Unfinished Symphonies: Transformational Decolonial Urbanism

As part of my early re-emergence into the sector of research and practice, I was invited to share my work with UCL’s Urban Lab+ with the University of the Witwatersrand:

In July, two online roundtables will bring together staff and students from Witswatersrand University and UCL to share and discuss work-in-progress on transformational decolonial urbanism. Contributions will report on a variety of research, teaching and other initiatives for change in our institutions. 

Speakers include: Jhono Bennett, Nnamdi Elleh, Hayley Gewer, Neil Klug, Nkosilenhle Mavuso, Clare Melhuish, Matimba Ngobeni, Kamna Patel, Makena Phaledi, David Roberts, Nathaniel Télémaque and Tsepang Leuta.

These discussions will lead into a public lecture by Professor Achille Mbembe (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research) with responses by Dr Tsepang Leuta (Wits) and Dr Adam Elliott-Cooper (Queen Mary, University of London and Visiting Research Fellow, UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre, UCL); and a PhD workshop for UCL and Wits students. 

Unfinished Symphonies is organised by Ben Campkin, Solam Mkhabela, Naigwe Kalema and Jennifer van den Bussche with support from the UCL-Wits Strategic Partnership fund.

Here I shared my early work on a project titled ‘ The Spirit of the Order’, where I have been critically reflecting on the role and nature of socio-technical spatial design practice from a deeply positional and iterative series of creative exercises that is currently guiding my doctoral studies.

The recordings of all the presentations are available here:

OxArch – Oxford Architecture Society: Presentation

During a studio visit to Oxford Brookes Architecture with Melissa Kinnear (of Arcitecture Sans Frontieres – UK) , I was invited to share the story of 1to1’s journey as a student based group into a social enterprise with the OxArch (The Oxford Architecture Society) group.

In Conversation with Jhono Bennett (1to1 Agency of Engagement)

The even was held on rainy evening in Oxford, United Kingdom and was a refreshing reminder of the energy and capacity of students entering the field of design and spatial development.

Inclusive Cities: Scaling Up Participation in Urban Planning

Through 1to1 I have been very fortuante to be a part of this global network project. The Initaitve was held over 3 years and supported research, learning and engagements across South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Manchester, United Kingdom.

See: https://www.gdi.manchester.ac.uk/research/groups/global-urban-futures/scaling-up-participation-in-urban-planning/ for all details. Summary below:


In recent decades the world has experienced unprecedented urban growth. According to the United Nations 4 billion people, or 54% of the world’s population, lived in towns and cities in 2015. That number is expected to increase to 5 billion by 2030.

Urban growth has outpaced the ability of many governments to build infrastructure and, in many towns and cities in the global South, provision for housing is inadequate. Consequently one in three urban dwellers live in informal settlements. Issues of insecure tenure, poor access to basic services, and insecure livelihoods are all prevalent. Although local government may have the desire to improve the situation they are, in many cases, under-capitalised and under-capacitated. Existing planning legislation and practices remain incapable of resolving such issues therefore local residents try and resolve these themselves. Their efforts are, however, fragmented and localised.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the resulting Sustainable Development Goals vow to end poverty, to achieve gender equality and ensure liveable cities. Multi-disciplinary approaches that build on local action and create strong partnerships are needed in order to advance initiatives and to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all and to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.

This commitment to ‘leave no-one behind’ highlights the importance and strengthens the significance of citizen involvement in urban development. Academics seek to contribute to new solutions and approaches to problems faced by the residents in informal settlements. Universities have an important role in generating, analysing and monitoring data that can be used by policy makers. However this should be done in collaboration with local government, local residents and organisations. Citizen involvement and public participation in policy-making and programming should be nurtured and encouraged.

Aims and objectives:

The network aims to develop the knowledge required to move from participatory community-led neighbourhood planning to city-scale planning processes. The aims and objectives of the project are critical to achieving inclusive urban futures, these include:

-Develop frameworks that build on effective approaches of community-led planning for informal settlement, upgrading at the neighbourhood level, and then scaling these to the city level.
-Locate these frameworks within traditions of alternative planning including participatory co-productive planning, participatory planning and action planning thus strengthening the critical mass of people-centred approaches supporting inclusive urban development. This component will elaborate why grassroots organisations make a substantive contribution to inclusive urban development and the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals.
-Develop a framework that enables the integration of community understandings and innovations with academic and professional knowledge.
-Achieving these objectives requires a combined effort from academics and civil society agencies. While academic researchers encourage civil society agencies to engage meaningfully and substantively, it is difficult to achieve this within academic research programmes. By creating a formal network the opportunity for engagement is created, to deliver on a set of shared objectives and to achieve the strengthening of relations between individuals and agencies.

The network:

Professor Diana Mitlin, Managing Director of the Global Development Institute at The University of Manchester, is the project lead.
Dr Philipp Horn, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester’s School of Education, Environment and Development and Postdoctoral Research Associate at The Open University, provides research support to the project.
The network is a co-productive knowledge partnership between civil society action research agencies and academic departments. The project combines professionals and academics with a commitment to substantive change and experience at local level.

This network is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

SDI-affiliated civil society alliances of organised groups of low-income residents are working in partnership with academic institutions. Their participatory efforts at neighbourhoods have been presented as best-practice examples in urban poverty reduction. These alliances are:

Dialogue on Shelter Trust, Zimbabwe
Slum Dwellers International Alliance, Kenya
The network comprises committed partners that have been directly involved in previous participatory planning processes, these include:

The University of Manchester (UK)
The Faculty of Art Design and Architecture at the University of Johannesburg (South Africa)
CURI at The University of Nairobi
Faculty of the Built Environment at the National University of Science and Technology (Zimbabwe)
Design Society Development DESIS Lab based at Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (FADA), The University of Johannesburg
1to1 – Agency of Engagement

All of these departments have a track record on urban development planning. The selected individuals within these departments have established connections with low-income communities, planners and urban professionals within their respective countries as well as sub-Saharan Africa. They have previously conducted practice relevant research around topics such as informal settlement upgrading, service provisioning and participatory community planning.

See: https://www.gdi.manchester.ac.uk/research/groups/global-urban-futures/scaling-up-participation-in-urban-planning/ for all details.

Center for Policy Research – Delhi: Presentation & Workshop

During my time teaching at CEPT, I was offered by a colleague who was working on India/South African urbanist relationships (Eesha Kundurito) to share my initial doctoral work process with the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi.

“The Centre for Policy Research (CPR) has been one of India’s leading public policy think tanks since 1973. The Centre is a non-profit, non-partisan independent institution dedicated to conducting research that contributes to the production of high quality scholarship, better policies, and a more robust public discourse about the structures and processes that shape life in India.”

I was invited to share my work at the  Centre de Sciences Humaines, an introduction to my own initial questions for my doctoral research:

CPR-CSH Workshop on ‘A Post-Post Apartheid Urban Praxis’

Additionally, I took part in a very engaging podcast interview with Mukta Naik for the Tacit Knowledge Urban Research Network (TURN):

“TURN collaboratively conducts research on urban informal processes and the tacit knowledge integral in them from multiple vantage points in the relational geographies of settlement, housing, and economies, with the eventual goal of incorporating that understanding into knowledge systems that support policy-making.”

On Design-led Practice: A Conversation with Jhono Bennett

On Design-led Practice: A Conversation with Jhono Bennet

Through Local Eyes: Key Note Presentation

My submission, Design Praxis in a post-Rainbow Nation City: a reflection on the limits & opportunities of spatial design led service learning in South African cities, to the ‘Through Local Eyes: Place-based approaches to emerging architectural, urban design and planning challenges in Africa and the Global South Conference’ was selected as the ‘Best Emerging Scholar’ Paper.


I was invited to present the paper at the International Conference in Addis Ababa as a Keynote speaker and was met with a rich and constructively critical response from the audience and panel.


Over the last few decades the discourse on the relationship between inter-stakeholder university engagements, or Service Learning, and the broader society that South African universities claims to serve has been deeply discussed by academia; the inherent problematics within the power structures, the challenges of achieving mutually beneficial project outcomes and the growing concern of vulnerable voices being overshadowed by institutions and individuals are key factors identified in this arena of critique.

Less nuanced in these debates remains a recognition of these dynamics within the emerging field of Design Research and Design-Led Research that have met a steadily commercialisation of ‘design’ in global markets. This is seen in the rise of acclaim by the commercial market for groups such as IDEO and Stanford who remain paragons of the ‘socially-driven’ or ‘economical’ potential of design approaches to address complex societal challenges.

Regarding design-led Service Learning, schools and institutions of Architecture and Design across the globe have a rich history of undertaking service learning design and/or build projects as a means of creating value and learning for both students and the stakeholders of such projects. These projects, too, have seen the critique of the above-mentioned academic discourse – but in South Africa are just starting to be unpacked through a ‘post-rainbow nation’ lens, as previously marginalised voices are starting to be recognised and find traction in learning and practices spaces across South Africa.

This paper will reflect on the author’s experience with emergent voices and reflexive concerns as a researcher, lecturer and spatial design practitioner in Johannesburg. The paper will set the context for this type of learning regarding city-making in Southern Africa and outline two case studies undertaken by the author and his collaborators. The reflection will conclude by a framing of the identified limits inherent in the promise of design as well as a speculation on the opportunities for growth and reflection for the author and those in similar positions of praxis.

The framing of the identified limits and opportunities has been used as a means of tempering critique with a constructive and proactive reflective framing of the issues – a praxis that is currently being developed by the author as a means of working responsibly through the intersectional complexity of post-rainbow nation South Africa.

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.

Co-Designing the Driver’s Seat: A call for an ‘Open’ Approach to Drawing Production in Spatial Design Practice: SOTL 2017

My first singular produced conference proceeding was for the 2017 Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) in the South Conference held at the University of Johannesburg. I wrote a peice about the need for an opening up of how we make and ‘draw’ in regards to spatial design – with a focus on the artefacts we value in drawing production.

The full proceedings are avaliable here: http://www.sotlinthesouth.co.za/images/SOTL_2017_Proceedings.pdf


“The question of what the architect is actually doing … raises questions about authorship. Is the architect a creative author with the will to produce a specific work, or do the conditions imposed on him inevitably result in something interchangeable, something that could as easily have been produced by someone one else?” (Reidijk, 2010, p20) This inherent contravention of authorship, summarised in the prologue of Reidijk’s collection of writings in Architecture as Craft, brings to light a crucial aspect of the built environment’s process of production; rarely is a building or a space solely brought together through an individual’s vision and efforts. As a rule, the built spaces occupied by society are the result of multiple forms of agency and ownership working together at different levels. While this co-productive nature of built space is well established through Open Building discourse, the nature of the design communication artefacts to which are trusted to carry the idea to be understood through remain largely ‘closed’ within the disciplinary boundaries of the designer and select group of building professionals. Nowhere is this closure more evidently seen than in technical output produced and commoditised by large scale design practices, such as urban and city design in South Africa. The author firmly stands by the belief that in order to allow for the true co-production of the South Africa built environment to take place equitably and efficiently, spatial design practitioners need to develop more ‘open’ approaches to the practice in the built environment – in particular to allow the design communication artefacts of their discipline to be co-owned and co-produced in the face of a rapidly urbanising world. In 2015 the author of this paper assisted in the running of UJ_UNIT2; a design-led architectural research unit housed in the master’s programme at the University Of Johannesburg (UJ). The research unit embarked on an exploration of new forms of design and building exposing the nature of agency through the levels that make up the South African built environment. This experience, combined with the author’s personal work in providing socio-technical support to the grass-roots international organisation Slum/Shack Dwellers International, provide the experiential reference to support the above stated belief. This paper will examine two projects conducted through the author’s own teaching and design practice that attempted to change the manner in which designer’s see and control design communication artefacts. A summary of these experiences will then be outlined through a call for design practitioners to develop their own means of sharing control not only in the spatial drawing artefact, but in the design itself. This is done with the hope of supporting a growing national movement that seeks to responsibly relinquish power through design in the aim of achieving social and spatial justice in South Africa


Bennett, J. (2017) ‘Co-Designing the Driver’s Seat: A call for an “Open” Approach to Drawing Production in Spatial Design Practice’, in The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in the South (SOTL) Conference Proceedings. Johannesburg, South Africa, ZA: Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in the South, 2017, p. 121. Available at: http://www.sotlinthesouth.co.za.

Spaces of Urban Change: Public Lecture

During my work with the University of Sheffield’s Master’s in Urban Design teaching, I was fortunate to share a presentation space with Omar Nagati of Cluster .

It was a very enlightening experience and the discussions after were hugely insightful.

“The lecture focuses on the work, ideas, and methodologies of CLUSTER and 1to1 Agency of Engagement, two innovative design and research practices based in Cairo and Johannesburg respectively. Jhono Bennett and Omar Nagati share examples of on-going and recent work within the rapidly shifting urban landscapes where they operate.

Through their presentations, they discuss the new modes of urban practice that might emerge through an active engagement in the processes of urban change, redefining the position of architects and urban designers. They reflect on these new modes of practice by outlining some of the methods and strategies adopted by CLUSTER and 1to1 Agency of Engagement, as well as key projects in Cairo and Johannesburg.

This event was organised by Beatrice De Carli on behalf of the research group Globalisation and Spatial Practice at Sheffield School of Architecture.

Work with Sheffield University

University of Sheffield – Masters in Urban Design 2016/2017

  I was again invited by Dr. Beatrice De Carli to teach in the Urban Design Masters at Sheffield for the 2016/2017 teaching period. This was done as part of a larger network project that has been set up with University of Sheffield (Sheffield, UK), Nanjing University (Nanjing, China), CEPT (Ahmedabad, India) and the University of Johannesburg […]

University of Sheffield – Masters in Urban Design 2015/2016

In 2016 I was invited by Dr Beatrice De Carli to assist in the teaching of the Masters in Urban Design at the University of Sheffield’s School of Architecture for the ‘Design from Afar Module”. We set the brief in Johannesburg’s Braamfontein and aimed to create a teaching/research model that would allow students in Sheffield […]

Sheffield Mobility: Spatial Design Research

2018 marks the final year of a 3 year mobility exchange between the University of Johannesburg’s DSD Desis Lab and the Sheffield School of Architecture. RAUM #2 Day 1. Rathul sharing the debate on Public Space as a teaching method for CEPT A post shared by Jhono Bennett (@jhonobennett) on May 8, 2017 at 7:12am […]

AZA 2015 Student Debate – Tomorrow’s Architects Today

I was invited to present my views on Socio-Technical architectural practice in South Africa alongside a panel of students and practitioners at this year’s AZA 2015 Architecture Biennial for the Student Debate – Tomorrow’s Architects Today
The debate was an interesting sharing of student ideas and perspectives and has been summarised here by Onthathile Makgalemela, the debate organiser and producer.

Spatial Design Teaching Research

2015 has proven to be a very busy year with several teaching, learning and research projects lining up around the idea of pedagogy and design research.
A joint research and experiential exchange arranged between SDI International, the South Africa SDI Alliance and myself in regard to developing a similar network in South Africa.
London – Part 1
Through an agreement with the various supporters, I arranged to stop over in London en route to the later part of this trip in order to joing my colleagues from the University of Johannesburg who are busy initiating a paradigm shift in it’s post graduate programme of Architecture and arranged several visits to School’s of Architecture in London during the Summer Festival of Architecture to develop a further understanding of the Unit System.
House Boat visit with friends in London
Summer Exhibition through the street facade
University of Johannesburg colleagues touring London Met with staff members
Jeremy Till’s Unit

The AA

Boston, USA
In order to break the long trip up for medical reason’s I managed to arrange a short stay in Boston, where I visited several friends involved in Architecture and global urbanism
Diller Schofield
The Big Dig common space
The New England Holocaust Memorial by South African Stanley Saitowitz
Media Lab with Carsen Smuts

Harvard GSD

Too happy to see even Harvard still uses thumb tacks
New York
When your offered to see the sites by yacht captain….

Columbia University – GSAPP

Happy to see messy studios

The High Line

The KV Leuvan and the University of Guayaquil arranged an intensive summer school that I was fortunate enough to be selected for their scholarship programme and attend.
London – Part 2
To make and break the return trip home for the same medical reasons, a second visit to London was arranged, where I got to meet up with several key practitioners such as Julia King, who had just completed an exciting Design/Build with the Bartlett School of Architecture’s undergraduate department.
The Barbican, because
Nairobi – Unit 2 Field Trip
By chance the UJ Unit 2 field trip ended up fitting perfectly onto the tail end of this trip and I met the unit in Nairobi, and led the week-long experience with my colleagues Dr. Amira Osman

After Thought

Being positioned so isolated in the ‘global south’ we don’t get to see in person such a diversity of approaches, values and work – this trip exposed me to such a vast array of work and practices that I now understand has deepened my position and values in regard to design & practice.

What’s Next? 05 – Lecture Series

What’s Next? 05: Lecture Series

Alex Opper, a colleague from the University of Johannesburg, conceived and put together the What’s Next Lecture Series:
“The Graduate Programme in Architecture at UJ presents What’s Next?, a series of double-talks by a range of dynamic young Jo’burg practitioners – architects, urban designers, artists, researchers, and just-graduated students. The next generation of talent demonstrates new ways of practising architecture in a complex, rich and emergent society, often with unexpected outcomes. Talks range from the scale of a single-family dwelling that celebrates ‘architecture as craft’ (Studio ZA), zooming all the way out to the importance of potential in examining the Gauteng city region (Guy Trangos/GCRO)” What’s Next? Series

My presentation shared the values of 1to1 – Agency of Engagement through some of the work we have been involved in over the last years.

Image: Alex Opper
Here I presented alongside Taswald Pillay, who spent 3 months working and living in Paris with the Urban Biotopes Project.  

What’s Next? 
There is still one more lecture in the series, Guy Trangos and Edna Peres will present on the 20th of May.

Presentation: University of the Witwatersrand School Talk

A presentation on the work I have undertaken over the last 5 years around of community centered design projects underlying the development of socio-technical spatial design a emerging mode of spatial practice for South Africa

Location: University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
Event Date: Sep 22, 2014
Organization: University of the Witwatersrand