Slum upgrading on the racially divided edges of Johannesburg

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 5 November 2015

Johannesburg’s economic and spatial fragmentation – largely along racial lines – has given rise to informal settlements along apartheid-era buffer zones and at the outskirts of the city, perpetuating a landscape shaped by deep inequalities. This month we spoke to Dr. Costanza La Mantia, an architect, planner, academic and co-founder/director of award winning firm Bantu Design and Research, who recently organized an International Trans-disciplinary Workshop held at the University of the Witwatersrand in collaboration with Politecnico di Milano on patterns of peripheral poverty, using Kya Sands informal settlement on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg as a case study.

What concerns was this workshop organized to address?

While characterized by the absence of basic services and serious environmental risks, informal settlement communities are also highly adaptive and resilient, exhibiting alternative, bottom-up practices. However, institutions still address informal settlement upgrading in a compartmentalized way, framing the response as the provision of basic services and housing – rarely in situ – failing to address the complex economic, socio-spatial, and ecological challenges that are at the root of the phenomena and its complexity.

The workshop aimed at collaboratively developing an incremental and integrative upgrading strategy for the Kya Sands settlement, which could generate synergies between alternative economies, restorative ecologies, social empowerment and spatial transformations, using design as an exploratory tool to foster negotiations and collaborations.

How does current practice match up?

The well-known RDP mechanism continues to pervade the mindset of municipality officials, notwithstanding the progressive shift of focus in the national programmes requiring integrative and participatory approaches. The various city departments often operate in an uncoordinated manner, either due to overlapping – if not conflicting – mandates, or due to a general lack of communication. The result is that when institutions intervene, projects often proceed outside a logical sequence and lack synergistic integration, representing both a waste of economic resources as well as exacerbating the institutional capacity to respond effectively.

A deep change of attitude towards more flexible, integrated, participatory and context-specific approaches is made unfeasible both by the current fragmentation of the institutional landscape, and by the lack of a strong design focus. Rather, interventions are shaped by institutions around numeric targets rather than around principles such as spatial quality, context specific responses and integrated and collaborative approaches. For sustainable change, a different method is needed, and our workshop wanted to push the city to experiment in these areas.

What did you learn?

Local and foreign students and experts worked in the field for two weeks. Beyond the spatial fragmentation, in the process we discovered a deep fragmentation of interests as well – both within the community and more generally among the different stakeholders.

What was achieved on the ground?

One of major achievements of the workshop on the ground was the construction of an honest dialogue among the different stakeholders. This process was started and facilitated through the workshop, building a solid basis for a long-term collaborative engagement. But we would like the city to step in more proactively in this regard.

What was the experience of collaborating with the city and what, if anything, has it committed itself to?

By engaging the city officials in experimentation with integrated approaches, we realized that a changing mindset on integrated participatory upgrading was happening among the participants, unveiling the importance of bringing different interests together and negotiating around common aspirations. But while there is a verbal commitment from the city’s side, we will have to see if and how the city will react to the proposed strategies so that this kind of experimentation can become real praxis.

Photo credits: Costanza La Mantia

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