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​‘Projects in developing countries should not be designed like charity’

, Art & Science

The Advanced Urban Design team explores the issues of food insecurity and poverty in Johannesburg’s troubled Hillbrow neighborhood.

Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa and one of the largest urban areas in the world. It is a city of striking contrasts, where poverty and the legacy of apartheid sit side by side with wealth and prosperity. Seen as the ‘New York of Africa,’ it sets an example for the entire continent.

Advanced Urban Design (AUD) students went on a research field trip to Johannesburg in November to explore the issue of food security and poverty in the Hillbrow neighbourhood. Once an upscale district designated for whites only, it degentrified after the fall of apartheid and has faced numerous social and economic problems.

Last week, the students presented their final report summarising the results of their work. The three projects addressed the issues of access to affordable nutritious food for children and other social groups, as well as water security.

The field trip was led by Ronald Wall, AUD faculty member, professor at Wits University, and head of the Urban Competitiveness and Resilience Department at IHS Erasmus University Rotterdam.

Dr. Ronald Wall (left)

Advanced Urban Design is a joint Master’s program of two Moscow-based institutions, the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture, and Design and the Graduate School of Urbanism at the Higher School of Economics (HSE). The program focuses on urbanization in developing countries, where urban growth is most significant.

Three AUD students – architect Marina Salimgareeva, curator and anthropologist Emily Radosavljevic, and architect Daniel Roche spoke to Strelka Magazine about the legacy of apartheid, the informal economy, and some ways that have been proposed to deal with food insecurity through the case study of Johannesburg.



Marina Salimgareeva: What we noticed is that the social and spatial structures of apartheid are still very much in place and they are now contributing to class divisions. Because of apartheid planning, the city is still very much divided. It seems like every group lives in its own echo chamber – they can tell you about their lifestyle, their relatives and friends, but they don’t know what is happening outside their circle. Every resident of Johannesburg has a mental map of the city in their head – areas where you should and shouldn’t go, especially before and after 4-5pm. South Africans start their day very early, and by that time many businesses shut down – and certain places can switch from safe to grey zones. This is especially true for the Inner City, which experienced ‘white flight’ to the northern suburbs in the 1990s, resulting in buildings getting hijacked or squatted. When we visited Hillbrow and nearby areas, we saw that some of the buildings are still in this condition.   

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Hillbrow neighborhood

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But there are also areas like Maboneng, located not far from Hillbrow, where beginning in 2008 many buildings were turned into art galleries and other hip places. And today Maboneng is an oasis of art life, where you feel completely safe. But once you turn around the corner you still see drastic poverty.



Emily Radosavljevic: I was inspired by micro-entrepreneurship, for instance the informal practices for waste management. There are so many strata and levels of informal economies and informal systems that are operating outside the designated parameters of employment.

There is an economic universe where people are living informally and exchanging goods. These things usually happen in peripheral areas, so it’s unusual to see it in the downtown area of the city.

It was nice to see what appeared to be an emergence of young entrepreneurs able to thrive in this economic situation starting from humble means. In the coming years, it appears that young people and their unconventional approaches will influence the economy and take on the enormous challenges neglected by previous generations. 



Marina Salimgareeva: The situation with hunger in South Africa is much better than in Africa in general, so the issue doesn’t receive much attention, because everyone thinks that everything is fine. In fact, in South Africa there is a different issue – what is happening is called hidden hunger. Children get an inadequate diet, which leads to stunted growth and obesity. The problem is that many people do not have access to high-quality food – sometimes it is simply about transport accessibility, but in many cases they cannot afford to buy fresh healthy food or pay for electricity and water to cook it, so they eat a lot of carbohydrates and junk food, as a result of which they are not hungry, but cannot develop properly.



Siyakhana garden

Daniel Roche: People in Johannesburg  are talking about growing produce closer to the city. So Witwatersrand University Professor Michael Rudolf started an experiment in Siyakhana to see what kind of food they can produce. It’s very small-scale right now. What’s interesting is that they are located in a humongous park, so if they were to expand they could turn this derelict park into a huge urban farm. They can begin producing food in the city rather than importing all of it from very far away.



Daniel Roche: The most impressive project for me is by this group of young people that live in Ponte City Tower. Ponte Tower is a project from the 1970s that had this typical modernist narrative, where the tower is designed as a utopia but then falls into neglect or a dystopia even, almost like Robin Hood Gardens in East London. As the latter is being torn down as we speak, people from Ponte Tower are taking the initiative over this building and recreating it into something else. They are in their mid-twenties and they have grown up in the area of Hillbrow. They have taken the initiative to create this interesting informal management structure of the building. They’ve set up informal rules on how the building is governed to improve safety and they are starting a public awareness initiative in Hillbrow to change the public perception of the place. 

The idea is that the city thinks that Hillbrow is very dangerous, but they invite people to come see for themselves to inform their own opinions. So I think it’s interesting to see how young people from this place are changing the perception of the area through this grassroots initiative, and also how they are historians of the building. They are super invested and interested in this building, in rebranding it, in rewriting an alternative narrative for it. I think this case can be translated to other scenarios where you see a similar modernist planning narrative.

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Ponte City Tower

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Ponte City Tower



Emily Radosavljevic: From its days as a posh neighborhood decades ago, Hillbrow today is surrounded by a lot of stigma. Most people who live there are migrants from other African countries, and xenophobia against these new residents is one of the largest stigmas that needs to be combatted. Local people have told us that they are not happy with the government for not responsibly controlling immigration. There is a lot stigma against Nigerians, who are accused of bringing in drugs and prostitution, and doing all sorts of illegal things. New systems need to be in place to more easily and securely facilitate the migration process and make beneficial use of the enormous cultural, economic, and social presence of migrants in the neighborhood. 

Marina Salimgareeva: There is a big problem of stigmatizing hunger and hidden hunger. And even though the problem of hunger is not as acute as in other countries, people just wouldn’t talk about it.  People never protest about this, because that would mean admitting that you cannot feed your family. They are also reluctant to accept help from state initiatives, such as community kitchens – the recent Johannesburg Food Survey showed that even among food insecure families, very few participate in food relief projects .



Daniel Roche: When we talk about doing a project in a developing country and working for people in poverty, I think it’s important not to approach the project as charity work, but rather in a very business-like and objective manner. I think the client-designer relationship must be a very equal one in order for the project to be successful and to meet the needs of the people you are working for.

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AUD team

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Presentation at Wits University

The most important thing that a project designer can do in a context like this is to think about who you hand the project off to after it’s over. So when you design something, you have to think about the community member who is going to manage this space or idea after you leave. When you keep that transition in mind and design for it, the project will take on a life of its own afterwards, if it’s a successful one. 

Photos: Maria Slavnova

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