The Just City Lab

South Africa Edition

Natasha Hicks, MUP/MDes ’19 and Nerali Patel MUP ‘18

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africanpopcultures, •. “Visiting African Barbershops and Hair Salons.” African Popular Cultures, 12 Oct. 2014,

This summer we had the opportunity to travel to South Africa on a whirlwind two-week research trip with the Just City Lab and the lab’s founder, Toni L. Griffin (Professor in Practice of Urban Planning). Our mission was twofold: to take the work of the lab global in a series of programs located in Tshwane, Johannesburg and Cape Town, and to seek design case studies to add to the lab’s database. During our two weeks in South Africa, we participated in over 20 different meetings, ranging from engagements with city planners, designers, organizations, entrepreneurs, professors, students and political leaders. The culmination of our trek left us with three key takeaways that resonate with our actions as planners and designers:

1. The importance of calling injustice, an injustice.

Words matter. Words validate, recognize, and affirm. They also have the power to deny and erase. The diluted jargon used by some designers, planners, students and communities that we met act as a silent violence, an erasure of the trauma and injustices of the apartheid city. The call to choose words wisely evoked reflection on some of the terms that we have adopted, which often inflict unforeseen consequences.

When we refer to townships, informal settlements and slums - we imply that they are a transient, temporary, inhuman problems that will soon vanish from our urban landscapes. Rather, generation after generation has sustained them, and thus they are definitely here to stay. While they are “make-shift” to some and “home” for others, in our view they deserve to be legitimized. It is time to humanize them, and we can start that process very simply by calling them neighborhoods. For us, this is where the Just City Lab’s work really came to life, and where we saw the power of the Just City Index. If we use our words with intention, perhaps our designs will strive to achieve a more humanized outcome.

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Furlong, Ashleigh. “Three Years after the Khayelitsha Commission‚ Is There Any Progress?” Times LIVE, Sunday Times,

2. Redefining Resiliency

In searching for design case studies we toured a variety of urban projects. A local guide gave us a tour of Kliptown, the oldest township in Soweto. As we shuffled into a shack, not more than 60 ft2, our guide pointed out: “look at their pots, have you ever seen shinier pots anywhere else? In Kliptown, we may sleep on the floor and sleep 10 to a shack but you’ll never see a pot that isn’t shiny.”

Resiliency is a buzzword that has become diluted by academics, cities, philanthropies and profit seekers. The meaning can often feel opaque. However, in a moment of clarity in Kliptown, resiliency was embodied by an unemployed women carefully washing buckets of laundry at one communal tap shared between hundreds. Resiliency revealed itself through the many hair salons embedded between shacks. Resiliency was defined by Black Pride. Defying the expectations of a hostile world, the self pride we observed in Kliptown demonstrated a deeper understanding of what it means to be resilient - often not measured or understood by our traditional design metrics - a challenge planners and designers should consider when we so frequently use the phrase “designing for resilience.”

3. Design matters, but who has a seat at the table matters more.

As designers, we champion design as a remarkably powerful tool. However, design itself as an aesthetic endeavor can only achieve so much. During our trip we saw an array of socially driven design projects that had a clear social impact.

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Image Credit: Nerali Patel

Our trek left us with one overarching question: how do planners and designers orchestrate the right team? Design is certainly a catalyst for major change in society, yet designers cannot act alone. Half the battle is really about which individuals have a seat at the table. Having projects and clients that represent not just one actor or agent, but partnerships between all sectors will allow for a plan to belong to a collective in which everyone is invested.