FUTURE JOBURG | How Bree street in Joburg reveals potential for new forms of urbanity to emerge?

“these desires for the city, its assets and its public spaces, have the potential to initiate alternative trajectories and to propel unexpected urban futures”

AR Mpho Matsipa3

Spatial analysis of Bree Street in Johannesburg questions the universality of globalisation and reveals potential for new forms of urbanity to emerge



Mpho Matsipa is a lecturer in the Wits School of Architecture and Planning. In her role as Director of Studio-X Johannesburg, she aims to contribute to creating a public platform that will explore alternative imaginaries of the city, with particular focus on the future of global connection, productive collaboration and exchange. Her research Street Values was published by the Architectural Review on December 11, 2014. Extracts of the article will be found below in a broader discussion about streets and urbanity.



Source: Times Live


What role is being played by architects and urban planners in impacting the future of our cities? Is their knowledge and skills accurate to the issues of today? Do they have the appropriate tools to plan cities that are being form or will be form in the future? Mpho Matsipa asks all these questions in her analysis of Johannesburg’s streets.

“Within Johannesburg, an active but critically uneven, and globalising city, the role of the designer – of architects, urbanists, planners – remains unclear. And so does our understanding of the processes that underpin these changes and their spatial manifestations. How should built environment practices, whether active or reflective, reconfigure when traditional ideas about professionalism have lost traction? Must our activities focus on facilitating transformation in new and different ways?” argues Mpho Matsipa, a lecturer in the Wits School of Architecture and Planning.

She asks: “are we all destined to become ‘spatial agents’?”  And what is a spatial agent these days? A scholar who studied architecture and urban planning? A young professional invested in its community or anyone who has ideas or simple lives in the city? Matsipa adds that: “It is in this context of a city-in-formation, a city that embodies a multiplicity of desires for belonging that future urban possibilities emerge. These possibilities treat the grand narrative of urban crisis as a platform for something new(1): for a way to accommodate and recognise the existing needs and wants of the city’s inhabitants as well as new subjectivities and aspirations.”

Spatial agents are forming and so is the city itself. What will become of the idea of the future city?


Future city: a combination of our desires

Matsipa focuses her study on Johannesburg’s inner city. She writes: “Johannesburg’s present inner city serves diverse groups whose economic and social interests often reach beyond the urban core(2). Similar to other global cities, Johannesburg is undergoing processes of spatial reorganisation constituted by market-led real-estate redevelopment, by public-private management models such as City Improvement Districts (CID) that attempt to create distinctive thematised precincts in the inner city for middle-class consumers, and also by ostensibly unmanaged, rapid, informal urbanisation. The inner city has increasingly become a magnet for migration in the sub-continent, shaped by and leading to displacement of many of those who are the most economically and politically vulnerable.”


AR Mpho Matsipa4

Location of Bree street and City improvement districts (Studio X Johannesburg and Global Africa Lab at Columbua University)


Matsipa then exposes the duality of Johannesburg identity crisis: “As both an urban concept and a metropolis, Johannesburg sits at something of a nexus of desires: to belong, on the one hand, to a community of globally competitive world cities and to come to terms, on the other, with pressing challenges associated with its own dynamic and somewhat fluid urbanity. The consequence is a city wrestling with its own emerging form.” In this representation of the city as an emerging form, Matsipa lays down the challenge to spatial agents to work within this complexity and state of emergence.

Bree Street

The choice of Bree Street as a case study for Johannesburg by the Wits’s research team is explained here by Matsipa:

“Bree Street thus served as a microcosm of inner-city spatial politics, as a setting for ‘becoming’ for many migrant women, and as a contested site for large-scale urban redevelopment and illegalised street trade”. This particular street in Joburg is “a major transportation corridor, channelling global, regional and local flows into a heterogeneous bundle – flows of people, commodities, images and ideas. Circulating in unanticipated ways through and within this corridor, these flows create new forms and new combinations of programmes, places, identities and practices. Constituted as an interface of processes of urban transformation, Bree Street is thus a productive site for understanding the hidden systems of the inner city.”


Stop frame photography revealing the daily life of Geoff’s fruit stall Video stills, Bree Street video by Tiffany, Ed, Megan

Stop frame photography revealing the daily life of Geoff’s fruit stall Video stills, Bree Street video by Tiffany, Ed, Megan (Studio X Johannesburg and Global Africa Lab at Columbua University)


Key elements of the study

1. New modes of dwelling and typologies: “Our ethnography of the street’s material and temporal intersections revealed new modes of urban dwelling, complementary economic activities with a single value chain, and new and fluid spatial typologies of sharing that refigured the relationship between inside and outside, extruding the vitality of the street into porous office buildings three to six storeys above the street level. It became clear, for example, that putatively derelict office buildings were being transformed through a range of transgressive spatial acts.”

2.  Between local city and world city: “The multiple geographies of informality presented by Bree Street – an urban setting in no way unique, either in terms of its particular ordinariness, in the Johannesburg context, or its typicality when compared to a million streets in as many cities(3) – suggest that the neoliberal rationalities which produce the inner city also complicate abstract claims about the universality of globalisation; about the usefulness of the widely adopted concept of the ‘world city’. This argument reinforces calls for more creative engagement with the lived spatialities of global connectedness. For engagements with urban practices of emergence to be meaningful, they must surely attend to the complexities and desires embodied in the forms of knowledge and spatial imagination of those who actually live and work there.”

Future streets in need of spatial agents

Matsipa concludes her analysis by pointing out a lack of urban studies using that particular point of view:

“It goes without saying that the question of how we live in and represent the city, in the context of today’s reality of global property speculation and proliferating communications technologies, requires further analysis.”

The recommendation from the piece is again a call for more citizens inside and outside of the urbanism and architecture professions to play a more active role in reconstructing the idea of an African metropolis. “Such critically nuanced interpretations are largely absent from mainstream accounts of architecture and urbanism in Africa; the creative possibilities that they present to our understanding of what an African metropolis like Johannesburg can become or mean are, therefore, largely unexploited.”

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  1. All visuals from Studio X Johannesburg and Global Africa Lab at Columbua University
  2. See Cities in Crisis exhibition (2008), FADA gallery, University of Johannesburg.
  3. These groups include the large, predominantly low-income population living to the south of the inner city as well as migrant entrepreneurs, from the African continent, and other business people.
  4. On similar street conditions in Johannesburg see: H Le Roux (2009), ‘Coffee Manifesto: Sampling Instant and Slow Spaces in the Inner City’, paper presented at the African Perspectives conference The African Inner City: [Re] sourced; and T Zack, ‘Seeking Logic in the Chaos Precinct: The Spatial and Property Dynamics of Trading Space in Jeppe’, in: E Pieterse and A Simone (eds), Rogue Urbanism – Emergent African Cities (Cape Town: Jacana Media and the African Centre for Cities, 2013), pp283‐92. For a comparative perspective, see S Hall, City Street and Citizen (London: Routledge, 2012).
  5. Pictures from the study