Towards Urban Land Justice

Design Agency in a Neoliberal Era

Loyiso Qaqane (MAUD '19)


Unknown (2017) Cape Town Aerial View. Available at:

Within the capitalist milieu that has come to define the 21st century, what agency do young designers have, if any, to affect change towards greater urban social justice? In an era of globalization and multi-national corporations, national and city governments have abandoned their mandate of placing the needs of citizens as a top priority. The race to become a desirable investment destination for global capital has had a profound impact on how our cities prioritize their development. Nowhere is this disturbing phenomenon more pronounced than in the Global South, where colonialism and oppressive regimes have already negatively affected urban environments.

Within such a context, what role can young design professionals play in challenging the status quo? One important emerging arena would be the design competition, which not only gives a platform that would otherwise be unavailable to young designers, but also acts as a laboratory to test out ideas and solutions to issues that affect our urban environment. Competitions pose unique opportunities for grassroots activism by communities in collaboration with designers to challenge powerful groups and organizations.

An example of this was the Tafelberg Challenge in Cape Town, South Africa. The competition was an open call to architects, urban designers and planners to submit alternative proposals to the sale of well-located state-owned land by the provincial government to the private sector to generate revenue for affordable housing on the periphery of the city. Cape Town, current water crisis notwithstanding, has been experiencing a property boom, with some of the highest property price increases in the world. The city and provincial government has seen this trend as an opportunity to sell off valuable, under-utilized state land to developers and private organizations, rather than use it for affordable housing and additional public amenities. In a city that is extremely segregated, both racially and economically, such a move would be a positive step towards a much more just city and could be used as a tool for racial reconciliation within a deeply divided city.

Many of the design teams proposed a mixed-use scheme , where a smaller number of market-rate housing units and commercial spaces would help subsidize affordable housing, which would make up the majority of the development, made possible by the extremely high value of the land. This extra revenue would be used to supplement the subsidy from national government, resulting in higher quality affordable housing than what is typically built. The rationale was that this model could be applied to similar sites across the city. Unfortunately, after a lengthy court case the sale of the land went through, which resulted in major protest action and national news coverage. The resistance to the sale coincided with the political party running the City of Cape Town having a greater influence within national politics and threatening the power of the county’s ruling party. They realized that such negative coverage would severely hurt their national political ambitions. In 2017, the city’s Transport and Urban Development Authority was formed to facilitate transit-oriented development. The idea that public transportation and social housing should feed off each other is not new in the city; what was new is that this type of development happened in the highly valuable inner city and adjacent neighborhoods. Such a move would result in a much more integrated city, where working class citizens, who are mostly black, are not all relegated to the peripheries of our cities.

It is clear that the Tafelberg Challenge alone did not bring about this change in housing policy within the City of Cape Town, but it does highlight the power of design competitions as a form of grassroots activism against powerful forces within our cities. Additionally, they give design professionals agency to engage with local communities and other experts within a time where there has been an increasing realization of the limits of design as a tool for change. The case study highlights the need for design to align itself with other forces, in order to have any influence within society and its urban environments.

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