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The Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies (CUBES) is a platform for urban research, learning and civic engagement located in the School of Architecture and Planning.

CUBES logoCUBES’s research focuses on material built-environment issues affecting the poor in cities and towns in South Africa. CUBES leads a variety of research programmes that consider how urban citizens, and in particular marginalised peoples, are affected by the material realities of cities, built environments at different scales, access to urban goods and spaces, and contestations over urban physical and political orders.

CUBES values critical reflection on existing practices of development, planning and architecture, which are constantly at risk of excluding the poor in their quest to maintain order and formalize contemporary cities.

CUBES cubeCUBES’s three integrated activity areas are: 

  • Grounded research
  • Education and mentoring
  • Civic engagement and activism

These activities include institutional and community partnerships, and research programmes that engage students of different degree programmes. One of CUBES's central activities are the community-oriented City Studios, that link research, engagement/activism and education. CUBES also organises conferences, exhibitions and the weekly Faces of the City Seminar series, run jointly with the NRF Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning, the Gauteng City Region Observatory (GCRO) and the Wits City Institute.

Thematic Areas

CUBES continues to develop expertise on the following thematic areas:

  • Housing and Informality 
  • Informal Economies 
  • Informal Politics and Urban Governance
  • Practices of the State in Urban Governance

An emerging thematic area in CUBES since 2015 is around the Right to the City. Our research relates to a variety of post-graduate city studies including urban design, housing, development planning, urban sustainability, urban politics and governance. This places CUBES in an ideal position to build research capacity amongst academics and young future scholars, and to initiate innovative thinking around issues of South African cities such as equality, informality and governance. 


The Centre was established in 1996 in the former Faculty of Architecture, under the name Centre for Development and Built Environment (CDBE). The initiative for establishment of the Centre came from four members of academic staff with the support by the then Vice Chancellor, Prof Colin Bundy. They felt a need for a more established research vehicle that could also enhance the community service of those involved.

After the new Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment was formed in 2001, CUBES became part of the School of Architecture and Planning and adopted its present name in 2002. By this time the Centre had successfully undertaken a range of projects including community-based research to inform the City of Johannesburg’s development of its ‘Egoli 2010’ strategy. Prof Lone Poulsen, who directed the Centre from 1999 to 2002, handed over to Mzwanele Mayekiso, senior lecturer in the School, in 2003. In 2005 Prof Alan Mabin, Head of the School of Architecture and Planning at the time, took over the acting directorship of CUBES, followed by Prof Claire Bénit-Gbaffou in January 2010, Dr Sarah Charlton in July 2013 and Prof Marie Huchzermeyer in January 2015.

Since 2006 CUBES hosted Wits University’s research thrust on cities, providing a space for cross-disciplinary research and discussion. In 2006 and 2007 the Centre entered a revitalisation process and was reviewed as part of the quinquennial review process of the School. As an outcome CUBES was regularised in terms of the Standing Orders as the ‘Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies’ in 2008. In 2013 the Centre was endorsed as part of the School’s next quinquennial review.

By creatively building on emerging synergies in teaching and research within the School, and finding ways to develop projects that become more than the sum of their parts, the Centre stimulates a collaborative, grounded, and contextually-relevant research culture for those interested in working on the challenging urban conditions on our doorstep. 


CUBES is a recognised research centre within the University. CUBES's membership consists of a collective of urban researchers across the University interested in ongoing debates and collaborative research on CUBES's thematic areas. In terms of governance, the Centre reports to the Head of the School of Architecture & Planning and the Dean of Engineering and the Built Environment. Directorship rotates among active members based in the School, whereas CUBES's activities span a number of different Faculties and Schools.

The CUBES associate director works with a small steering committee drawn from the active CUBES membership and receives support from the School's research administrator. CUBES benefits from an advisory board consisting primarily of urban experts both within Wits and beyond. The board was set up in 2012 and is chaired by the Head of School. The current advisory board comprises the following people:

  • Prof Nnamdi Elleh - Head of School of Architecture and Planning, Wits (Chair)
  • Prof Ian Jandrell - Dean, Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment, Wits
  • Prof Ivor Chipkin - Executive Director, Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI)
  • Monica Albonico - Albonico Sack Metacity: Architects and Urban Designers
  • Prof Noor Nieftagodien - NRF Research Chair in Local Histories and Present Realities, Wits
  • Rashid Seedat - Head, Gauteng Planning Commission
  • Dr Laila Smith - Director, CLEAR-AA, Wits School of Governance
  • Prof Alan Mabin - Emeritus Professor, Wits         

The advisory board's role is to advise on strategic direction and to review progress being made, as well as providing guidance and support on the budget and financial plan.

Apart from the School's administrative support and members' research incentive funds, CUBES draws project-based funding from various agencies and institutions, partly in collaboration with other research entities through funded projects. CUBES also attracts voluntary interns from countries in the Global North and South who benefit from rich professional experience in research and facilitation while also enriching the collective at CUBES.