Bicycles and gardens: Inspiring action and instilling hope

NEWS | By Marcela Guerrero Casas | 26 October 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to a number of urban projects that provide opportunities to build community. Among those that are seeding hope and neighbourhood connection are projects that involve gardens and bicycles.

If it weren’t for the news of a second wave wreaking havoc in Europe and other parts of the world, one could be forgiven for thinking Covid-19 was just a bad nightmare from which we are starting to wake up.

The desperate levels of unemployment and economic hardship in South Africa, not to mention the tragic loss of life, cannot be disguised and will be present for months, perhaps years to come. Yet, some of the responses to the crisis have shed light on what is possible when people take action in their own neighbourhoods.

There are two things giving me great hope at the moment: gardens and bicycles. In the first instance, I must confess, my thumbs don’t have a speck of green on them, despite my mother being an avid gardener who has, since I can remember, spent every moment of her free time looking after her plants. The bicycle, which has made an appearance at key moments throughout my life, most recently in 2012 when the dream of Open Streets began, seems to have returned yet again to give hope and inspire action.

Globally, there has been increased interest in “growing fruit and vegetables at home”. In Cape Town I have witnessed how this has happened at various scales. In some cases, the desire came from wanting to do something locally, as was the case with my friend Tana Paddock. An activist of various causes, Tana became involved with a group of neighbours in building a garden outside the Sea Point library. I saw her go from thinking about what would be a simple and Covid-wise way to engage with her community to spending days and days of the week gardening and mobilising others to join her. In other cases, it came from a place of knowledge and experience that highlights how food security and resilience will become a priority in our response to the crisis and in the future as a whole.

Last week, I joined four inspiring garden enthusiasts who are planting their own seeds (pun intended) in their neighbourhood, one outside her home along the railway track in Observatory. From sharing sprouts and tips to engaging in conversation about how to green the entire neighbourhood and create green corridors that can help reactivate insect and animal wildlife, the actions these people are taking are nothing short of revolutionary – both at the individual level, as Kari Coussins does in tending to her flowers on the street curbside, and on a more formal scale, as in the work Mpho Motsoasele and Frances Taylor are doing through their organisation, Communitree, to restore our native fauna or, as David Attenborough would say, “rewilding” our city.

In addition to the critical need for such action for the future of our planet, I was reminded yet again that a virtuous cycle ensues when we take ownership of our surroundings – those we share with our fellow humans and that, as the pandemic has highlighted, have fundamental value in how we bounce back.

It is the “in-between spaces” – which during lockdown we were prevented from inhabiting, sometimes under strange reasoning – that hold so much value and potential to help us lay down foundations for what the optimists among us hail as the process of building back better.

This inevitably takes me to the streets. Having spent many years thinking about how these particular manifestations of public space could serve as conduits to connect, I found it most poignant that despite people’s inability to travel during lockdown, connections were being made through online conversations and community initiatives like the community action networks (CANs).

Those networks have evolved with time. As with all volunteer-based initiatives, some have not lasted and as Antonio, one of the early contributors to the network would have said, “the goodwill was spent”. But in other cases, they have become platforms that can respond to other needs.

Last weekend, for instance, a bicycle ride was organised to physically connect not just some of the volunteers still involved in the CANs, but also whole neighbourhoods that would not normally connect despite having a 1km stretch of road that links them directly. This is the case of Langa and Bonteheuwel. As Mzikhona Mgedle, one of the bicycle ride organisers who is working to set up Langa’s first Bicycle Hub, said: “We are so close but yet so far and the bicycle makes it possible for us to connect in many ways.”

The bicycle is indeed a good antidote to Covid. In addition to enabling physical distancing while traveling outdoors and contributing to good physical and mental health in general, it turns out it also builds social cohesion. This is not a new finding, but it is a reality that has become more visible during and after lockdown.

The many bicycle-inspired actions in Langa and Khayelitsha are just the tip of the iceberg. More people on bikes means an economic opportunity for local entrepreneurs, as well as more eyes on the street, which helps increase safety and shows a new way of travelling from point A to point B. It also shows a practical and direct way to respond to climate change, a challenge that has to date felt intractable and far from our daily life, but which has dire consequences we can now grasp in a very real way. Bicycles have been touted as the solution to many social ills, and there is good reason for that.

The Covid-19 nightmare is far from over and even though we have learnt to live with some of the new limitations and rules, we are yet to figure out what this “new normal” entails. Some of it will be the exacerbation of the pre-existing conditions our city exhibited well before Covid-19, and some we might not yet fathom. In any case, as my friend Mike Freedman likes to say, there is always something beautiful about working for the place we choose as home. This rings truer than ever before, as finding things that bring us collective joy and help us build more relationships at neighbourhood level will be the best way to overcome a global pandemic. Bicycles and gardens might be part of that long-term response. DM

Marcela Guerrero Casas is founder and former managing director of Open Streets Cape Town.