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City Studios

Since 2010 CUBES and the School of Architecture & Planning have been driving geographically focused, multidisciplinary, community-oriented research, learning and service initiatives in the form of City Studios.

Through a three-year commitment to a specific area, the City Studios deploy a multi-pronged strategy to fulfil both the research and pedagogic objectives of the School. City Studios provide an opportunity for Wits students who will become future planners and architects to build people-oriented cities, in local contexts with in-depth understandings and in real life situations, with the guidance and support of lecturers and community members. 

The City Studio approach embeds pedagogy in socially complex neighbourhoods in a way that seeks to make a contribution through research, mapping, thematic analyses, community/stakeholder engagement, problem-solving and small design interventions. As research and results are periodically discussed and reviewed with partnering civil society organisations (CSOs), City Studios produce socially relevant research, and locally adapted design and policy solutions. Through regular collective feedback sessions, including public meetings, workshops, local publications, and public events, City Studios crystallize debates on local issues, exploring and imagining other urban futures with residents. 

Kelvin-Alexandra-Frankenwald Studio (in preparation, 2024-2026)

The Kelvin-Alexandra-Frankenwald City Studio is themed on spatial justice, urban resilience and sustainability, focussing on a microcosm of South African urban inequality and opportunity in a 3km radius around the Gautrain Marlboro Station (Kelvin suburb, Stjwetla informal settlement, Frankenwald greenfield development, Linbro Park industrial area). Researchers, lecturers and students mainly based in the School of Architecture and Planning but also Geography and Wits School of Governance will conduct research and pedagogic studio or project work in this area in 2024 and 2025, followed by analysis, reflection and writing in 2026. The empirical research methods are mostly qualitative and interactive (workshop engagements, transect walks, mapping, interviewing), but also include small scale design-build interventions. Through a series of coordinated activities and processes in the area (including presentations and exhibitions) directly involving relevant stakeholders, the City Studio seeks to positively impact spatial justice, resilience and sustainability while also co-producing new knowledge and innovation. A Wits centennial postdoctoral fellowship has been secured for the City Studio, with incumbent Dr Paulo Moreira taking up the position in February 2024. A City Studio Steering Committee has been constituted and 20 courses have signed up for involvement in the City Studio. Fundraising for various aspects of the City Studio is currently underway. A dedicated webpage for this City Studio will be created early in 2024 with regular updates.

Braamfontein Studio (2016-2017)

Braamfontein is the inner-city high-rise and mixed-use neighbourhood which interfaces with the southern and eastern sides of the Wits main campus. The Braamfontein Studio took place during the height of the #Fees Mus Fall student protests, many of which took place in the streets of Braamfontein, outside the University gates, particularly as campus security was intensified. The Braamfontein Studio collaborated with the Urban Orders Research Centre at Aarhus University. The Studio had a highlight in a workshop at the end of 2016, co-organised with and funded by the Urban Orders project. This included student activists, reflecting and articulating the various strands of the #Fees Must Fall movement. The workshop, which was conceptualised around the concept of ‘urban orders’, and its programme appear here. A final report captures the deliberations, which reflected and attempted to make sense of the tumultuous time in which youth succeeded (at times violently) in drawing attention to deepening inequality, barriers to access and intergeneration exclusion.

Rossettenville Studio (2013-2015)

CUBES's second City Studio came to be located in Rosettenville after CUBES was invited to work in the neighborhood by an NPO representing some of the local businesses in the area. The City Studio then expanded to work with other CSOs. The German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) funded the Rosettenville Studio under its focus on urban safety. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation also supported the Studop. Students and staff connected this overall theme with informal trading, local identities, public space and the role of churches. In July 2015 the Rosettenville Studio culminated in an interactive celebration through a pedagogic table game that evolved out of the studio work. Academic reflection on the City Studio occurred during 2015 and culminated in several reports:

Yeoville Studio (2010-2012)

Yeoville Studio was a two-year community-oriented research and teaching initiative, driven by a collaboration between Wits School of Architecture and Planning, and civil society organisations in Yeoville between 2010 and 2012. It had three aims. Firstly, it sought to train students to engage with communities in understanding and producing the city. Secondly, it produced innovative research through a multidicisplinary approach grounded in, and focused on, a specific neighborhood. Thirdly, it produced applied research that is of relevance and use to partnering local communities or stakeholders.

The Yeoville Studio was supported by Wits University’s SPARC programme, the School of Architecture and Planning and CUBES, and the French Institute of South Africa-Research (IFAS-Recherche). Apart from the impact that Yeoville Studio had on the neighbourhood, a lasting legacy is the

Urban Lab+ Network

CUBES was the South African partner in the Urban Lab+ Network of research centres, funded by Erasmus Mundus, and driven by the Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin). It focused on research and education on cities through city studios, and enriched the City Studio initiative within CUBES. The network involved numerous research centres on the city, including in Mumbai, Santiago de Chile and Hong Kong. The main activities of the Urban Lab+ network were symposia in Europe and the Global South on the urban laboratory approach and education, encourage staff and student international exchange and mobility, and contributing theoretically informed and applicable research and publications within the built environment disciplines.

The network offered CUBES the opportunity to strengthen relationships with partners in the global North and global South, and extend its understanding of complex international urban issues and strategies for education, research and participation. The network also provided the opportunity to establish international educational partnerships in the form of student exchange and joint master’s programmes. 

Within the network, CUBES was part of the cluster of research programmes that focussed on examining the use of city studios to engage universities and communities in teaching, research and service, and how planners, politicians and academics narrate and theorize urban practices in relation to urban change. This cluster included CUBES, the Urban Research and Design Laboratory at TU Berlin, University College London Urban Laboratory and the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies (KRVIA) in Mumbai.

Through Urban Lab+ CUBES researchers attended symposia in Berlin, Germany and Cosenza, Italy and hosted a conference in Johannesburg in November 2013. See Ulab Johannesburg Cluster Meeting Report for CUBES’s report on the stimulating Johannesburg event held in November 2013. The City Studios within CUBES were a key reference point for this workshop.