The Soweto Project developed over the course of two months in early 2014 at two locations in Soweto – Orlando East and Noordgesig. In Orlando East, we and the local residents turned a former public space that had been used as a dumping ground into a community-organized public space called Ubuntu Park. Together, we built a stage, braai-stands (BBQ-stands), and tables and benches. To open Ubuntu Park, and to celebrate the community, we organized the Soweto Street Festival. In Noordgesig, we created two vegetable gardens at Noordgesig Primary School, an educational approach that aims to develop a new consciousness about food. In all these endeavors, we followed the principles of participatory design:

  • Listening to and talking with the local residents before making any definite plan.
  • Involving the community in the decision-making and design processes.
  • Involving the community in the construction process.
  • Transferring responsibility for the developed project to the community in order to leave behind a sustainable work that benefits population in the long term.

Photo above: Ubuntu Park

Title: The Soweto Project
A participatory project by the Design for the Living World class, University of Fine Arts/Hochschule für bildende Künste (HFBK) Hamburg.
In conjunction with Nine Urban Biotopes (9UB), Negotiating the Future of Urban Living
Date: January 15 – March 31, 2014
Location: Orlando East and Noordgesig, Soweto, Johannesburg
Students: Finn Brüggemann, Maria Christou, Anja Gerin (Studio Experimental Design HFBK), Amalia Ruiz-Larrea, Nuriye Tohermes, and Radoš Vujaklija (Time-related Media, HFBK Hamburg), as well as Charlotte Riepe (morethanshelters, Berlin and Hamburg), a guest of the class.
The Class of the Design for the Living World in collaboration with: Residents of Soweto, urban dialogues, Goethe-Institut South Africa, morethanshelters and PlanAct Johannesburg
Special thanks to: Stefan Horn, Terry Kurgan, Mike Makwela, Griffin Maseko, Sihle Ngwenya, Caroline Wanjiku Kihato and Christian von Wissel; Orlando East residents Councelor Bongani Dlamini, Councelor Queen Riba, K. B. Patrick Moshebi, Paulina Khomo, Bongani Lukele, Sophie Luthuli, Eunice “Mama U” Ramonti, Gloria Makwela, Khaya Magi, Alfred Malahlela, Zithulele Malinga, Peter Mazibuko, Swazi Mgaga, Tshenolo Mokhele, Jason Monareng, Timothy Mosebi, Sannah Ndlovu, Lebo Nkosi, Gift Nzama, Refiloe Wessi, and Valentine Xhasa; Noordegesig residents Abdul Latif, Captain Donovan of Boys Brigade, Sister Glover, our garden consultant Jeffrey Hughes and Cindy Tsotsotso, the principal of Noordgesig Primary School.
Supported by: The Culture Programme of the European Union  and Hochschule für bildende Künste (HFBK) Hamburg.
The Soweto Project has been co-funded with support from the European Commission. This website reflects the views solely of the authors.

The Soweto Street Festival, photo by Terry Kurgan

The Soweto Street Festival, photo by Terry Kurgan

Vegetable garden at Noordgesig Primary School

Vegetable garden at Noordgesig Primary School

Publication The Soweto Project

The Soweto Project publication

Published by Archive Books Berlin.

9UB E-Publication

The app “Nine Urban Biotopes” shed light on our urban future based on a cultural exchange between Europe and South Africa. Interactive maps and versatile photo galleries, videos and interviews are intertwined with scientific contributions in order to create a profound and visual panorama on issues at stake.

A complete flat pdf-Version:
For Android tablets:
For iPads:

9UB Nine Urban Biotopes selected as a “success story” by the European Commission in Jan. 2017.
9UB has been funded by the Culture Programme of the European Union.

The Soweto Project, exhibited at:

  • HFBK Designpreis 2014, MKG Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg
    December 2, 2014 — January 4, 2015
  • Vegetation as a Political Agent
    curated by Marco Scotini, Parco Arte ViventeTurin, Italy, May 30, 2014–January 11, 2015

Presented by:

  • Stefan Horn, at the (re)Thinking the Street: Urban Encounters 2015, 23-24 October 2015, Tate Britain, London

Discussed with:

  • Glocal Neighbors, an inter-neighbourhood knowledge exchange: Nordbahnhof, Stuttgart – Jessy Cohen, Holon and
    Design for the LIving World, HFBK, 2014
    Glocal Neighbors: http://glocal-neighbours.blogspot.de

Ubuntu Park


The Soweto Project

Ubuntu Park

In the Ubuntu Park project we transformed a former public space that had been used as a dumping ground for more than forty years into a new community-organized public space. Local residents and the Design for the Living World students together cleaned up the area and made a number of improvements: we built a platform stage, benches and tables, and braai stands. On March 9, 2014, the space was given the name Ubuntu Park. The park is managed and organized by the local community.

How to create a community space – by Anja Gerin, Amalia Ruiz-Larrea, and Nuriye Tohermes

The Tools

Ubuntu Park is not primarily about the objects we and the residents constructed but about the process of the park’s creation and current evolution. The tools we used to transform a dumping ground into a community-organized public space are: relational objects, performative actions, rituals of transition, working together, and community building.

The Platform is a Relational Object

The platform we built in Ubuntu Park is a relational object. Made of concrete, it was constructed by the students and local residents on the east side of the park. Four wooden pillars mark the platform area. For community events, a textile roof can be attached to the pillars to provide shade.
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The Soweto Street Festival – A movie by Sihle of Y not entertainment – Soweto

The Soweto Street Festival is a Performative Action and marks a Ritual of Transition

On March 9, 2014, the communities of Orlando East and Noordgesig hosted the Soweto Street Festival. The festival parade started at the Noordgesig Primary School and ended at Ubuntu Park, where we celebrated the local culture with music, dance performances, and poetry readings. The parade was led by the Boys Brigade, a youth brass band from Noordgesig (this is a local initiative that keeps children away from the drug culture of the streets). Next in the parade came local residents, then a line of police cars, and even a car from the fire brigade, all of which seemed out of proportion on the narrow Orlando streets.
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The Noordgesig Primary School Vegetable Gardens

The Noordgesig Primary School Vegetable Gardens

The project at the Noordgesig Primary School comprises two garden plots on the school grounds. They were made with the help of the schoolchildren and with advice from a local urban farmer named Jeffrey, who sells vegetables to the community and whose children also attend the school.
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Vegetable garden at Noordgesig Primary School, Soweto – By Maria Christou


Ubuntu Park

Communication, horizontal collaboration and transfer of knowledge

Communication was what counted most in the Soweto project: “What do you want to create here?” What do I want to create?” “How do we start?” etc. From such basic communication a working structure appeared in an action-reaction principle: I react to the person next to me.
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Linear Thinking and Thinking in Outliers

Linear thinkers proceed from point A (the start of a project) to point B (its completion) directly, in a straight line. Linear thinkers plan things ahead and try to be objective in order to be more efficient. The goal is to save time. Thinking in outliers follows a line with curves – a winding path. It is subjective and involves rerouting, which takes more time than the linear thinkers’ straight path. When linear thinkers plan ahead, their grasp of the future allows them to move steadily towards the final result. People who think in outliers are more interested in the present. They create subjective gaps that reroute the path of their thought. They may eventually reach the same goal as linear thinkers, only it takes more time. The result may be different as well.
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Working together makes a difference!

The most important part of the Soweto project was the collective work that we, the Western students, did with the local residents. The everyday labour made a big and longest-lasting impact on the Soweto community. Our work included networking and organizing meetings with neighbourhood representatives and politicians, but for me the most important thing was the strenuous work we did every day on the ground: laying bricks, painting, cleaning, and digging holes for foundations in terribly hard soil. Why do we claim that the most banal activities done by a group of trained design and art students had the biggest impact?
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Ubuntu Park

Ubuntu Park Belongs to a Social Agreement

Ubuntu Park does not belong to anyone really. It belongs to a social agreement reached by the community. If for some reason the agreement collapses, the park would become a no man’s land again. As Giorgio Agamben writes in The Kingdom and the Glory, it is people who give meaning to an “empty throne”. The transformation of a plot of land from a no man’s land into a community-organized public space offers an example that helps us understand the paradigm.
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How we became irrelevant

Only the community itself can keep a community project alive. Evidently, the role of the Design for the Living World class can only be to initiate the project, as we are always in a place only for a limited time. As outsiders we bring a new perspective, a new approach, to a neighbourhood, but the community itself has to take responsibility.
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