Learning to fall in love

I’ll come clean. I’m profoundly envious at the capacity of Brazilians to do just about everything with flair and panache. Rewind to the dramatic waves of colour that filled Brazilian streets when citizens (with diverse and divergent agendas) decided to give FIFA the proverbial finger in protest against the absurdity of the World Cup investment requirements in terms of cost, extravagance and loss of sovereignty. As our social media and television screens illuminated with surreal admixtures of carnival, political theatre, street battles and militant uprisings, South Africans despaired at their incapacity to pull off the same levels of mass resistance and imaginative protest when the FIFA regime passed through our neck of the woods.

This powerful display of popular revolt was striking, because for years I have been admiring the variety of innovative urban policy and management instruments under construction across Brazil as city governments, citizens and civil society laboured to give effect to the provisions in the Statute of the City. In other words, not only did Brazilians fare much better than most at democratising their cities, but now they also seem to be singular in changing the rules of engagement when it comes to hosting beauty-pageant-like mega-events. Democratic envy was definitely in order.

Brazil’s urban policy innovations include a willingness to tackle the thorny issue of landownership by introducing new legal criteria that stipulate that the social value of property trumps private rights. A provision that is exclusively in the realm of dreams and fantasy for South Africans labouring under the effects of colonial-Apartheid practices of land dispossession and the concomitant concentration of wealth in the hands of the white minority.

Another dimension of the Brazilian approach has been the profoundly important legal acknowledgement that irregular and informal ways of building cities are a fact of contemporary life and need to be understood and supported – i.e. regularised – if cities are going to come to terms with their own essence. It has taken democratic South Africa more than a decade to come to this conclusion as reflected in the Breaking New Ground policy adopted in 2004. But until now the government remains tentative and fearful to give full expression to this commitment. The dominant urban policy approach in South Africa since 1994 has been to see informal settlements as an aberration that needs excising through the provision of freestanding public housing; a model that could only be realised on the peripheries of cities in mono-functional settlements devoid of public life, social infrastructure, and economic activity. It was, and remains, a profoundly top-down model in which the government bestows its munificence on a ‘grateful’ citizenry. This legacy stands in sharp contrast to the implicit Brazilian confidence in the capacity and power of ordinary citizens to take control of the consolidation and incremental formalisation of their neighbourhoods, connected with intelligent design.

In this regard it is instructive to cite the impressive campaign of the São Paulo municipality to run a national competition – Renova SP – to secure the proposals and services of interdisciplinary teams, led by architects, to address the unique conditions of favelas in the city. Significantly, the purpose of the competition was to promote innovative design proposals on the explicit assertion that auto-constructed communities reflect a form of tenacious urbanism that should be acknowledged and respected, with an eye to incorporating its logics into proposals for consolidation, informed by the opinions and desires of the residents themselves.1 Despite the fact that South Africa has processed well over 3.2 million public housing opportunities since 1994, it is inconceivable that architects or other urban designers are ever enrolled in these processes. Instead, South Africa remains wedded to a Fordist roll-out model of poorly designed, poorly constructed, and anti-contextual public housing, making an already difficult context a lot worse.

This example underscores a profound cultural and epistemic difference between the Latin and African contexts. Brazil, and most other Latin American countries, comes from a tradition in which urbanism is fused in the cauldron of architecture, design, philosophy and social theory. In the African context, design-based disciplines are generally invisible but also disconnected from thought about the social and political life of cities. As a result, Latin urbanists see the city as a coy lover; a sensual challenge that can only be engaged through a subtle mixture of paying careful attention, seduction, experimentation, and a deep commitment to understanding and supporting it to realise its full potential. In contrast, African urbanists perceive the city as a stubborn, naughty and irredeemable stepchild in need of stern discipline and paternalistic/authoritarian guidance.

It is for this reason that it is absolutely consistent for many Brazilian city governments to recognise the importance of slum upgrading, public culture and social infrastructure in activating the energies of neighbourhoods and the city at large. According to Teresa Caldeira, the penetration of democracy can be seen in the degree to which living conditions of people in the peripheries have improved: ‘In spite of continuing poverty, in the past decades urban infrastructure and the material quality of space in São Paulo have improved considerably, thus bettering the conditions of the life of the poor in the improved peripheries.’2 This in turn, she points out, has given rise to a number of rogue and unpredictable cultural practices, especially among the youth in Brazilian cities.

Of course I am not as naïve as to believe that Brazilian cities have got it all figured out, or that any of the suite of urban reform measures instituted by the Statute of Cities work perfectly. I accept the conclusions drawn by Edesio Fernandes on the remaining challenges surrounding participatory budgeting, masterplanning processes to concretise social zoning, slum upgrading and so forth.3 Yet, the vibrant Brazilian experiment in democratic and inclusive city building remains profoundly important for debates in South Africa and other members of the BRICS axis. A brief update on contemporary developments in South Africa in the urban domain will clarify this assertion.

In 2012, the National Planning Commission unveiled a twenty-year plan for South Africa. The plan asserts:

Reshaping South Africa’s cities, towns and rural settlements is a complex, long-term project requiring major reforms and political will. It is, however, a necessary project given the enormous social, environmental and financial costs imposed by existing spatial divides. […] Transforming human settlements is a large and complex agenda requiring far-reaching policy changes and shifts in household, business and government practices. Planning for transformation happens within an uncertain context and requires foresight, resilience and versatility, as well as updated information and continually revised knowledge.’4 This statement reflects a coming of age in the urban policy debates in South Africa. In its wake, the national government commissioned the preparation of the Integrated Urban Development Framework. This policy is likely to make a strong case for a number of the elements of the Brazilian model to be indigenised in the South African context, alongside a strong push for reorienting urban policy to foster resilient and inclusive cities as a central strand in the national efforts to foster a green economy.

It is envisaged that city-wide, long-term planning and management instruments such as growth management strategies will have to be produced for all major cities and towns. These will have to articulate spatial frameworks, infrastructure plans, land assembly strategies, and resource efficiency targets connected to innovative financing tools. It is self-evident that the Brazilian experience with masterplanning and social zoning will prove instructive for South Africa.

These macro frameworks at the city-wide or regional scale will need to be reinforced by neighbourhood-level planning and community management systems. Since citizens will be central to the formulation of these, public investments will be required to engender citizen skills in spatial literacy, budget interpretation and community project management. Again, the now deeply entrenched methodologies of community-driven planning and management in many Brazilian favelas can offer crucial insights. Moreover, South Africa will have to draw heavily on the rich tradition of participatory design that has become the hallmark of radical incrementalism across many Brazilian and Latin American cities such as Medellín and Rio de Janeiro. My hunch and hope is that such exposure could make the difference in changing the mindsets of South African policy makers and citizens so that they too can fall in love with their imperfect cities.

1 For details on the competition and its outcomes, see São Paulo Municipality, (2011) Renova SP. Concurso De Projetos De Arquitetura E Urbanismo, Series: Novos Bairros de São Paulo, São Paulo Municipality, 2011.
2 Teresa Caldeira, ‘Imprinting and Moving Around: New Visibilities and Configurations of Public Space in São Paulo’, Public Culture, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2012, pp. 385–419.
3 Fernandes (p. 298) argues that participatory budgeting ‘… have not called into question the exclusionary nature of the overall land and urban development model, especially as they have not significantly supported the strengthening of a more inclusive framework for land governance.’ At a more superficial level, they could also be argued to have become overly bureaucratised and performative. See: E. Fernandes, ‘Participatory Budgeting Processes in Brazil – Fifteen Years Later’, in: Kihato, C. et al (eds.) Urban Diversity. Space, Culture and Inclusive Pluralism in Cities Worldwide. Washington DC & Baltimore, Woodrow Wilson Centre Press & John Hopkins University Press, 2010.
4 National Planning Commission, Our Future – Make it work. National Development Plan 2030. Pretoria, National Planning Commission, The Presidency, 2012, p. 47, p. 289.

Edgar Pieterse is Professor at and Director of the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town and presently a Fellow at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies.