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Thematic Areas

In recent years CUBES’s research has focused on material built-environment issues affecting the urban poor.

There are currently four primary thematic areas that make up most of CUBES’s research work:

Since 2015 an emerging thematic area is around the Right to the City. Embedded in CUBES’s work related to each of these themes is a commitment to civic engagement and activism, as well as to research-based teaching and learning. CUBES’s location in the School of Architecture and Planning provides a base from which to critically explore existing conditions in the city, alternative policies, innovative urban design strategies and architectural typologies, urban visions and futures, with civil society organizations and with government.

City Studios

CUBES's research also includes the interdisciplinary, community-oriented City Studios - with the latest City Studio being located in Braamfontein from 2016 to 2018 - as well as a number of other initiatives and projects described in more detail below (under thematic area).

Living The Urban Periphery 

Since 2016 CUBES has been involved in a large funded research project entitled Living the Urban Periphery: Investment, Infrastructure and Economic Change in African City-Regions.  Involving various partner organisations (see below) the study includes several of CUBES’ thematic areas as indicated in this project summary: The spatial edges of large cities and city-regions in Africa are places of complex but poorly understood urban transformations; in some areas, large-scale formal investment is evident, while others are characterised by informal development or a complex mix of formal and informal processes, alternatively, there is stagnation or decline. These processes are often inadequately managed through policy and planning as institutions of governance are frequently weaker and more fragmented on the edge than in the spatial core. There is a critical gap in existing research on African cities, which has tended to overlook peripheral areas or focus on a donor-driven conception of the ‘peri-urban’ concerned primarily with changes to land use and agriculture (Mbiba and Huchzermeyer 2002). Without responsive policy and planning they may continue to be poorly managed, experience decline; institutional weakness; and neglect.

This project seeks to understand how transformation in the spatial peripheries of African cities, is shaped, governed and experienced, with a view to informing governance approaches, strategies for poverty reduction and addressing the gap in the existing literature. It will use the lens of ‘lived experiences’ to understand the intersection of state, market and people’s practices in producing “new urban spatialities” (Beall et al 2015; Mabin et al 2013; Todes 2014). The project examines seven cases within three African city-regions: Gauteng, eThekwini and Addis Ababa. These choices will facilitate comparative analysis spanning both a low and a middle-income country, as well as primary and secondary cities. All three cases display rapid but variable urbanisation, changing patterns of segregation and integration, and variant patterns of governance and investment, offering critical spaces for comparative analysis, theorisation, and policy influence.

The project is a partnership between researchers at the School of Architecture and Planning and the SA Research Chair on Spatial Analysis and City Planning (University of the Witwatersrand), and the Gauteng City Region Observatory, and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield. It is funded by the National Research Foundation, SA and the Economic and Social Research Council, UK, and runs from 2016 – 2019.

Practices of The State in Urban Governance

Since 2013 a group of staff and postgraduate students have been discussing the dimension of their research projects that focus on understanding practices of the state in the governance of Southern African cities.  A reading group was structured around the writings of Ananya Roy, who visited the School in May 2013 and joined a workshop discussing the group’s research. In January 2014 CUBES hosted a colloquium, which included other researchers beyond CUBES studying ‘the state’. In March 2014 a panel discussion on this theme was included in the Southern African City Studies Conference, and in May 2014 CUBES facilitated a session titled ‘Theorising State Practices in Urban Governance in/from Cities of the South’ at the WiSER workshop on the Global South as an idea and a source of theory. In 2015 Prof Claire Benit-Gbaffou was awarded a three-year NRF grant to implement the Practices of the State in Urban Governance research programme till 2017.

Housing and Informality

Many poor people find accommodation in cities outside of formal housing structures, in informal settlements, backyard shacks, reclaimed buildings, and shared rooms. Considered under this theme are; the right to housing; high density and low-income living; mobilization for access to housing; live-work relationships; and studies of informal settlements. Although those excluded from formal housing rely on informality for many aspects of their life, planning and architecture are considered at odds with urban informality with few exceptions. CUBES members’ research around housing explores issues associated with informal conditions, and strategies for policy responses. Policy responses intersecting with conditions of informality have potential to be supportive, but are more often riddled with conflict or blatant neglectful. Proposing progressive ways of managing informality, including informality in a developmental process and protecting vulnerable players from the less benign excesses of informality is crucial for the future of South African cities.

Informal Politics and Urban Governance  

A better understanding of city governance and urban politics is crucial to ensure the voices of poor and politically marginalized groups and individuals are heard by the governments, policies, and projects that affect their environments and daily lives. Disappointments with participatory institutions, the rise of mass urban protests,and increasing exclusion from access to goods and citizenship, show that current urban governance systems are not capable of hearing or responding to the poor. The globalization of neoliberal economic policies, local quests for a balance between growth and redistribution, the fragmentation and depoliticisation of local government systems, the potential disempowering effects of mainstreaming local participation all determine the in/ability of the poor to participate in the making of the city.

Informal Economies

State responses towards the informal economy, broadly defined, have tended to emphasise the marginality of the informal economy, characterised by Mbeki's notion of 'two economies'. Such discourse serves to further marginalise the informal economy in political, policy, and research discourse, understanding it as the residue of a racial capitalist system. As such, despite the growing rhetoric of empowering small businesses, metropolitan municipalities have tended to regard the presence of the informal economy as merely temporary poverty alleviation, or as a nuisance that undermines aspirations of ‘world class city’ status. In fact, the informal economy is more variegated, internally complex and robust than commonly recognised. Participants range from survivalists to entrepreneurs, activities range from street trading to criminal enterprises, and economic networks span significant space and time. Research in this area is therefore of political, policy and intellectual importance, not only to better understand the making of cities and the majority of the people’s living conditions, but also to start thinking differently in governance and policy terms, both nationally and locally.

Following Operation Clean Sweep, in which the City of Johannesburg removed approximately 6000 street traders from the sidewalks of the inner city (whether they were legally registered with the City or not), CUBES was approached by street traders organisations in Johannesburg to assist in preparing a more technically informed position with which to negotiate with City authorities. CUBES has been advocating for fair and participatory governmental processes through which street trading can be managed in Johannesburg, contributing research on models for effective management of street trade, and working on proposals for better spatial organization of pavement vending. CUBES has remained engaged in this conflict by helping to counter common misconceptions about street traders and the informal economy, demonstrating support for street traders and the families and communities whose livelihoods rely on their trade.

Research Collaboration on the State (RCS) 

In 2016 CUBES, together with the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) and the NRF Chair in Local Histories and Present Realities formed the Research Collaboration on the State (RCS) with the aim to deepen the understanding of the history, institutions and spatial dimensions of the South African state. The RCS will host a series of critical discussions and seminars on the state of the state.