Over the next months while the Design with the Other 90%: CITIES exhibition is on display at the United Nations Headquarters in New York several individuals whose own research explores the exhibition’s subject matter have been invited to write blog entries sharing their insights, related research and projects. – Cynthia E. Smith, Curator of Socially Responsible Design, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

Design as a tool to support the political power of the poor in Cape Town — moving from a dream to reality.

It is time to rethink the significance of design in our urbanizing world. This is one of the many things that I have learned from communities linked to Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Design can be seen as a political tool to support the poor to bridge the divides that exist in cities in the Global South.  Consider a story of just one small community that has become the spark for work across one of the biggest cities in Africa. There’s an area in Cape Town, South Africa, called Philippi, which has many informal neighborhoods with shacks almost literally on top of each other. Along Sheffield Road, there is a small neighborhood of 167 shack households. The shacks there were locked in a tight configuration where the only way to walk through the area was through a narrow maze of dark alleys. There were no toilets and only a couple water points.  This land was reserved for future widening of the road. Therefore, the city government had no plans to develop the area.  

Sheffield Road residents discuss a plan for "re-blocking" a cluster of shacks in the neighborhood.

But the community used design as a tool to (1) organize itself, (2) plan its space, and (3) negotiate with the city. Led by the women in the community, they began saving small amounts of money. They also performed their own socioeconomic household survey and drew a map of the existing neighborhood layout. These residents also worked with a community architect from a local NGO, the Community Organisation Resource Centre, to design a method for rearranging the shacks in the settlement to open up public space. They discussed the existing social relationships that existed between neighbors and agreed to arrange the neighborhood into clusters of about 15 shacks. In the meantime, the Cape Town city government, impressed by the initiative of the community, decided to bring toilets and water infrastructure to the neighborhood. This was despite the fact that, according to the city’s own rules, no development should occur on a road reserve. On the day when the first cluster of 15 shacks moved, the change was remarkable. The cluster was arranged around a common courtyard. That very same day, the women in the cluster erected a washing line spanning the courtyard. Now, when I go to Sheffield Road nearly the entire neighborhood is organized in this way. Usually children are playing and parents are chatting outside, looking after their children with a watchful eye. The neighborhood is a model for communities throughout the city. Communities from other settlements come to Sheffield Road to exchange lessons and strategies for upgrading their own settlements.  This Informal Settlement Network has come together and partnered with the city government to work on more than twenty such projects throughout the city. So the work of design in one neighborhood has become a seed for a city-wide process.

Residents of informal settlements throughout the city of Cape Town meet with municipal officials on-site in a new courtyard in the Sheffield Road neighborhood.

The lack of democracy and political inclusion in the halls of decision-making power produces exclusion from services, transport, employment, adequate shelter, and legal rights. The design of the home, the neighborhood, and the city is the foundation on which ordinary poor people are building networks of knowledge and political power. As architects, designers, planners, academics, and politicians, begin to recognize the work that the poor are already doing, they will have to imagine new kinds of partnerships with organizations of the poor. These are partnerships to include the poor in institutions that can produce something other than the divided and unequal cities emerging today.

Benjamin Bradlow works with Shack/Slum Dwellers International documenting the work of SDI-affiliated community organizations throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America and is currently a candidate for a Masters in City Planning in the International Development Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All image credits: Benjamin Bradlow/Shack/Slum Dwellers International

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