With an “urban diary,” everyone’s a city planner

Mmmm, planning. Image: Getty.

We may inhabit the same city, but we live in different worlds.

Each of us sees our city from a slightly different angle, the view filtered through lenses of race, class, and circumstance. Even when we encounter the same scene, we experience it differently. Consider this: for a young professional in a gentrifying neighborhood, a new gastropub looks like an inviting place to knock back a few pints. But to a long-term resident facing skyrocketing rents, that same pub looks like the beachhead of an invading army. Or, imagine the imposing view of an iconic cathedral’s stone steps – to someone in a wheelchair.

These all-important individual perceptions are valuable data points; together they form a trove of information that could be used to create better cities for all. But, that information does not often inform urban planning and policy. Instead, our cities are usually shaped by a rather homogenous group of designers and planners, who typically speak the bloodless language of blueprints and building codes.

Old, largely top-down habits can change. Fortunately, we all have within us the capacity to perceive what we like and dislike about our surroundings; to respond with delight, sadness, fear, or anger, and to discover how best to improve the world around us. When crafting urban policy, plans, and related urban design, we must do a better job of finding a role for these perceptions.

To that end, in my book, Seeing the Better City, I offer a tool – the “urban diary” – that can harness the power of perception to transform how our cities evolve. An urban diary is more than either abstract idealism or the “citizen participation” of old.  It takes advantage of what many of us are already doing with our cameras and smartphones: recording what we see, and what we like or dislike, about the cities we inhabit. Indeed, many of us are regularly creating urban diaries, of a sort, on our Facebook and Instagram feeds.


We can take it a step further, by intentionally observing and documenting our experience with photographs, sketches, or notes – and utilising what I call the LENS method (Look, Explore, Narrate, and Summarise.)

It’s easy to start. For example, visit your five favorite neighborhoods and record the sights and sounds you encounter. Or write a couple of paragraphs about your morning commute.

The information collected in an urban diary can be used in multiple ways – as a scalable tool to become more mindful of our surroundings, for example, and hence better advocates for thoughtful urban planning. Or it can be used to enhance traditional land-use or design-review processes, which now typically rely on conventional oral comment or written input from affected neighbors.

The urban diary can provide an inclusive alternative to abstract, top-down prescriptions by engaging a diverse range of city residents in civic dialogue. It can be used, in the words of planner Yuri Artibise, “to reintroduce the human experience into urban planning.”

The trick, of course, is to implement the all-too-frequent lip service to equity and inclusion, and apply the information from our urban diaries to the real world of decision makers and developers. Some pioneering cities are using similar approaches to do just that. In my hometown, Seattle, the Yesler Terrace Youth Media Project used the Photovoice platform to catalogue students’ concerns about a then-pending large-scale redevelopment of their public-housing community. Otherwise-overlooked voices provided Seattle Housing Authority project managers and city officials with invaluable image-laden insights about younger residents’ perceptions about change.

In Adelaide, Australia, personal storytelling through photography became a critical element of planning the city’s future. Stage 1 of “Picture Adelaide 2040” centered on gathering 1,000 stories and photos from citizens on how they use their favorite places. The project’s summary report explains how these perceptions were integrated into planning goals and objectives.

And in Austin, Texas, “Community Character in a Box” was a city-initiated do-it-yourself toolkit that suggested ways for community members to capture images of the assets, constraints and opportunities for improvement in their neighborhoods. Significantly, the process not only taught citizens how to document their perceptions through photography but also allowed project professionals a greater understanding of neighborhood qualities and character.

Other photo- and observation-based examples show the importance of preserving culturally important everyday activities, such as fishing from urban piers or congregating in streets for regular social events. And some architects and developers – who increasingly understand the critical roles for our innate visual sense and storytelling tradition – have incorporated community input into interactive design processes that foster a sense of community empowerment in site-development efforts.

The urban diary and similar approaches can set aside the buzzwords, identity politics, and academic jargon that saturates our discussions of cities, providing a universal language for all. By capturing the perceptions of city dwellers, decision makers will be better equipped to plan cities and respond to urban change.

Everyone – regardless of background, disposition, or profession – can use their senses to explore and observe urban space. We can record what is inspirational and evocative, what seems to work in fostering an equitable, livable, inclusive city, and what does not. In this way, we can envision the better city from every angle.

Charles R. Wolfe is a long time writer on urbanism and founder and principal advisor at the Seeing Better Cities Group. He is the author of the new book Seeing the Better City: How to Explore, Observe, and Improve Urban Space.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.