During the Soweto Project (working title), the students of Design for the Living World will be involved into transformation of open spaces into community hubs in Orlando East and Noordgesig ward in Soweto. The Soweto Project is a collaboration with members of Youth Forum at PlanAct, a Johannesburg based NGO which is dedicated to encourage participation in local governance, and Daniel Kerber of morethanshelters, a Berlin-based social design organization focused on participatory projects with the goal to improve the living conditions for those most in need in a sustainable way.

Photo courtesy PlanAct

Photo by Martha Cooper

Photo by Martha Cooper


When and where

From January 15 to March 31, 2014, we will live in Orlando East and Noordgesig ward in Soweto, Johannesburg, and work in close collaboration with local residents. Orlando East and Noordgesig neighborhoods make a specific community which is politically merged to one ward organized by three ward councilors. All of them are members of the ANC. It is an area with mainly colored people (Noordgesig) and another area with mainly black people (Orlando-East). Both pockets exist since the 1940’s and the 1950’s. Today these communities are divided by infrastructure as the Soweto highway is passing through and creates a clear border. The aim of the Soweto Project is to define and develop community spaces in both neighborhoods and make a network of spaces that build up to an identity of the ward. Emphasis will be on North Noordgesig, which is less developed and poorer than Orlando East.

Community Hubs for Orlando East and Noordgesig

During Apartheid, the black and colored Africans were prohibited to use the public space in Johannesburg and therefore had no experience of public space. Today, this is one of the reasons why Soweto residents struggle to build awareness of what a public space could mean for their communities. During the residency in Orlando East and Noordgesig, we will work together with members of Youth Forum from both neighborhoods to create spaces of encounters, which will transform a no-man’s-land into community spaces, or as Mike Makwela of PlanAct says, into community hubs. The PlanAct has already started Cleaning and Greening campaign. Residents clean spaces where garbage is left unattended, and in this way start developing relationship to public space. Through the place-making experience they understand that the space is theirs and they can and should take care of it. The community spaces created during our residency are identity building elements for the neighborhood. Along the way, the project aims to build bridges between sometimes antagonistic relationship between two youth groups, one black from Orland East and one colored from Noordgesig. The PlanAct sees the project as part of their efforts into building environmental awareness and as potential stops on the Tourist Route, which would bring outsiders to their ward and therefore establish relationship with white residents of Johannesburg.

Who – the Context of Nine Urban Biotopes

The Soweto Project is part of Nine Urban Biotopes – Negotiating the Future of Urban Living. It has been initiated and is co-ordinated by Berlin-based art association urban dialogues. The class of Design for the Living World, HFBK and moretanshelters have been invited to Nine Urban Biotopes by Goethe-Institut South Africa in Johannesburg. There will be nine cities involved: the class Design for the Living World is participant from Germany and other cities involved are Paris, Turin and London (where we will work with The Centre for Urban and Community Research at the Goldsmith College), and South African cities Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. In Johannesburg, we will work with Alexander Opper at FADA (the Faculty of Arts, Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg), and with WITS University.

Soweto and South Africa

Soweto stands for the South Western Townships, a summary of once informal communities created in the early 20th century due to the evictions of Black Africans by the White authorities during Apartheid. Today it is a city in itself, with an extremely diverse population. A city which is much more developed than some of us might know. Although around 50\% of the population still suffers poverty. The diversity and vicinity of living conditions and architectures are stunning: you find areas that looks like Beverly Hills or quite middle class, situated right next to pockets of poverty and shacks without even electricity or water.

Since the apartheid regime ended in the early 1990s, the Republic of South Africa has been seeking a new identity that includes all segments of the population. Thanks to its history and location, South Africa today is a melting pot of many different influences from all over Africa as well as India and Europe.

The country is also the newest member of the so-called BRICS group of “emerging economies” (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and has significant influence on regional, continental, and global affairs.

From a European point of view, developing a sustainable exchange and vital transfer of knowledge between Europe and South Africa seems inevitable if we accept the idea that contemporary economies must be learning economies, where knowledge is seen as a crucial resource and education the most important process. South Africa’s cities, then, can be seen as laboratories of urban development that demonstrate flexible strategies for innovative urban planning.

The General Context

The past ten years have seen the concept of community participation in art, architecture, and design projects around the world. This is the result of a long-overdue recognition of bottom-up initiatives in seemingly remote places where the social state has either failed or is non-existent.

In North America and the EU, recognition of the potential of small-scale, bottom-up strategies came with the financial crisis of 2008 and the Occupy movements of 2011. A new way of thinking had emerged about the world’s health, environmental, and economic challenges. No longer were they seen as “somebody else’s” problems –the problems of the poor – but now they were seen as our problems, ones that we must all face together.

Today, a number of professional groups in art, architecture, and design see the potential of communities – that not long ago were perceived as failing – in building new knowledge for a New Culture of Living. The stigma too often attached to “places in crisis” are slowly being overturned and shift the discourse from top down to one of dialogue and exchange.

Participatory Projects

Some of the main questions for participatory projects are:

  1. What are the “doers” saying – the people and organizations who work directly with communities in need?
  2. What about the communities themselves?
  3. How do we develop collaborative participatory practices that offer quality solutions sustainable over the long term?
  4. How can collaborative and participatory projects not only empower communities but become political schoolrooms that articulate the rights of citizenship?

The Desing of the Living World practice proceeds through the following steps:

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

Photo by Stefan Horn

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