Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies

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Approach and ethos

CUBES’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’ mission is to contribute to socio-spatial justice, urban resilience and impactful, transformative built-environment strategies through engagement and grounded research.

CUBES is driven by a deep concern for social and spatial justice, confronting inequality and how this articulates urban areas. It embraces participatory, democratic, transdisciplinary and comparative approaches promoted under initiatives such as the right to the city, spatial justice and the right to development. Housing is a key thematic within CUBES, which understands it as a critical land-use in cities and towns and their peri-urban areas, whether produced through statutory processes or through what has come to be known as ‘informality’. Linked to this is the thematic of the urban economy, in complex ways articulated by inequality, reproducing it and at times overcoming it. Social and technical infrastructure provided by the state mediates this to varying extent, but is often poorly tailored to the reality on the ground. Urban politics and governance confront, but may also reproduce, the challenges households face in their everyday lives, tied as the are to housing and livelihood activities. Everyday practices as well as practices of the state form an important thematic in understanding and engaging urban reality going forward and inform the way CUBES grapples with questions of urban sustainability and resilience and the need for innovation.

CUBES’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, collaborating in this initiative with the NRF SARChI Chair in Spatial Analysis and City Planning, the Gauteng City Region Observatory (GCRO) and the School of Architecture and Planning.