There is nothing ephemeral about a city, nor is there anything abstract about the consequences that flow from a poor design decision

Words by The editors | 20 May, 2014

We say this with optimism: design alone will not save the city. The Latin root of the word design speaks of mark making. Cities occupy and mark space in very real and physical terms. There is nothing ephemeral about a city, nor is there anything abstract about the consequences that flow from a poor design decision.

While important in debating the outcome of urban interventions, qualitative assessments like “good” and “bad” are not the central focus of this issue. Rather, our interest is in the human agents and actors who, in their capacity as engaged citizens, are variously retooling the functions, capacities and possible outputs of the places they inhabit. Rather than blandly accept that the human will to do, act and mark—in a word, design—will right what is wrong in so many cities in the global south, we want you to pause. What are our cities’ key infrastructural and developmental problems? Who is addressing them? In what manner? With what ideological motivation? To whose exclusion? All questions unearthed by architectural critic Fernando Serapião in his recapitulation of social housing design in Brazil, a story that inaugurates our collaborative partnership with USP Cidades at the University of São Paulo. The city, an expression par excellence of citizenship, is however also increasingly abstracting the rights of city inhabitants. What, we foreground in this issue, is the role of the citizen in city making? Is it possible that instead of being passive recipients of design interventions, citizens can be co-authors or design partners? It is an idea explored in a conversation between urban thinkers Richard Sennett and Ash Amin. Responding to Amin’s query whether his recent thinking on cities proposes “a pluri-verse of 1001 hands doing the crafting”, Sennett responds: “One of the practicalities of this is that most people, because they’re not being pushed to develop their visual intelligence, create the most conservative designs—because that’s what people know.” Which prompts a further line of questioning. What are the limits of co-opting citizens as design partners? Cities, after all, need to address a number of fundamental variables, many of which are beyond the ken of people diverted by real life dramas (school fees, groceries, credit limits, social media updates, even where to go to the toilet without fear or loss of dignity).

This issue of Cityscapes is built on the proposition that five deep logics pertain to cities everywhere: 1) form,

2) metabolic flows, 3) spatial dynamics, 4) choices by/of residents, and 5) political and fiscal stability.

There is a tendency, however, especially in Cape Town (where this magazine is crafted by a half-dozen hands), to reduce talk about design to objects, in the process excluding issues of process and institutions. As part of her lengthy walk across Cape Town, journalist Kim Gurney attended hearings of a commission of inquiry tasked with investigating complaints received by the provincial government about inefficiencies in three police stations in Khayelitsha. The testimonies of Khayelitsha residents, including Nontebeko Nduna, who is forced to do her ablutions on vacant land, point to systemic failings and incapacities that disfigure an entire community, an entire city, a whole country. Good reading.