An exhibition on cities through the lens of Cape Town

The African Centre for Cities, a UCT research unit, is mounting a wide-ranging exhibition investigating the challenges and possibilities facing Cape Town. Entitled City Desired, the exhibition opens at 18h00 on 30 October in City Hall and runs until 10 December 2014.

City Desired emerges against the backdrop of the World Design Capital (WDC) programme, with its focus on “Live Design, Transform Life”. The increased interest in Cape Town’s future, sparked in part by its WDC status, provides an ideal moment to offer a resource for the city to think more deeply and honestly about our collective role in determining the future. How can we overcome the many social and environmental challenges facing Cape Town, a city that shares conditions and predicaments common to cities across South Africa and the continent?

An exhibition about ten everyday people

Based on in-depth journalistic research, City Desired uses a range of media platforms, including photography, film and interactive tools, to profile ten Capetonians whose life experiences offer powerful insights into the fabric of the city. Drawing on the biographies of a domestic worker, taxi boss, psychiatrist, urban farmer, environmental officer, spaza shop owner, violence counsellor, architect, school principal, and twin brothers who collaborate as artists, City Desired maps the fine grain of a city awkwardly negotiating change.

While strongly focused on biography, the exhibition nonetheless offers the public a full-spectrum view of Cape Town’s many and complex challenges. Drawing on extensive research undertaken by the centre’s CityLab research programme, as well as research from within UCT and other institutions, City Desired is structured around ten key themes, each of which affect the city’s present and future livelihood. These core themes are well-being, education, mobility, shelter, work, the food system, land, diversity, vulnerability and climate change.

City Desired features an extensive public programme. Aromar Revi, director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore, India, will deliver the Kapuscinski Development Lecture, the first time this lecture series will be hosted in Africa since its establishment in 2009. Other notable activities include the Grootboom Series, which will be presented in conjunction with the Social Justice Coalition; a round-table discussion with noted urbanists AbdouMaliq Simone, Teresa Caldeira, Ash Amin and Filip de Boeck; and a special edition of the public discussion forum Talking Heads, focusing on the ten themes explored in the exhibition.

City Desired is curated by Tau Tavengwa and Prof Edgar Pieterse, director of African Centre for Cities, together with Caroline Sohie.

City Desired intends to unlock a different public discourse about the current state and futures of the city,” says Pieterse. “In an atmosphere where most public debate gets ensnared in fixed oppositions and polemic, City Desired endeavours to open up fresh and interesting engagements with the city and its endless potential, and inspire an exploration of the key challenges and opportunities facing the city across race, economic status, and geography to inspire meaningful action.”

“The exhibition clarifies the interconnected nature of all Capetonians whose fates are linked,” says Tavengwa, chief designer of City Desired.

An exhibition with broad relevance

Cities are a central preoccupation for governments across the world. UNICEF’s recently published Generation 2030/Africa report estimates that cities, especially African and Asian cities, will grow by a further two billion people over the next three decades. In Africa, with its predominantly youthful population, increasing urbanisation will see the continent’s young unable to secure formal employment; instead, urban youth will be stuck in under-paid and under-valued vulnerable occupations.

Economic and habitat issues are not the only concerns. In September, the Global Commission on the New Climate Economy released their findings about how the challenges of climate change can be confronted whilst ushering a new economic era of resource efficient and inclusive growth. Cities are central to their raft of insights and recommendations.

In South Africa, the National Cabinet approved the draft Integrated Urban Development Framework for South Africa for public comment on 3 September 2014. These trends all point to the growing cultural, political and economic importance of cities.

An exhibition with a sharp focus

City Desired looks at inescapable contradictions and tensions typifying Cape Town. Similar to most South African cities, a special kind of neo-apartheid dominates the form and dynamics of Cape Town’s built environment. Poor residents are confined to mono-class residential areas labelled ‘townships’ and ‘informal settlements’. Lower middle class suburbs have de-racialised to a considerable extent but this is less evident in upper middle class areas. Residential divisions are further mirrored in the education, health and security systems defined by a middle class that can afford to buy excellent services, and poor who are forced to rely on over-stretched and under-resourced public systems, further reproducing the class, race and cultural divides of the city.

Yet, there is so much more to Cape Town and other South African cities than just a story of inequity and divisions. Across all walks of life and places of residence and work, ordinary people are getting on with the business of life, love and aspiration.

Confronting and using the tension between what divides people and the shared desire for alternatives is at the heart of the exhibition.

An exhibition built out of partnerships

City Desired is a project of the ACC and was made possible by various partner organisations: City of Cape Town, Max Planck Institute, Pro Helvetia, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Goethe Institute, Ove Arup Foundation, the National Research Foundation, Mistra Urban Futures, and the Africa Centre. Additional support has been provided by the Council for Higher Education Consortium, the Dutch Consulate, Cape Town Partnership, International New Town Institute, Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading, Western Cape Government and the University of Cape Town. The Children’s Radio Foundation is a core partner bringing young voices into the conversation.

Photo by Sydelle Willow Smith

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