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Prof. Vanessa Watson

Role/Position: Member: ACC Executive Committee | UCT School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics; Deputy Dean of Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment Email: Contact: 270-216-502360

Vanessa Watson is professor of city planning in the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at the University of Cape Town (South Africa) and Deputy Dean of the faculty. She holds degrees from the Universities of Natal, Cape Town and the Architectural Association of London, and a PhD from the University of Witwatersrand, and is a Fellow of the University of Cape Town.


Her research over the last thirty years has focussed on urban planning in the global South and the effects of inappropriate planning practices and theories especially in Africa. Her work seeks to unsettle the geo-politics of knowledge production in planning by providing alternative theoretical perspectives from the global South.


She is the author/co-author of seven books, some fifty journal articles and numerous chapters, conference papers and keynotes in the field of planning. Her book: Change and Continuity in Spatial Planning: metropolitan planning in Cape Town under political transition (Routledge), won national and university book prizes. She is an editor of the journal Planning Theory, and on the editorial boards of Planning Practice and Research, the Journal of Planning Education and Research and Progress in Planning.


She was the lead consultant for UN Habitat’s 2009 Global Report on Planning Sustainable Cities and is on their global reports Advisory Board. She was chair and co-chair of the Global Planning Education Association Network (2007-2011). She is a founder of the Association of African Planning Schools and is a founder and on the executive of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town.


Current research interests

Over the last decade have focused on the development of a particular area of planning theory which also links theory to practice. There are two aspects to this: placing power and conflict as inevitable and central to planning processes, and grounding planning ideas in an understanding of social diversity and difference. My focus is a response to the problem that most mainstream planning theory has been developed in the global North, and explicitly or implicitly claims universality, while in fact it is often not helpful to planning practitioners working in the rather different conditions of the global South and East.


My practical concern with the future of African cities has directed my interest over the last decade to planning education on the continent, and how the next generation of professional planners is being education and produced. Hence my role in setting up the Association of African Planning Schools and the various projects which have emerged through this network.


More recently I have developed an additional interest in the new economic forces re-shaping African cities, in particular the private-sector driven property development initiatives, often originating with international developers and built environment professionals. These new forces are likely to greatly exacerbate processes of marginalisation and exclusion of the poor in cities of Africa.


Other areas

Co-chair of the Association of African Planning Schools and PI of project on revitalising planning education in Africa

ACC Healthy Cities City Lab.


Teaching involvements

Masters degree in City and Regional Planning (MCRP), School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics.




Watson, V (forthcoming 2014): African Urban Fantasies: Dreams or Nightmares, Environment and Urbanization.


Watson, V (forthcoming 2014): Co-production and Collaboration: the difference, Planning Practice and Research.


Watson, V (2013): The ethics of planners and their professional bodies: response to Flyvbjerg, Cities, 32, 167–168

Watson, V and N Odendaal (2013): “Changing planning education in Africa: the role of the Association of African Planning Schools“, Journal of Planning Education and Research. 33(1) pp. 96 – 107


Watson, V (2013): “Planning and the ‘stubborn realities’ of global south-east cities: some emerging ideas“, Planning Theory 12(1), 81-100


Watson, V (2011): “Changing planning law in Africa: an introduction“, Urban Forum, 3, 203-208. (guest editor of special issue).


Watson V (2011): “Engaging with citizenship and urban struggle through an informality lens,” Planning Theory and Practice 12(1): 150-153


Parnell, S, E Pieterse and V Watson (2009): “Planning for cities in the global South: an African research agenda for sustainable human settlements“, Progress in Planning 72: 233-241.


Watson V (2009) “Seeing from the South: refocusing urban planning on the globe’s central urban issues“, Urban Studies, 46(11) 2259-2275.


Watson, V (2009): “The planned city sweeps the poor away…’: urban planning and 21st century urbanization“. Progress in Planning (72)3, 151-193.


Watson, V (2008) “Down to Earth: linking planning theory and practice in the ‘metropole’ and beyond’“, International Planning Studies 13(3) 223-237.



Harrison P, Todes A , Watson V (2008): Planning and Transformation: Learning from the Post-Apartheid Experience. RTPI Library Series. Routledge: London and New York


Stiftel B., V Watson and H Acselrad (eds) (2007): Dialogues in Urban and Regional Planning 2: Prize Papers from the World’s Planning School Associations. Routledge, London.

Stiftel B and V Watson (eds) (2005): Dialogues in Urban and Regional Planning 1: Prize Papers from the World’s Planning School Associations. Routledge, London.


Watson V (2002): Change and Continuity in Spatial Planning: metropolitan planning in Cape Town under political transition. Routledge, London and New York.



Duminy, J, N Odendaal and V Watson (2013): The Education and Research Imperatives of Urban Planning Professionals in Africa, S Parnell and E Pieterse (eds) Africa’s Urban Revolution: Policy Pressure. Zed Press (forthcoming)


Watson, V (2013): The Post-colonial dimension, in M Acuto and W Steele (eds), Global City Challenges.  Palgrave Macmillan.  ISBN 9781137286864


Duminy, J, V Watson and N Odendaal (2013): Doing research in African cities: the case study method. Eds P Kresl and J Sobrino. Handbook of Research Methods and Applications in Urban Economies. Edward Elgar: Cheltenham. Pp 153-172. ISBN 978 0 85793 461 1


Watson, V (2013): Building a Southern perspective on urban planning using the comparative case method, in K Ward (ed): A World of Cities: comparison across the disciplines. Cities@Manchester, Manchester. Pp 23-30  (not peer reviewed).


Watson V. (2013): Planning theory and practice in a global context, in G Young and D Stevenson (eds), The Ashgate Research Companion to Planning and Culture, Pp 121-134, Ashgate.  ISBN 9781409422242 HBK


Watson (2011)): Communicative planning in the global South: experiences, prospects and predicaments, M Geyer (ed): International Handbook of Urban Policy Issues in the South. Edward Elgar.


Watson, V (2010): Informal settlements: in search of a home in the city, in D Vlahov, J Boufford, C Pearson and L Norris (eds): Urban Health: Global Perspectives. Jossey-Bass and John Wiley & Sons. Pp 305-316


Watson, V (2008): Conflicting rationalities: implications for planning theory and ethics, in Hillier J and Healey P (eds): Critical Essays in Planning Theory: volume 3 Contemporary Movements in Planning Theory. Pp 221-33

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    Who will plan Africa’s cities?

    On December 5th, Africa Research Institute launched the latest edition of its Policy Voice series “For town and country: A new approach to urban planning in Kenya”.  The event was opened by Vanessa Watson (University of Cape Town). The keynote address was given by the author of the publication: Peter Ngau (University of Nairobi)

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    African Urban Fantasies

    In this paper, Professor Vanessa Watson argues that Sub-Saharan Africa’s larger cities are currently being revisioned in the image of cities such as Dubai, Shanghai and Singapore, which claim top positions in the world-class city leagues. Draped in the rhetoric of “smart cities” and “eco-cities”, these plans promise to modernize African cities and turn them […]

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