Wednesday, 23 March 2016

‘Joburg has its own momentum’: towards a vernacular theorisation of urban change

Aidan Mosselson (University of Johannesburg and Gauteng City Region Observatory)
This paper came out of my recently completed PhD thesis. The aim of the PhD project was to examine the effects which private-sector led regeneration is having on Johannesburg’s inner-city and the communities who are living there. The arguments and theoretical positions which I develop in this paper emerged largely as a response to what I found to be the inadequacies of the contemporary urban studies literature to do justice to and make sense of the changes taking place in the area.

The research involved 9 months of qualitative fieldwork, during which 103 interviews were conducted. A broad range of actors were interviewed, including social and private-sector housing providers, building managers, employees of agencies financing urban regeneration projects, local government officials, security personnel, members of the local Community Policing Forum (the South African equivalent of a neighbourhood watch), activists and residents living in renovated inner-city buildings. These interviews were supplemented with participant observation, including attending practitioner workshops, planning meetings and social events in the inner-city and participating in security patrols.

As the research unfolded I found that what I had initially hypothesised to be a negative and exclusionary process was in fact much more nuanced and complicated. The findings which emerged constantly pointed to diverse practices, intentions, ideologies and outcomes which consistently did not add up to one coherent narrative or conclusion. Whilst the process is private-sector led, the state remains proactively involved; housing companies are commercially-oriented and profit-seeking, but they still actively find ways to provide housing for lower-income communities; making the area conducive to upgrading and investment relies on, at times heavy-handed, private policing, but even amongst those doing the policing there are discourses and practices around community-building, social cohesion and inclusion; privatised and securitised public spaces are being created, but these are creating opportunities for people to utilise and enjoy these spaces in ways they previously could not; evictions were rife at the start of the process and poor communities continue to be displaced, but at the same time other marginalised and previously excluded people are being integrated into the central region of the city.

I explain these findings and dynamics as emerging out of the politics which characterise contemporary South Africa and the particular lived and material realities of the inner-city. Whilst the post-apartheid government has been criticised for the widespread adoption of neoliberal policies and practices, there are also concerted efforts in place on the part of the state and local actors which serve more inclusive and redistributive ends. Despite ongoing tensions, deprivations and inequalities, South African society has also undergone momentous change. I demonstrate that the conditions of democratic transition and the developmental/redistributive inclination in policy frameworks and state projects has created dispositions amongst those involved in urban regeneration which, whilst still retaining commercial/neoliberal impulses, also prompt them to conceive and practice regeneration in ways which make inclusion of the marginalised real priorities and outcomes. Simultaneously, the inner-city is characterised by dire living conditions, poor service delivery and maintenance standards and precarious livelihoods. Rather than being disconnected from these circumstances, urban regeneration practitioners have internalised them and formulate responses which are sensitive to the difficulties which many people living in this environment face. They therefore adopt more socially–aware and developmentally-focussed practices, even though they remain confined within a market-based paradigm. I consequently theorise the contradictions, ambiguity and hybridity of the process as a vernacular approach to urban regeneration.
Through this theorisation I try to demonstrate the importance of understanding the motivating logics, spatial and structural conditions and agency which shape all processes of urban change. My approach is informed by and aims to contribute to post-colonial theory and comparative urbanism. The paper draws on the emphasis in post-colonial theory that concepts and ideas emanating from the West are parochial and limited in their scope. Therefore rather than reading the process unfolding in Johannesburg as another iteration of globally pervasive gentrification, the paper argues that it is a process shaped by the logics, politics, competing agendas and idiosyncrasies of a particular spatial and temporal context. But drawing on and adding to the comparative urbanism literature, it argues that rather than seeing this case as a unique exception, it is one which draws attention to the multiplicity, diversity and contradictions which are shared by all urban societies. The article therefore aims to be propositional in advocating vernacular approaches to researching and understanding process of urban change. It is hoped that a vernacular framework does justice to the variety which exists in all urban settings and calls attention to the complex dynamics and outcomes which are always unfolding. Rather than seeing gentrification or neoliberal restructuring as inevitable outcomes of global processes, research needs to understand the particular confluences of agendas, actions and factors which give rise to these outcomes, or potentially prevent them from occurring. Thus although the research and this paper tells a unique story, the aim is to understand why it is unique and, through this, to inspire other studies which take individual cases seriously, but weave them into a shared account and appreciation of urban diversity.    

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