Cape Town has been crowned World Design Capital 2014 – a celebration of a city that has used design as a tool to reinvent themselves and improve the lives of its residents. Meera Dattani went to discover what Cape Town has done to deserve this title.

You hear the word “design” and an image forms in your mind, perhaps of futuristic buildings, avant-garde fashion or inventive home interiors, but design comes in many guises. Cape Town is enjoying the accolade of World Design Capital 2014 this year, and it’s doing so with a seriously creative, community-minded approach. This is definitely not just about looking the part.

“It’s about design of course, but also about how design can improve people’s lives,” explains our Coffeebeans Routes guide Michael Letlala as we embark on a World Design Capital tour. With around 450 projects recognised in the official programme, the diversity is overwhelming. Our first stop is Oranjezicht City Farm, a patch of green in an affluent suburb in the heart of Cape Town. Showing us around is Kurt Ackermann, one of the founding volunteers, who tells us how this land was donated to the neighbourhood by the Van Breda family, and used as a bowling green before he and others transformed it into a community garden.

OZCFImage courtesy of Oranjezicht City Farm

“Neighbours here didn’t always know each other,” he explains. “It’s easy to see how – you live behind walls, your kids go to different schools, it happens.” Creating a space where people could grow food and get together has reaped huge rewards – local children love the wormery and learning about food consumption and waste, and every Saturday there’s a farmers’ market where people can buy fresh vegetables and fruit, drink coffee and read the papers – there’s even free WiFi.

Resembling a kitchen garden, it’s an example of design with purpose, and as it's on higher ground, the city views aren’t bad either. Scattered about are several African hardwood benches, some with a dedication plaque, the work of a local designer Liam Mooney. “Our goal is to draw everyone together,” says Kurt. “One of our volunteers used to be homeless, another is an ex-law student who fell on hard times. We’re using design to deal with problems – it looks nice, it’s fun and addresses an issue.”

It’s a similar story in Langa township in the deprived Cape Flats area on the outskirts of the city. Langa is Cape Town’s oldest township, one of many created for black people in the 1920s. Here, behind the demolished cooling towers of the Athlone Power Station, another WDC project is taking shape. Social enterprise project IKhaya Le Langa, spearheaded by Londoner Tony Elvin from its headquarters in a former primary school, is rebranding the “Langa Quarter” as a place for people to enjoy art, live jazz, coffee or a beer. “Technically speaking, Langa is the centre of Cape Town,” says Tony, “but there’s no movement towards the Flats when it comes to development.”

Joe Slovo informal settlement

Change looks imminent though. The project has been trying to make Langa the site for a permanent World Design Capital pavilion. “Watch this space!” says Tony. Langa is already part of the Maboneng Township Arts Experience, where township homes are transformed into galleries. People can book a short tour along the “TAG” (township art galleries) path and plans are afoot to add the area to Cape Town’s hop-on, hop-off bus route.

All sorts of gems have been unearthed here. “I found an incredible coffee brewer, an ex 'bad boy'” says Tony. “Langa’s all about rough diamonds which need a shine.” Walking about, there’s an abundance of graffiti, bold in both colour and statement. Michael highlights a few and tell us there are plans for an annual graffiti competition. “There’s an anti-gentrification argument but this is a suburb which needs fixing,” adds Tony. “Gentrification isn’t always bad. In these communities, local people don’t leave – it’s the perfect type of gentrification.”

A world away from Langa, in the centre of Cape Town on Loop Street, is Stable, a space set up by designer Aidan Bennetts. Open since August 2013, it brings local designers’ works into one place. It’s about as un-intimidating as a design shop can be: there’s plenty to admire, prices aren’t sky-high for the most part and the variety is immense. “It’s been a long time coming,” says Aidan. “There’s no big plan either, just creating opportunities for designers.”

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Already, there are 72 designers in the “stable” and collaborations are happening as a result. Some, such as Iga Kububa whose innovative handbags catch my eye, had never exhibited before, while on the upper level is a lounger chair, a one-off creation by an architect who by chance asked if he could showcase it – a hotelier has since placed an order for 20.

If it’s ever seemed that it’s too easy for the meaning of these accolades, be it city of culture, sport or design, to get lost in the publicity, it feels very real here. In Woodstock, a district long celebrated for its creative output, the Woodstock Exchange and Old Biscuit Mill are home to interesting stores, galleries and restaurants. Even history isn’t exempt. Visitors to the District Six Museum, which honours those evicted by force under the Group Areas Act, a new heritage tour led by ex-residents, artists and writers, uses innovative ways to visit 14 sights depicting forgotten neighbourhood life.

“Cape Town’s a laboratory for design now” says Michael as we drive out of Woodstock. And that’s how it feels – an exciting experiment with still much to discover.

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