Un-learning ‘community’: Paper Presentation at CSIR

I recently presented a short reflexive paper as a means to capture the learning from working with Slovo Park Development Forum over the past 8 years. The paper was presented at the CSIR’s Out-of-the-Box Conference in Pretoria. 

The paper was intended to give academic reference for this type of work and address key issues in the wording and practice we use in spatial re-development in South Africa – particularly the word ‘community.

Un-learning ‘community’: reflections on socio-technical spatial design support with Slovo Park


The South African city we experience today did not simply manifest in a vacuum outside of the social injustice of the last 400+ years of colonial and Apartheid ‘development’. The four-hour commute that the average Johannesburg city user experiences, the sense of fractured locality across the metropolitans of Durban and Pretoria and the intact socio-economic segregation of townships to suburbs seen in Cape Town are all the tangible legacies of the Apartheid city design that we complicity accept as our South African city on a daily basis.

The knee-jerk reaction by built environment practitioners to this observation is typically a technocratic response to suggest an addition of infrastructure and implementation and not a reform of the practice of city-making. The fact remains that among the large-scale projects our democratic government has implemented we sit with infrastructure deficits larger today than 1994.

The practice of ‘making city’ in South Africa requires some form of radical change, one that calls on all city makers to re-conceptualise how we see, make and manage our spaces. While technical skills and competencies are vital to this approach, the immediate challenge for built environment practitioners can be seen in the lack of skills or willingness of individuals and institutions to engage with the socio-political complexity of our cities. The misnomer that we are dealing with a homogenous technical challenge for a homogenous social demographic of people (or the ‘community’) that can be solved through a ‘better house/shack/dwelling’, a more efficient toilet system or solar panel array, is damaging and criminally myopic in its lack of imagination, creativity or recognition of the situation.

The paper offers a structured reflection on an eight-year case study conducted by the author and his colleagues. The argument of the paper is centered around a critique on the often-misused terms of ‘informality’, community’, ‘participation’ and ‘development’ in the built environment sector of spatial development. The case study unpacks the approach and methods used within the Socio-Technical Spatial Design practice of ‘Neighbourhood Making’ and offers a reflection on critical skills and lessons gathered from the experience. The intent of this reflexive study is to offer a working reference for private-sector practitioners, government officials and grassroots practitioners who are looking to engage informal neighbourhood upgrading in South Africa.