Building strategic intelligence for 'city-regions': an interview with Guy Trangoš on the Gauteng City-Region Observatory in South Africa

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 25 March 2015

Extending beyond traditionally more spatially delimited notions of a city, many modern cities now approximate to large, polycentric 'city-regions' with multiple governance structures. Centred round South Africa's Gauteng province, the Gauteng City-Region (GCR) is a cluster of cities (Johannesburg and Pretoria), towns, and urban nodes that together make up the economic heartland and most densely populated part of the country. In 2008, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) was established to build "strategic intelligence" to grasp this large, complex, and dynamic space. We interviewed Guy Trangoš, an architect and researcher at the GCRO, about the research organisation's challenges and opportunities.

What need does the GCRO fill and how was it established?

The GCRO came about through a partnership agreement between the Gauteng Provincial Government, the University of the Witwatersrand, and the University of Johannesburg. It grew out of two separate sets of discussions and debates: one about the notion of Gauteng as a city-region, and another about the academic contribution to the work of government. The GCRO was thus one of the first city-region institutions founded, to research and promote mechanisms for a better functioning city-region.

What are its general approach and outputs?

While the majority of our funding comes from provincial and local government, we have an independent academic mandate and our legal identity is as a university research centre. This means that our research has to stand up to the most rigorous academic standards, but also have strong policy relevance. From journal articles, to reports, provocations, maps of the month, and interactive data visualisations, our various output formats reflect this approach.

How is GCRO research utilized?

We disseminate our research widely, and actively work to ensure that our work has meaning. For example, we have set up a City Lab around Green Infrastructure that regularly brings municipal and provincial officials together with researchers and specialists to ensure that research in this field is relevant, and to build capacity within government to better understand and implement green infrastructure projects.

What role does the GCRO play towards research on inequality and poverty?

Every two years the GCRO runs a 'Quality of Life' survey across the entire province. This survey not only collects the indicators but also asks a number of objective and subjective questions regarding attitudes and circumstance representative to a ward level. As a result, we have a strong empirical base from which to analyse many social and economic aspects of the province. To date we have produced compelling maps of densities, race, and mobility patterns for different population groups.

How much is this a specific theme, or is it addressed broadly across other research areas?

The GCR is characterised by fundamental social, spatial, and economic inequality and, as a result, research into poverty and inequality is implicit (and usually explicit) in every project. Without grappling with this, our work would have little meaning.

What role do you think data visualization and mapping can play generally, and in the global South specifically?

Many cities of the South do not have a strong empirical base from which to present arguments based in research and data. It is therefore important to build research capacity, to produce an evidence base from which to develop policy. Mapping and data visualisations are also very useful tools for civic participation in policy development, as they make data accessible and provide a common ground for policy debate and discussion. Placing the map in the hands of the public empowers them with the same perspective as decision makers.

Photo: 'Multi-dimensional poverty index', February 2015; 'Look for work trips', November-December 2014 (maps by GCRO).

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