It depends on who you ask: Using exploratory methodologies in urban design

How we transform and design inclusive urban spaces in South Africa that enable rather than limit social justice and equality is an enormous challenge. This is particularly so given our history of spatial segregation, and continued gross social and economic inequalities.

Enormous challenges require experimental and imaginative responses. At the end of 2015, the Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) ran an experimental pilot study that aimed to provide an exploratory and imaginative space to challenge conventional planning and urban design practices. The pilot, funded as part of a National Research Foundation Blue Skies grant, strategically took methodology as the starting point for experimentation, collecting different sorts of data in different ways from those traditionally used in a discipline. The pilot yielded interesting insights into disciplinary assumptions and how experimenting with alternative methodologies can put viewpoints of the everyday at the forefront rather than expert doctrine.

The data from the pilot, which brought together, among others, sociologists, town and regional planners, architects, public artists, drama lecturers, local government officials, NGOs working with the informal sectors and dance choreographers, was compared with an existing DUT master plan for the area around the university. The university is very close to the city centre. It borders the main highway route into and out of Durban’s CBD and on its lower end merges into the city’s main transport and market hub, Warrick Junction.

Warrick Avenue runs through Durban's busy market and transport hub. Photo: Micaela De Fritas.

Warrick Avenue runs through Durban’s busy market and transport hub. Steve Biko Road is a busy public street that runs through the DUT campus. Photo: Micaela De Fritas.

The current master plan proposes a design for an educational precinct and was compiled using conventional methods and limited input from staff and students. The master plan has three key concepts. The first two are student-centeredness and engagement. The third, and the main focus of the master plan, is the creation of a “comprehensive student safety movement system” linking the three DUT campuses. One of the ways this movement system would be actualized is through the pedestrianization of Steve Biko road so that students have a walking corridor between the campuses. Steve Biko road is a busy public street that runs through the DUT campus, dividing the Steve Biko and Ritson campuses. It is also the main thoroughfare for the South and North Beach taxis as they move from the busy transport hub of Warrick Junction back to the beachfront. The road has a high density of traffic and pedestrians. It is filled with taxis, buses dropping off students from outside residences, informal traders, small learner driving businesses and private vehicles belonging to students, staff and the general public. In the master plan this road is identified as highly problematic due to its chaotic nature and high level of traffic use. Being at the heart of this transport hub is seen as a security risk. In what appears as a logical suggestion, the master plan proposes to pedestrianize the street and redirect the traffic around the outer edge of the campus.

The pilot study, however, offered a contrasting narrative of Steve Biko road. The four projects selected for the pilot explored some of the obstacles to the lack of social planning in planning practices in South Africa (Vicky Sim), collected ethnographic and narrative data from the pedestrians, commuters and minibus taxi drivers and passengers who move through the DUT campuses (Abigail Knox, Andile Shange and Kgabo Makghato), creatively captured the emotional responses and feelings of students’ happiness and its absence in relation to the built environment on campus (Jonathan Edkins, Thobani Ndlovu, Thashalen Naidoo, Mxolisi Hlongwa, Lungile Cele, Bonke Duma, Nelisiwe Beryl Xaba‬‬‬, Euridice Lutucuta‬), and developed new pedagogies for teaching architecture through collaborative explorations of spaces (Bridget Horner, Miranda Young-Jahangeer and Doung Jahangeer).‬‬‬‬‬‬


Collecting data on happy and un-happy spaces using the HappiMap of DUT. Photo: Kira Erwin

The four projects in the pilot study, all of which were designed to listen to the people who make use of the DUT spaces in and around the campus, illustrated that the ‘chaos’ of Steve Biko road has unexpected benefits that are directly related to feelings of safety and security. Busy roads, it turns out, are safer roads for everybody. Taxi drivers, informal traders, students, public pedestrians and DUT security guards create an informal security network for all pedestrians. As one taxi driver participant states “oskhotheni abadlaleli ngasema rank” meaning, “robbers don’t take chances near our rank”. These findings were in direct contrast to the DUT master plan’s views that the “transport hub: provides particular challenges for the University in ensuring safety and security”.

Participants in a number of the pilots identified streets around DUT as unsafe but never once identified Steve Biko road as having negative safety issues. Yet Steve Biko road in the master plan is identified as a problematic site targeted for pedestrianization to tame its current chaos. In this sense what appears logistical to the expert consultants, and perhaps to drivers of motor vehicles, may in fact be counter-intuitive for many pedestrians, including many of the DUT students who criss-cross Steve Biko road each day.

The informal security network in Steve Biko road provides another form of university/public engagement that the university until this point had not taken into consideration. In the ethnography project, women participants who work in a neighbouring suburb as domestic workers told the researchers that they strategically choose to walk up Steve Biko road after arriving in Warrick Junction. This is because they feel safer when the students are around and the busy street affords protection. They were also well aware of when the DUT vacation period starts, and during those times they meet as a group in Warrick and walk to work together for safety.

Without taking into account the multitude of stakeholders that use a space we risk benefitting one group of people over another. What would significantly lowering the level of traffic through Steve Biko road mean for these members of the public? What would the impact be for informal traders who make a livelihood through trading, not just with students but also with members of public who are attracted to the road because of, not in spite of, its ‘chaotic’ nature?

Even in this small experimental study there was a clear discord between the ideals of planning and urban design that tends to lean towards regulated and orderly spaces, and the experiences of everyday people who live, work and use spaces. Here, the most well intended plans that implement global discourses on “world-class” cities may unintentionally have severe negative impacts. Particularly for members of the public who engage in the informal sector, use public transport, and are pedestrians in the city. The desire to turn chaos into order can act as an exclusionary mechanism that disregards the benefits of informality and organic networks built through unregulated inclusive spaces. As Sim’s (2015) scoping paper for this pilot reminds us:

“public space is not just open space (parks and natural areas), but includes all non-private space between private properties including pavements and streets. In the South African context, much of the informal sector is based on the street especially in high activity areas like transport hubs and busy traffic intersections. While not shown as such on scheme maps, these areas are multifunctional economic spaces. Instead of focusing strongly on non-compliance with the scheme, a public space approach challenges planners to engage with these spaces and in the process to support rather than penalise the poor in how they are making livelihoods in the public realm”.

Likewise, university spaces are nodes of public engagement in a multitude of ways. It would be worth thinking about how the built environment and proposed master plans for university spaces take the type of engagement highlighted in the pilot study into consideration.


Dr. Kira Erwin is a sociologist interested in identity and urban spaces. She is a senior research at the Urban Futures Center at the Durban University of Technology.

Main photo:Late afternoon traffic on Steve Biko road. Micaela De Fritas.

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