Participatory Design Produces a Vibrant Dynamic Urban Environment

“Townscape” by The Digital Artist from Pixabay.

This essay is part of a virtual conference series “The Roles of Law, Religion and Housing Through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs)” sponsored by Canopy Forum and the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. This series features scholars, experts, and practitioners who examine global challenges of homelessness, housing policy and housing vulnerability. You can browse all essays and view video presentations from the series here.

I am a South African architect and founding member of CS Studio Architects, a practice with forty years’ experience using participation and stakeholder engagement as key principles to the design process. The aim of this essay is to describe the focus of our practice on participation and empowerment, which in turn leads to sustainability. I studied architecture at the University of Cape Town (UCT) which taught a very European curriculum, one that did not empower students with the necessary tools to work in an African context. After a visit to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, I realized that spatial practices and patterns in Africa are totally different from the ones that I was being taught and decided that I needed to listen to the people in the process of designing their built environments, and since oral traditions and oral history have a strong presence in Africa, the practice’s designs have had a profound impact on the South African built environment. My current master’s research at the University of the Free State (UFS) focuses on the development of a multi-purpose center in one of the oldest townships in the Western Cape in South Africa, which was built by the apartheid government in 1953. The three processes that shaped the design of the extension of the building in 1997, namely local community participation, government and stakeholders’ participation and the design process, can be applied to housing in previously disadvantaged communities with equal success. This essay will only address the first two processes.

Our practice has been involved in over ten thousand Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) houses. When one includes members of marginalized communities in architectural design solutions through participation, the resulting built environment is richer, more inclusive, sustainable, and vibrant. 

The South African Context

The period between 1948 and 1994 is known for its horrendous apartheid laws. The all-white government of the National Party (NP) enforced existing policies of racial segregation under a system of legislation that institutionalized racism and discrimination. This prolonged system of oppression, allowed the white minority to rule unjustly and cruelly over the “other”, non-white majority. In 1984 I was asked by community leader, Matthew Goniwe to “use architecture to liberate the oppressed of South Africa”. (As a third-year student, I became involved with a group from the African township Lingelihle, in Cradock, called Masizame. The group consisted of seven women and one man who wanted to obtain a piece of land and build a skills training workshop. They had formed and registered an NGO and NPO called Masizame. Matthew Goniwe, a mathematics teacher at the Graaff Reinet High School, was one of Lingelihle’s community leaders. He and three other leaders from Lingelihle were brutally killed in 1984 by the South African Police.) I realized that there was a need to address this crime against humanity in a practical, spatial way. In 1985, Nyami Goniwa (Matthew’s wife), recommended that I follow a consultative process which would allow each household through their street committee to participate. This worked well to ensure broad-based involvement. I thus began to work in a consultative way, which would develop into the participatory processes used in our practice to this day.

The environments that we work in are inhabited by the marginalized, and we realized that we would have to listen carefully to understand the needs and wishes of our clients, for whom we were creating a built environment.

This led to our work being located within a body of international and local knowledge which deals with community (or client) participation (in the design).

Local community participation, empowerment and “moving the center”

Participation means the involvement of intended beneficiaries in the planning, design, implementation, and subsequent maintenance of the development intervention. People are mobilized, manage resources, and make decisions that affect their lives. Emeritus Professor at Oxford Brookes University, Nabeel Hamdi stated in the foreword of Integrating Participation: Participatory Development in Post-Apartheid South Africa that: “Participation, like community, has colonized development thinking and invoked, over the years, fundamental changes to the theory of practice of development. It is a term incorporating ideals at once powerful and enduring which straddle political and institutional boundaries – whose strength lies precisely at its ambiguity.” Over a period of forty years, we have strived to give a voice to the voiceless. Our work is influenced by the participants’ ideas and needs and tells the story of the local participants. Linked to this, local human and material resources are always used. 

Empowerment is more than merely the transfer of authority or power. It is a positive action term that suggests that transfer of power enables the process of the person, group, or system to become stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.“Shifting the center” refers to the writings of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and his term “Moving the center”, which is also the title of one of his books. It refers to moving away from the centered ideas of the West, towards multiple centers within different spheres. It relates to the idea of decentralization, where the center is not occupied. “Shifting the center” is more than an architectural or spatial descriptor, acting as a political statement in an ongoing search for an African civic identity. CSSA is one of the few practices which, then and now, places itself and its work in the South African townships, raising to the surface the challenges and proposed solutions of contemporary African urban environments. We continually seek to translate these concepts into architectural and spatial practices, particularly the notion of “moving the center”. Ngūgī Wa Thiong’o, Paulo Freire, and Castells influenced our thinking around liberation and empowerment. It is important to locate our work in a socio-political and theoretical context. As a result, the method and approach are auto ethnographical and will rely on my involvement in the processes.

Government and stakeholders’ participation

Government and other stakeholders are engaged in our design process, which influences the participatory process that reacts and shifts in relation to community participation. This is a complex process that cannot be fully explained in this short essay, but for the purpose of better understanding the context, a short description of South Africa’s framework on participation post-1994 will be given. All post-1994 development projects in South Africa take place within the framework and guidelines of South Africa’s development policy – the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), officially implemented in 1994. The adoption of the RDP as the official policy and cornerstone of the new government has been described as the most significant statement on South African society since the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955. 

The RDP’s main objective was to redress the socioeconomic imbalances and extreme poverty that beleaguered many communities after apartheid, ultimately achieving social, political, and economic justice through a “people-driven process”, characterized by “empowerment through participation”.

Emerging from grassroots development strategies during the apartheid era and attracting widespread support, the RDP quickly became a powerful symbol for reconciliation and reconstruction. 

Empowerment is the key concept behind the RDP and this idea quickly filtered down from national policy to influence the delivery of development at the community level. Other organizations involved in development work, such as government organizations, amend their policies following the principles of the RDP. 

The RDP is constituted around six basic principles which, “form the basis of its underlying economic and political philosophy” and its underlying objective is to carry forward the development in South Africa while reinforcing and advancing the process of social and political change. Listed below, these principles, which have been enshrined for some time in grassroots politics and the practice of NGOs during the anti-apartheid struggle, embody a clear conceptualization of South Africa’s approach to participatory development. Any development process must: 

  1. Integrate all levels of the state with non-governmental organizations and community-based organizations. 
  2. Be “people-driven” and be “not about the delivery of goods… but about active involvement and growing empowerment”.
  3. Combat exclusion and divisiveness and strive for peace and security for all through fair representation, that must reflect the racial and gender composition… and provide fairness and equality.
  4. Link reconstruction to economic development and economic growth, and incorporate concepts of sustainability, distribution, human resource development and environmental management. 
  5. Democratize the country through active participation of the citizenry in decision-making. 
  6. Projects should strive for convergence between development and developing sections of the community through a strategic approach to development in South Africa’s “third world”-type (or developing) communities.

However, in 1996, a new macroeconomic policy, Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) was introduced to ensure a competitive and growing economy with sufficient levels of job creation; redistribution of incomes and opportunities in favor of the poor; equitable access to social services; and a safe and secure environment. The central elements of GEAR are:

  1. Dramatic cutting of government expenditure as a means of reducing the budget deficit before borrowing to 3% within a period of three to five years. 
  2. The strategy proposes that taxation be brought down to 25% of the GDP. 
  3. Government debt is cut back. 
  4. Growth should be export-led.
  5. Real interest rates remain relatively high. 
  6. Foreign exchange controls are phased out. 
  7. Wages become more flexible. 
  8. The role the environment plays in the economy is diminished.

There is an ongoing debate about the relationship between the RDP and GEAR. The impact of GEAR on the RDP policy is argued differently from the perspectives of social scientists, development practitioners and economists. This debate is closely linked to the debate over the success of the RDP, which emerged within a year of the 1994 elections. 

The differences in interpretation are found at every level of South Africa’s political and social structures. One view is that, with the government’s failure to meet the high expectations of many South Africans, the RDP policies were officially abandoned in 1996 and replaced with those of GEAR. An opposing view, voiced more frequently in development circles, is that the introduction of GEAR has had little influence at the local level, because of the strong commitment of partnerships and local government to RDP principles. Due to the effectiveness of RDP forums, development in communities with RDP forums continued until the end of 2019, in some cases. 

A concluding thought

In the world today, many people are concerned about the future due to global warming. In this complex global context, diversity caused by migration is often frowned upon. This has put more of a focus on the growing number of marginalized people. Community participation, understanding of each other, and fostering respect, could produce knowledge of what cities should become. However, the skills at work in this participatory and consultative process are not formally taught at most architectural institutions. This research hopes to address and fill the current gap on participatory methods. It becomes a tool for students and practitioners and adds to the development of a vibrant dynamic urban environment. It is only by listening to people that one truly learns from them. Cultural diversity is becoming more prevalent with global migration patterns. Therefore, listening and learning from other cultures can produce far richer environments. In turn, we are of the opinion that participatory design will become more and more important when creating future urban environments. ♦

Carin Smuts is completing her master’s research at the University of the Free State (UFS) in South Africa and is a founding member of CS Studio Architects.

Recommended Citation

Smuts, Carin. “Participatory Design Produces a Vibrant Dynamic Urban Environment.” Canopy Forum, March 20, 2024.