Visualising process and placemaking : upgrading shack urbanity in the Eastern Cape, South Africa

Thompson, Kirsten Jeske (2019) Visualising process and placemaking : upgrading shack urbanity in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


This investigation concerns the analytical challenge of understanding settlement upgrading in South Africa. Drawing upon evidence from a case study, Duncan Village Redevelopment Initiative, and two reference studies, Zanemvula and Sakhasonke, it builds an account of events, as experienced at street level and in the policy-driven domain of practice, on the basis of two key themes: the process of upgrading and the problem of placemaking. Political and housing history contextualise the current ‘captured’ state of affairs, establishing ground for a conceptual framework that navigates sometimes contradictory registers of engagement in development. The focus of the argument is on understanding the enduring South African context of "unfreedom" and constant change.

Motivated by the widely-acknowledged need to know why so much public money and political energy goes to waste on upgrading projects that fail to deliver, the research aims to articulate between the nuanced realities of intervention projects – the activities of ordinary people and their efforts to make meaningful places – and the dynamic landscape of policy and development data. Driven by a desire to account for the situation as it is on the ground, the layered methodological approach to what I call ‘intervention forensics’ culminates in a process of infiltration, and prioritises the problem of understanding: the challenge of framing analysis in a way that is faithful to overarching cycles of past and present history, of philosophical aspirations embedded within it, and of the context for professional practice and political action. The characters of Duncan, Wilson and Fanon are introduced to contextualise historical, political, ethnographic, on-the-ground aspects of the South African story, and giving a voice to native South Africans at a time of change and confusion about how best to co-exist.

Policy is only as strong as the people and institutions implementing it. Literature concerning intervention projects has long emphasised the need to cast partnership nets wide if delivery is to succeed. In South Africa, policy operates in a context where formal systems are often exchanged for or supplanted by informal means of delivery – means that are often hidden or unacknowledged. In an environment of political flux, neither literature nor policy guides actors on how this should be done. This research targets this gap.

Treating practice as a springboard, the approach uses place and processes to track the efforts of the state to intervene in informal settlements, formulated here as ‘shack urbanity’. A purpose-designed representational tool – the Shack Urbanity Intervention Tool (SUIT) – has been developed to draw together data from polar arrival points into a simultaneous dimension of reference for navigating between the concrete and abstract phenomena of an urban environment in the throes of change. The SUIT provides a structure within which the ‘agents of change’, their roles and relationships, and the ‘horizons of involvement’ are represented, and conflicts and reciprocities during the construction process made visible. It enables comparative analysis of projects to pinpoint common problems and identify strategies that might succeed in future upgrading projects.

The SUIT identifies typical trajectories in incremental upgrading intervention projects in order to visualise development facilitators and inhibitors. The thesis comes to rest on four key findings: First, tenure security and ownership of place built through participatory processes are significant positive forces. Second, the interrelation between urbs and civitas must ground the institutional appreciation of incremental upgrading and therefore inform policy. Third, ‘arrival cities’ are not necessarily transient (either temporally or in their internal dynamics of mobility). And finally, informality and agency are not necessarily in opposition. Sometimes, informality is a choice. The ‘formal’ city is typically perceived as host, having parasitic connection with shack urbanity, but in many development environments the relationship is mutualistic, an interdependence between formality and informality that supports a metabolism that allows places to regenerate. Formality and informality should be gauged according to the progress of development. All built or made environments – both those developed from the bottom up and those planned and implemented from the top down – depend upon reciprocity between the concrete and abstract phenomena that constitute meaningful places.

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