Design alone, cannot save the city

On the 29th August 2013, Future Cape Town attended the Designing Democracy Seminar, held as part of the Open Design Cape Town Event. The event was hosted by DESIGNING_SOUTHAFRICA, and aimed to challenge creative professionals and specialists in other fields to engage in developing creative solutions and strategies for shaping a just, equitable, resilient and empowered nation.

Zahira Asmal, Director and Founder of DESIGNING_SOUTHAFRICA, opened up the day’s proceedings with a brief overview of her organization’s work and achievements. The fundamental premise of her introduction was that South Africa’s Apartheid legacy had created a situation where the state fulfilled the role of a paternal giver and taker, and that this attitude has persisted into the society of today.


Credit: coda at

The first speaker to take the stage was Professor Edgar Pieterse, Director of the African Centre for Cities, with a speech provocatively titled “Design cannot save the city.” Prof. Pieterse’s argument was that there are powerful urban logics that reproduce dysfunction, and unless these are addressed, progress cannot be made. These were listed as:

  1. Flows: Urban systems have a metabolism which consists of the inward and outward flow of trade goods, fuel, electricity, sewerage, people, etc. These are often poorly understood and managed, resulting in inequality and unsustainability.
  2. Property: Land and property markets are fundamental to urban life, yet are inaccessible for many city dwellers. They are also frequently misunderstood, and are controlled by powerful vested interests with agendas often contrary to the best fit for the city.
  3. Mobilities: The movement and transportation choices that people make.
  4. Forms: The cumulative historical layering of the city which results in present-day consequences. For example, apartheid spatial planning has powerful legacy effects in contemporary Cape Town.
  5. Politics: Political (and other) elites have an interest in maintaining the status quo.

Prof Pieterse then went on to describe several proposed remedies:

  • Alter flows from linear to circular to ensure resource efficiency.
  • Digitally join up and monitor infrastructure systems to minimize resource inefficiencies.
  • New infrastructure builds have a lock-in of decades. The discourse around new infrastructure should therefore have a far greater focus on the future.
  • Our fascination with hi-tech solutions should be tempered with an understanding that low-tech solutions can also be acceptable.
  • Policy instruments are needed to intervene in land markets. For example, to ensure that new developments are made at appropriate densities to limit urban sprawl.
  • A realisation that policy changes on land markets must be accompanied by large-scale social mobilisation.
  • A realization that a sustainable, equitable future city cannot arise from maintaining the political status quo.


Prof Pieterse was followed by Sithole Mbanga, CEO of the SA Cities Network, who spoke on the policy space surrounding the transformation of South African cities.

Sithole Mbanga

He began by relating how in the 278 municipalities in South Africa, only 12 were able to get a clean financial audit. He then went on to point out that very often, this is not because of endemic corruption as commonly supposed, but are rather due to a confluence of factors:

  • Structural obstacles: For example, municipalities often do not have a source of funds, but must rather rely on government grants, which are frequently earmarked to be spent on particular services only, without a true understanding of the situation on the ground. When money is redirected to where it is needed, this leads to auditing problems.
  • Lack of policy tools: South Africa has a comprehensive emphasis on rural development, but virtually no direction from national government on urban (and particularly informal) development, which is where most of the problematic issues in the country are arising. For example, while a ‘green’ economy for the country is mandated, few funds or policy tools have been made available to accomplish it.
  • Vulnerabilities: Occurrences that municipalities have no control over, such as climate change.

In relation to design, Mbanga pointed out that it is up to designers to begin educating themselves about the real issues our country faces, insert themselves proactively into these debates, and ‘”punch above their weight-class.” He pointed out that there is a dire lack of understanding about what the true problems in our cities are, as evidenced the frequently seen headline ‘service delivery protest,’ a catchphrase of lazy journalism.

 Mbanga and Prof Pieterse then entered into a discussion with each other and delegates from the floor. A chief issue was the question of just what “punching above their weight-class” means for designers. Solutions offered included the need for designers to engage in public participation and planning debates, and that these need to be part of a larger system, with funding and practical outworking of the decisions reached. There is also a great need for designers to begin creating culturally resonant solutions for local problems, rather than simply replicating the aesthetics and products of international trends for private consumers.


Source: SASDI Alliance

Source: SASDI Alliance

Aditya Kumar, Regional Technical Coordinator of Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and the Community Organization Resource Centre (CORC) followed the debate with a presentation entitled “DESIGNING_services.” SDI was birthed out of the realization that protest action against social inequalities is not enough by itself, but that there is a definite need for communities to work with governments to effectively rollout services, whereas CORC (SDI’s local partner) exists to resource and facilitate engagement between community organisations.

Kumar described the work of his organizations in the Langrug community of Stellenbosch, as well as SDI’s work and history in other parts of the world. Their work begins by mapping out communities to gain an understanding of who they are constituted of (ages, gender, skills, race, etc), what structures and services exist, and what the priorities for the community are. A key element of the process is the concurrent training of community members in these research techniques, as well as in how to engage with authorities. Once the research has been compiled, the organisations proactively engage with local government in service delivery rollout, often renegotiating what is planned to be delivered, as well as leveraging local resources to ensure that at the end of the day the community is provided with the best-fitting infrastructure, rather than simply being the recipients of a one-size-fits-all solution.