How to Improve Public Participation in the Planning of Cities : Inclusion of marginalised people in waste management

Adam van Heerden received the Student Award by the Royal Town Planning Institute  for Research Excellence in 2016.

“Barely 5 degrees Celsius, it’s dark, rainy and windy. This is just another winter’s morning in Cape Town for Troubles and the crew, surviving off re-usable wastes disposed of by wealthier, more privileged consumers residing in the area” (Van Heerden, 2015: 45)

While at first glance, this might seem like the opening line to a fictitious story, it is in fact very real – an excerpt taken from recent graduate Adam van Heerden’s dissertation, Valuing Waste and Wasting Value: Rethinking planning with informality by learning from skarrelers in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs, completed as part of his Masters in City and Regional Planning at the University of Cape Town (UCT). His research ability is what won him the Royal Town Planning Institute’s (RTPI) Award for Research Excellence in 2016.

“Transforming urban environments in ways that they are truly inclusive of all communities inhabiting them requires genuine engagement with all urbanites, and the desire to support diversity” (Van Heerden, 2015).

Inspired by his interest in finding innovative ways to include diverse communities in public planning processes, the main aims of the study were to investigate research participants’ desires for inclusion in the City of Cape Town’s strategies for waste management, as well as what this inclusion might look like.

Van Heerden adopted a participatory research model which involved genuine engagement with a highly marginalised subset – namely a group of homeless ‘waste pickers’/’skarrelers’ in Cape Town. These people eke out a living on the margins of urban spaces by either selling or re-using discarded waste material. Van Heerden focused on learning from research participants and planning ‘with’ informality rather than ‘for’ it, while simultaneously exploring the complex ways in which skarrelers’ actions and movements are circumscribed, consequently impacting their abilities to transcend current living conditions.

His research centered on questioning the assumed values that conventional models of participatory planning contribute to both processes and outcomes, with the findings suggesting that these values may in fact be less universally applicable than planners have previously considered. What stood out for van Heerden was the importance of the ‘engagement process’ itself when it came to planning interventions, as well as the importance of recognising the diversity of residents in a situated context and recognising the myriad of needs and values generated from this diversity. 

“Thinking about the future of our cities, and of global sustainability more generally, requires a deep and thorough engagement with the informal”.

For van Heerden, the contemporary urban challenge in South Africa could be defined broadly as widening inequality, as migration from rural areas and neighbouring countries to South African cities continues. He noted that the population group (skarrelers) often included a disproportionate number of migrants – people who lack an adequate safety net and who are forced into doing ‘survivalist’ types of work. Learning how to plan ‘with’ these marginalised groups (of which, the skarrelers are just one example), and how to include informal activities into formal planning processes, should be a primary aim if we are to tackle this challenge in earnest.


As a starting point, van Heerden recommends adopting an ethic of care and justice when approaching planning public interventions, particularly with marginalised groups. This includes adopting an appropriate method of engagement, as well as keeping planning processes diverse and flexible. Public participation processes need to recognise the differences in and between communities and make use of “alternative knowledge domains”.

A second recommendation is that planners need to create platforms for engagement that are supportive and allow for departures from conventional planning procedures/ principles. According to van Heerden, the purpose of these engagements should be to question the epistemological roots of formal processes and understandings, from which new epistemologies can be created which foster more politically inclusive and ‘just cities’.

“Seeing ‘differently’ requires an openness to alternative epistemologies that may call into question our taken for granted and learned ontologies”.

Planning with informality requires building rapport with the multiplicity of diverse groups that make and re-make our cities each day. Van Heerden suggests doing so through early fieldwork sessions, what he terms ‘preceding engagement and learning’ (PEAL) sessions, which serve to foster alliances with the people/ communities likely to be impacted.

“[What we need is] a relational approach to planning that embraces principles of democracy and pluralism, and of difference and multiculturalism – one that is thoroughly flexible in both form and ontology, and that is able to achieve far more nuanced conceptions of what it means to be included – with genuine intentions to plan with informality, rather than for it”.

Other recommendations include:

  • Recognising and promoting a variety of housing and tenure options to accommodate different income levels and needs. Having a more flexible tenure system could promote a sense of security and stability among marginalised members of the community, says van Heerden.
  • Improving sanitation services, which is necessary to establish greater dignity for those who live and work in the public domain.
  • Re-thinking the design of the public realm to create places that acknowledge marginal ‘others’ who live on the economic and material periphery and provide them with shelter, water, or just a decent spot to ‘hang out’.
  • Creating a mobile home affairs ‘office’ that moves through different areas and tends to homeless residents’ needs for political inclusion. Most of the research participants had no formal Identity Documents and this lack of formal identity was perceived as a major hindrance to improving the socio-economic circumstances of the skarrelers.
  • Establishing productive social capital and public-private partnerships: Greater collaboration between state programmes and non-profit organisations could improve the capacity to provide a wider range of higher quality services to the homeless, while enabling the state to benefit from the trust and rapport that these organisations have established over time.
  • Exploring opportunities for co-operatives: Local and international labour co-operatives have been shown to increase the visibility and legitimacy of those who work informally in the waste management system. This has the effect of promoting a safe and secure working environment for those experiencing advanced marginality. But they must be careful not to speak ‘for skarrelers’ before genuinely engaging with them.

“Essentially it comes down to political will” is the sentiment echoed by van Heerden when considering more visionary and equitable cities in South Africa. “The measure of a country’s democracy should be on how well they engage all of the diverse voices within their borders. Without serious adjustments to the methods in which we engage with people on planning concerns, there is unlikely to be significant change in the way that people are represented in development outcomes in their city”. 


Read more:


  1. Van Heerden, A. 2015. Valuing Waste and Wasting Value: Rethinking Planning with Informality by Learning from Skarrelers in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs. Masters. Thesis. University of Cape Town.
  2. Van Heerden, A. n/d. About. Adam van Heerden: Social Urbanist. Available: [2017/01/26].
  3. Image source: Author