How we put African urbanism on the map

Professor Edgar Pieterse explains how the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town has gained a global reputation as a leading knowledge centre on global urbanism. 

University of Cape Town UCT

Professor Edgar Pieterse is the director of the African Centre for Cities, which aims to contribute to imaginative policy discourses and practices to promote vibrant, just and sustainable cities. 

Over the past decade, the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has become an authority on African urbanism. Professor Edgar Pieterse, director of the centre, tells the story of how an experimental research institute grew into a leading intellectual voice in global urbanism. 

Asking better questions

Real-world problems have always been at the heart of the ACC’s approach. “When the ACC was founded as an interdisciplinary UCT Signature Theme in 2007, our mandate was to be responsive to issues facing Cape Town,” explains Professor Edgar Pieterse, ACC director. 

But instead of starting out by defining the problems facing Cape Town, the ACC’s founding researchers took an unusual approach: they listened. 

“We asked people who worked in the public sector and civil society what they thought were important issues,” says Pieterse. 

“This meant that as researchers, academics and students, we stepped outside traditional roles towards a deliberative context where we were not the experts. In short, we had to learn how to ask better questions.” 

Over time this approach generated the ACC’s core thematic concerns: the informal economy; hungry cities and urban food systems; urban resilience; and urban systems related to climate and other risks. 

Retaining a radical openness

At first the ACC relied on funding mainly from development agencies. According to Pieterse, the ACC soon realised that academic grant funding was a more sustainable way to ensure the longevity of multi-year research projects. 

“Funding from large research organisations like the International Development and Research Council is extremely difficult to get, but it also has two major advantages,” he explains. “First, it often requires comparative work, which has provided many opportunities for us to work with partners around the continent. Secondly, it encourages empirical work, an essential way to guard against our work becoming too rhetorical.” 

Using this funding, the ACC has created a sustainable model of multiple three- to five-year projects built around key themes. According to Pieterse this has also meant that the ACC could employ younger scholars while sustaining the academic output expected of an interdisciplinary research institution. 

“Even though we are an applied centre interested in grounded problems, I think we have managed to retain a radical openness: We are open to new theory, new practice, new methodologies,” says Pieterse. 

Local to global impact

Over the past decade, the ACC has become a leading voice in urban issues on a national, regional and global scale. “In Cape Town we have managed to have a profound impact on planning and policy,” says Pieterse. As examples he cites the construction of a knowledge partnership between the City and Province that has led to the creation of an energy transition plan for Cape Town and a digital tool that allows citizens and governments to track changes in land values. 

At a regional level, the ACC prepared the discussion document circulated to all African delegations before the 2016 UN Habitat Conference. “This was a significant agenda-setting opportunity,” says Pieterse. 

Questions surrounding governance – of how to co-produce knowledge, regulations and rules in the informal yet complex environments that often characterise African cities – have been a theme that has run through almost all of the ACC’s work. It was therefore significant that the ACC was tasked with drafting the chapter on governance for the world’s leading publication on urbanism, the World Cities Report. 

“It is a recognition of the ACC as a leading intellectual voice in the urban space,” says Pieterse.  

Exploring the obstacles to integration in Cape Town

Distressed at the lack of depth and historical memory displayed in recent debates around topics like gentrification and the land question, Pieterse designed a year-long series of conversations, called Integration Syndicate. 

“I saw an opportunity to create a space where people from opposite ends of the spectrum, including business, academia, government and non-governmental organisations, had a space to leave their identities at the door and just talk,” says Pieterse. 

The result of the sessions has been the identification of five ideas, or provocations, which offer the chance to create wide and lasting change in Cape Town. Provocations range from ideas around subsidising the minibus taxi network in Cape Town to including the means for high school students to create their own digital radio broadcasts. Each provocation has been tested in focus groups and was unveiled at a public event during July 2018 at Guga S'thebe, Langa. 

Looking back over the past 10 years of the ACC’s existence and his role as director, Pieterse says that he remains energised by the work that the ACC does. “As an engaged scholar I believe you have a responsibility to society to be unflinching in the face of evidence. Working as an urbanist, a lot of this evidence could be a source of depression but I find that it incites me to ask different questions. 

“The privilege and delight of having that responsibility is so profound that I refuse the choice between hope and despair.”

Story: Ambre Nicholson. Photo: Andy Mkosi.

University of Cape Town UCT

This story was published in the second issue of Umthombo, a magazine featuring research stories from across the University of Cape Town.

Umthombo is the isiXhosa word for a natural spring of water or fountain. The most notable features of a fountain are its natural occurrence and limitlessness. Umthombo as a name positions the University of Cape Town, and this publication in particular, as a non-depletable well of knowledge.

Read the complete issue of Umthombo online. 
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