In the Press: It may just be a city, but is it a ‘just’ city? As in fair and open?

Programme Type: Public Discourse Programme:

There is a way to free up the rigid grids and class divisions that spoil life for all our cities’ residents.

When apartheid laid down “equators” in cities to separate white and black, rich and poor, it laid down a form of injustice almost impossible to erase – even decades after the fall of that regime.

Commercial centres, suburbs, far-flung townships – it’s a layout stencilled by the hand of spatial injustice.

But the message from a world leader in city planning is that it’s never too late. Professor Toni Griffin, who leads the Just City Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, spread the word at the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town.

She was there to share the Just City Index – a tool which, she says, can break the divisive grids of our cities.

The themes she raises from case studies and projects in the US ring familiar to South Africans: architects “deepening” the isolation created by planners, public safety officials “cordoning off” protests instead of letting them breathe, and gentrification bringing funky restaurants and shops while pushing property prices up and residents out.

South Africa is littered with examples: the blank facades of apartheid buildings in Joburg which keep out rather than invite in; Cape Town’s concentric circles that fan out from the mountain and run along Main Road, the railway track, the M5 – in each case defining the socioeconomic bracket and the cost of property; and in Durban the way Chatsworth was set up as an Indian “buffer” between the white suburbs and the “black” township of Umlazi.

But, says Griffin, one can break the grids of a city’s layout. It takes finding out what the residents of a city value or feel they are missing and, from there, move to create a “just city”.

This is not a one-size-fits-all, and she said a just Johannesburg might look different from a just Cape Town or a just New York. It comes down to hearing what is needed, and then infusing the design process with those answers.

A just Johannesburg might look different from a just Cape Town or a just New York. It comes down to hearing what is needed, and then infusing the design process with those answers.

The Just City Index uses 12 principles and defines 50 values to see what a city needs. This can then “aid communities in developing a unique value proposition for their own just city”.

“Interrogating these values might lead us to design differently,” she says. While her initial research found that 43% of people thought of physical interventions such as housing when asked what they needed, “the aspirational then became bigger than the material”.

She hopes this approach will equip city planners to find a method of planning which is participatory. Designers were often “not equipped to think differently because we haven’t exposed them to other possibilities. If this has been your existence and that of your parents and grandparents, you cannot conceive of anything else,” she said.

If planners are laying the foundations for divisions, architects are simply strengthening them .

“Architects can be responsible for deepening the isolation,” she says. They think: “I can’t solve the problems outside of my door so I am just going to lift my door to a higher level,” and make things “safe from the dangerous streets with fences and gates”.

This article by Tanya Farber was first published on 11 June on Times LIVE.

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