Responding to city snapshots

Have a look at this video here by Ananya Roy, in which she provides a critique of the world class city narrative as having no place for the urban poor. Watch it all – she explains it really well.


Joburg is often punted as being a ‘world class African city.’ But have you ever thought what this might mean? And how we can reconcile the City’s aspirations towards being a world class African city with, well, reality?

A world class city narrative is problematic because it is profoundly utopian. It speaks of a vision which does not really exist. It is instead lost in city snapshots from around the world – Times Square in New York, Picadilly in London, the BRT in Bogota, the bike lanes of Copenhagen. Although these are wonderful experiences, and contribute to a positive urban experience, they are not representative of a city as a whole. They are, literally, snapshots, and inform a vision of the city as a whole that is unclear and without nuance. They smudge over the various difficulties plaguing every city around the world, denying cities the opportunity of addressing those challenges particular to that city in a manner that is similarly unique.

This is not to say that visions are unhelpful, but by aspiring to be a city ‘like London or like New York’, the vision for one’s own city is clouded. More importantly, the present realities of your city are never good enough because such realities are completely foreign to the image ascribed to the city.

Realities, however, are also forgotten because of the constant preoccupation with being better. This means that public goods may be built (such as the as yet unopened Metropark off Nelson Mandela Bridge, or the Rea Vaya), but due to a failure by the City and its officials to appreciate the reality of a city at the moment, these public goods are not maintained but go forgotten in the constant and perhaps manic quest to achieve world class city status.

A world class city narrative also tends to show up city-making as an easy process, one that is not subject to conflict or disagreement. The world class city has no space for difference, but rather only has space for a particular class: one that is globally connected, well-educated, wealthy, and which fits into the city’s snapshot. There is no space for slums, informal trade markets, or the homeless, but only space for those elements of a city deemed visible in the snapshot of a world class city.

The result is that city challenges are never dealt with properly, mainly because these challenges are swept under the carpet. As such, cities do not accept the value of informal trade markets; they do not see the need to build low-income housing as one of ensuring long-term sustainability for the city, seeing it instead as benevolence; cities are scared of attracting low-income/no-income people to the city, not merely because it is difficult for the city to respond to increase demand, but because this appears to go in the opposite direction of a world class city.

We do not seek to romanticise poverty here, but we do aim to highlight that poverty is a reality in South Africa’s current socio-economic climate, and cities are the sites where the gap between rich and poor can be lessened.

As such, the City on the one hand cannot be blind to the urban poor (and by confiscating the blankets of the urban poor, it does end up being blind to it), and pretend that the urban poor do not exist, or that cities with a relatively strong economy are magnets for people from elsewhere.

On the other hand, though, the City needs to facilitate ways are ensuring the urban poor are able to access opportunities in the city – from simple measures such as providing storage containers for informal traders and access to public toilets that are clean and safe, to more resource-intensive measures such as affordable rental housing accommodation in areas that are close to economic opportunities, public transport, and services, to attracting investment into the city that brings about a growth in jobs.

right to pee

We worry that the City is too caught up in a world class narrative, preferring instead- at least on a subconscious level – to criminalising and blaming the urban poor for the City’s multiplicity of problems, rather than getting down with the nitty-gritty, uncomfortable and unglamourous work of facilitating the right to the city for all its citizens. And undoubtedly these are incredibly difficult tasks to achieve, but perhaps by following visions that are geared far more in favour of the urban poor and in direct response to local challenges and opportunities that may arise, we can begin to address the particular challenges facing specific cities. This, surely, is a more practical approach than favouring myopic visions of a world class city that respond to snapshots.


Thomas Coggin  is a lecturer in law at the University of the Witwatersrand. He has an interest in the relationship between law and the city, and how the city facilitates the realisation of rights in the bill of rights. He is also editor of, a blog which aims to instigate a deeper understanding of Joburg and its varying complexities.


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