Poverty, public spaces, and urban vibrancy
When I arrived in Tanzania, the first thing that surprised me coming from the airport was that the axon of Arusha extended all the way out to the airport — sheathed the whole distance with idle motorcyclists, donkeys, cows, shanty towns, quarries, women hefting water on their head, men selling indigenous medicine over cheap PAs, and anything else you can imagine. I was strung-out from the long flight, periodically jolted back to consciousness whenever my taxi driver lay in to the horn to let an incoming semi-trailer know to slow down.
I’ll admit I didn’t particularly enjoy the “countryside,” on my way in. I expected glimpses of something Serengeti-esque, Ngorogoro-like. Instead, it was just throngs of people clinging to the main road, figuratively and literally on the margins. I knew that any expectations I had of Arusha were bound to be wrong, yet I was annoyed that I’d had to correct my expectations within two minutes of leaving the airport. I expected Arusha to be a town amongst an unspoiled or at worst unproductive agrarian landscape. Instead, what I found was a sprawling city with asphalt tendrils connecting to other cities — punctuated by road signs, speed bumps, kiosks, barbers, and above all else, countless, countless people.
You could say all of Africa is wild, but some of that wild is urban.
One of the effects of poverty is the tendency to push people out in to public spaces. If you’re unable to afford a retail store, you might walk the street trying to sell your wares. If your home is too small for one person to unwind, you might find some quiet sitting on the kerb outside with a cigarette. Or you might simply be unemployed and without a car — forced to walk the streets looking for work.
When you’re rich, a day can be moving in a series of privately owned bubbles — from the home, to the car, to the office car park, to the office, to the car, to the gym, to the car, to home. Even cultural goods are mostly enjoyed in private spaces: The cafe, the theatre, and the bar. The only time that many people in the West are in public is on the urban promenade, a public space that has evolved primarily to service private consumption.
In Perth we make a lot of fuss about the cactus and the paperclip, because without the racket we’d rightly identify that the major features in our city are the logos of mining companies that emblazon the sky. Public art is a postmodern deception we overlay on public places so that we believe they exist for purposes other than facilitating the bare minimum foot traffic needed to sustain private enterprise. In Australia, public spaces serves private ends. Don’t let the cactus or the Beiber-esque busker fool you.
In Arusha, I have gotten in to the habit of sometimes crossing busy streets with my palm up to slow traffic. Cars flash their lights to give you permission to cross. In a country where most people cannot afford cars (and therefore cannot afford to use the road), it is understood by motorists and pedestrians that the road is still a public space for public use. The government has put in a few zebra crossings, but they aren’t used because it’s understood that every street has an implicit zebra crossing. The attitude of Tanzanians towards the road makes the city more interesting, dynamic, and unpredictable. It is also an attitude that asserts their civic rights. The road is still largely a public place for public use. As Paris attempts to close some of it’s streets to cars, we see that some parts of the world have recognised what a grave error the modern road was.
This is just one expression of the kind of vibrant, generative chaos that comes from poor people making use of public places. Here, the unemployed are on their feet, walking all day and talking to one another, telling jokes and playing games. Micro-enterprises pepper the streets selling charcoal corn, SIM cards, handicrafts, and even the opportunity to rent bathroom scales for ~12c. The public bus system, “daladalas,” have spotters sticking out of one window like hooligans, trying to solicit a bus fare as they fly past. The spill of people on to the street, in mostly second-hand patchwork clothing, creates a kaleidoscopic panorama of non-conformity. Broken sidewalks and poor civil codes turn even a straightforward walk in to a zig-zagging hike.
These people — without access to private wealth — make use of the public assets of the city that are rightly theirs to share. One byproduct of this is a visible and vibrant culture. It is a sprawling and free outdoor museum.
A short walk in a third world country is far more exciting and culturally relevant than a public art project commissioned by a board of sycophants.
None of this, of course, is to revere poverty. This brilliance includes it’s fair share of sick beggars, exhausted unemployed people desperate for a bed, and children forced out of education in to child labour.
However, as a country transitions from poor to rich — and people move from public dependence to private self-sufficiency — something is certainly lost. Urban theorists tell us that livability comes from density, a good services sector, and cultural institutions. However, livability may also come from interdependence and civic freedoms in public spaces. Livability might be laundromats instead of laundry machines, sidewalks instead of streets, public instead of private transport. Livability certainly also includes the right to protest, ride bicycles on streets, and cram a six-person gospel brass band on to the back of a ute.
Vibrancy and livability is primarily an outdoor and public phenomenon. It’s something that can’t be sold though it can be marketed. The streets of Arusha are a celebration of the non-economic, of value that exists but cannot be captured. As countries like Australia scramble to revitalise public spaces in slow recognition of their cultural importance, the uneducated and underemployed of Tanzania unconsciously send a subversive message — You have something to learn from us.