ edges or elements.”

Once the furniture is in place, it will have to be kept in good condition. Jolobe said: “We will be engaging with the City and other stakeholders including all members of the Braamfontein Improvement District to build consensus regarding the way forward on procurement and maintenance. The health and safety aspects of users of the environment will be considered and strictly observed.”

The process may actually incentivise business and property owners to “adopt” a site to ensure that the SF outside their premises is protected and looked after. It is, after all, in their best interest to not have damaged or degraded installations right outside their entrance. Regarding the vandalised “head” sculptures in Newtown, Jolobe said: “We are conscious of the challenges that the City is facing in managing its infrastructure.”

Mandyanda added: “Wits is engaged in several tactical projects involving various City departments, working on a collaborative basis. This initiative follows those examples and seeks the support of the public and private sector partners, to consolidate new placemaking practices relevant to our context that can be replicated in other locations.”