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The conundrum of research and policy

- By Buhle Zuma

The question of whether research plays a role in urban policy development and achieves the desired impact was interrogated at a discussion titled: South Africa’s urban agenda and its relationship with urban research.

A seven member panel facilitated by Prof. Marie Huchzermeyer, Director of the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies in the School of Architecture and Planning at Wits, engaged robustly with seasoned and emerging researchers on research’s potential and limitations.

It is projected that 70% of the South African population will live in urban areas by 2030. The already densely populated cities, with deep features of exclusionary apartheid spatial planning, are not poised to deal inclusively with mass urbanisation.

The draft Integrated Development Framework notes that “urban growth and development generate and amplify risks”.  The risks have “the potential to undermine efforts to transform urban areas and create spaces of opportunity, investment and safety” and broader developmental objectives.


Shifts in government’s approach to using urban research

Kicking off the discussion, Prof. Phillip Harrison, member of the Planning Commission and NRF Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning in the Wits’ School of Architecture and Planning, said that the National Development Plan led out a new and unique way that government engaged with research. Referring to a ‘commission model’, he said that the National Development Plan, developed through the commissioning of independent research in part from academics, was shaped and influenced by evidence-based planning.

The spin-off of the national plan is that the relationship between research and policy has become a little bit closer than before. For Harrison, the challenge is on researchers to sustain this and frame their “research in a compelling way that will capture the attention of policy or plan makers”.  

Prof. Edgar Pieterse, Director of the African Centre for Cities at UCT, who reflected on his experience as the chairperson of a panel of experts supporting the Integrated Urban Development Framework policy process, concurred with Harrison’s observation.

Pieterse advised the nearly full auditorium to adopt a long-term view to research. An understanding of “how policy ideas germinate and how they get absorbed and gain political and institutional traction” is necessary, he said quelling the feelings that policy makers disregard research.

“For me a yardstick is not whether there is an immediate line that can be drawn between doing the work and seeing a particular outcome. For me it is an investment in a larger intellectual project about building a certain kind of literacy, about what the issues are and what’s the evidence required and the most important things in all of this as in any academic project is to figure out what is the right question! That is the point.

“We do all of this because we are always trying to understand ‘are we asking the right questions?’. The right question has academic components to it but more importantly it has a cultural and political dimension on what resonates at a particular time. It is about reading institutional dynamics and power relations,” Pieterse argued.

Pieterse highlighted how various entities of government are drawing on academic institutions, and proposed the development of a digital archive that would collect the


Philip Harrison 

Edgar Pieterse

Alan Mabin

Noëleen Murray

Sophie Oldfield

Monique Marks and Kira Erwin

Q&A 1

Q&A 2

body of work in urban research.

“We don’t have a contemporary archive of all this incredible work that is being generated leading up to the RDP between 1990 –1994; in the White Paper and legislation drafting processes and post 2000. There is little aggregation, systematic analysis … how this can filter back into the larger academic exercise,” he said.

Critically reflecting on academia

University of Pretoria’s Professor Alan Mabin and former Head of the Wits’ School of Architecture and Planning reflected on the mistakes of failed urban policy in South Africa, including apartheid policies which were, after all, research based.

Mabin suggested a need to move out of prescriptive moulds. “We face remarkable problems and our current concepts, our research-based concepts do not seem capable of dealing with the situation in our city or urban environments.

“Most of our resources for research, appear to me, to be going into talking primarily about what should be done instead of what the hell is actually going on?"

This was echoed by Professor Noeleen Murray, A. W. Mellon Chair in Critical Architecture and Urbanism and Director of the Wits City Institute, who called for a closer examination of “our own heritage of research”.

UCT’s Professor Sophie Oldfield, reminded researchers of the value of field research, the range of methodologies, and how they reflect or do not reflect the everyday practices of citizens and urban challenges.

Professor Monique Marks and Dr Kira Erwin of DUT’s Urban Futures Centre provided concrete examples of the possibilities and challenges of attempting to change the city through research, be it at the level of street drug abuse or hidden housing deprivation.

What is the current urban agenda?

In a conversation with Wits Communications, discussion convenor, Professor Huchzermeyer, spoke on the challenges of researchers and practitioners in this space.

“In many ways, the current urban agenda is still about overcoming the apartheid city. The inherited built environment still exists and operates with much the same exclusions and privileges and unwittingly perpetuates apartheid policies, says Huchzermeyer.

While attempts have been made to change the spatial patterns, Huchzermeyer quotes the Integrated Development Framework draft which says that it is more difficult now than it would have been in 1994 to undo the apartheid city.

“It is a bigger problem and it is being perpetuated in new development continuing the pattern of privilege on the one hand and real deprivation on the other hand. Spatially the area is bigger, there’s more people and there’s been post-apartheid investments that are hard to confront and have to do with how private investors and developers operate.”

The panel discussion was held on Tuesday, 18 August, in the Dorothy Suskind Auditorium, John Moffat Building.