The second machine age, gender-based violence, global south, developing cities, poor infrastructure, influx, digitization, sustainability, Afro-futurism? We keep hearing the buzzwords over and over again but what does it all mean? How do these notions intersect spatially in response to the needs of future city developments? Cities are like ecosystems, collectively dependent on the surrounding environment. The larger and more complex they become, the greater the pressures and repercussions, namely: population growth, urban expansion, and physical resource scarcity.
Cities represent a specialization of human functions that have evolved from settlements to villages, villages to towns, towns to cities, and now cities to megacities. It can be said that this exponential trend of large scale communal living has discouraged social coherence amongst urban stakeholders, palpable in governance crises. The success of a city depends on its inhabitants, its government and the priority both give to maintaining a considerate urban environment. Better quality of life and civic harmony is defined by the quality of the urban landscape (Rogers, 1997). The supposed founders of architectural and urban thinking - Vitruvius, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, Ebenezer Howard, le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, and others - have already proposed static architectural visions of ideal cities, hoping to create a utopia.
With the recorded failure of such utopian attempts, contemporary master-planning must embrace new forms of cultural development standards in order to be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.
Context: masterplans in the African continent
A master-plan is a comprehensive plan of action that envisions the physical, social and economic capacity of a city’s future development (Byron, 2018). It provides a detailed account of how a city should look and grow, with regard to its affordability and accessibility in its economies, housing, and public infrastructure. (Byron 2018). Before the advent of computer-aided design (also known as CAD), these systems and processes of design were conducted by hand and physical demonstration. Today we have developed technological tools, such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) that has revolutionized the control, accuracy, and efficiency of complex growth urban development. Unfortunately, the historical conditioning of colonialism is still globally penalizing healthy urban development. For instance, large cities in developing countries, particularly in Africa, are located in some of the fastest-growing economic hubs of the world.
Unfortunately, many seem to have conventional master plans, latent with western urban ideologies that were imposed through colonial planning deeming them chaotic and inadequate. The agendas of these master plans were created to maintain colonial rule and in doing so were designed to socially and economically exploit and segregate colonized people. As a result, the current governing and economic systems in African cities are outdated and retain values that are misaligned with positive context-appropriate future developments. It is quintessential that new policy frameworks emerge, giving citizens participatory tools to forge economies that uplift a relevant value-system; one of community and shared responsibility.
Sustainable Development Goal 11 calls for “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” cities (United Nations, 2015).
Despite wide recognition and commitment across the globe, building inclusive cities remains a challenge. Today, a third of urban residents in the developing world still live in slums with inadequate services. In addition, the majority of future urban growth is expected to take place in Asia and Africa, regions that are home to some of the poorest countries in the world (World Bank, 2019). If inclusive cities are to be that, they should be based on considerate design patterns that empower marginalized people out of poverty traps, driven to improve overall quality of life. As Amartya Sen describes it, a development as freedom approach to spatial thinking. We see three main inclusions:
1) Social Inclusion: Afrofuturism as a medium with which to reflect on identity and its plurality. Wakanda becomes a sociopolitical tool of inspiration through science fiction.
Afrofuturism, coined in 1993, seeks to reclaim black identity through art, culture, and political resistance (Peters, 2018). It is an intersectional lens projecting brighter possible futures or alternate realities in which marginalized black and African cultures do not hide in the shadows of the Eurocentric mainstream. Embedded in the realm of science-fiction, it exalts a decidedly African identity and consciousness. Therefore, being a powerful tool to trigger collective perceptions of social inclusiveness. One looks to Wakanda, the science-fictional East African nation known as the world’s most technologically advanced country from Marvel’s 2018 box-office film: Black Panther. (Manseau, 2018). For the first time, Wakanda represented a mainstream depiction of a non-poverty-stricken African nation, which marked a monumental moment for Africans, across all disciplines, across all classes. After all, Afrofuturist films like Black Panther fuel a premonition of sorts in the past - in both a daunting and optimistic tone. In the case of Wakanda, the potentials for rethinking the form and extremities of cities based on Otherness has catalyzed new ideas that, yes, have addressed the feasibility and viability of reinforcing the experience of being an ideal black body within a black utopia. In other words, the importance of Afrofuturism comes from its ability to connect people of African descent not only to their origins but to each other. It is from here where inclusive design principles can fail, evolve and develop into the possible future of a potentially realistic Wakandan nation.
2) Economic Inclusion: Using innovative technological developments, such as BIM software, to transparently regulate financial efficiency and boost effective governance of urban growth.
It is no secret that localized economies are linked to a global network of exchanging resources, highly influenced by national governance. As the second machine age has begun, digital innovation has transformed the way society interacts with the environment. Technology has become a political tool: creating and monopolizing jobs. Therefore, technological innovation can influence the economic inclusion of urban residents by regulating their ability to benefit from economic growth or not.
This is where powerful digital software, like BIM, become critical for urban inclusion. When used optimally with an agenda of inclusion, BIM has the ability to catalyze a design paradigm shift which systematically brings Afro-futuristic impossibilities to reality, de-connoting the strict rationality of digitisation itself. Due to a lack of governance and sustainable maintenance, the survival of and navigation within African urban contexts are simultaneously rational and irrational in their thinking, spirits and actions. More so, where informal markets dominate and characterize the functioning of social, economic and political ecosystems, the need to acknowledge that the interplay between rationality and irrationality has the potential for advanced opportunities for localised responsive design.
3) Spatial inclusion: Critical regionalism as an architecture of locally built resilience and community empowerment.
Spatial inclusion requires the provision of affordable necessities such as housing, water, and sanitation. Lack of access to essential infrastructure and adequate services are a daily struggle for many disadvantaged households (World Bank 2018).
By promoting a participatory engagement that individuals and communities have in the design of their own houses, streets, and surroundings; such a design approach could revolutionize the quality and relevance of the urban form. The homogeneity of modern cities erases variety of lifestyles and arrests the growth of individual character, a clear reason why utopian master plans have failed. By acknowledging the presence of local idiosyncrasies, environmental quality standards can be improved by new ways to construct organizational structures based on empowering all members of society through diversity and by expanding collaboration. Through a thorough study of informal contexts, idiosyncrasies can be revealed opening up solutions to a variety of social processes and quality standards born out of context. Understanding the details in this sense becomes important in debunking the labels of the informal being ineffective and the formal being effective. A critical regionalist approach to fluctuating urban conditions as Frampton describes, seeks to complement our normative visual experience by readdressing the tactile range of human perceptions (Frampton,1983, p29). So we ask the question… how do these inclusive agendas interact in real life?
Case study: speeding taxis and hot amagwinya
It is an early winter morning in the buzzing and hustling city of Johannesburg. Majority of South Africans rely on the informal minibus taxi system to travel, mainly to and from work. Of the 50% of households that use public transport, 76% of them rely on the informal taxi system (StatsSA, 2015). For the ordinary worker, the day begins early, leaving home in the dark hours of 4AM to reach work by the beginning of business which for most blue-collar workers begins at 7AM. Due to the aftermath of Apartheid spatial planning which sought and successfully managed to separate groups according to race in South Africa prior to 1994, majority of low income earners still live in townships and informal settlements furthest away from economic nodes where the standard of living is better, let alone dignified. For the worker, in the mass majority of low-income earners in South Africa, the day begins extremely early, with no time to prepare a breakfast.
Many commuters also rely on taking multiple taxis and add time to accommodate for interchanges. The taxi only leaves when it has managed to fill it’s, often over safety-regulated, capacity. Due to the high demand of passengers requiring food during these peak hours, another prevalent informal business has emerged and relies on the existence of these peak hour pockets. At major taxi stops, that is to say, spots where taxis stop frequently and drop off many people, there are traders, almost every time - women. These women await a surge of customers getting off taxis which speed off to catch their next customer waiting at another spot on the side of the road. These women wait, sitting on ad hoc bricks with a bucket full of hot fat cake doughnuts commonly known as amagwinya. Informal trading has become a common feature in all urban areas in both major cities and smaller towns and wherever there is traffic such as at bus stops, train stations, truck stops and, of course, the streets (In On Africa IOA, 2013).
For the everyday worker, these spots are embedded in memory by routine. One knows where to ask the taxi driver to stop, to get off and to purchase a bag of amagwinya. The informal taxi system has taken the role of the public transport system due to a defunct state public transport system. For any newcomers who may want or need to use the informal taxi system, these spots are difficult to find and navigate, as no map exists at entry. Efficient transport systems that serve the masses have recognizable signage for familiarity and navigation. In Milan for example, one needs not to understand Italian or the city layout to recognize a bright big M yellow sign demarcating a metro underground train stop. Of course, explicit signage demarcation requires an effective permanent infrastructure with fixed stops and interchanges. However, in developing countries such as South Africa, these transport systems are dynamic, with taxi stops and interchanges shifting according to supply and demand. When a new mall opens, supplying new jobs to commuters, a new taxi stop on the side of the road adjacent to the mall quickly emerges. Taxi’s stop illegally, dropping commuters at their place of work: a business that capitalizes on externalities. A ripple effect occurs, where the new taxi stop becomes a stage for amagwinya sellers supplying commuters with food at peak hours: another business of externalities. How do commuters, navigate the taxi system without understanding the blueprint from familiarity? Of equal concern, and perhaps of greater urgency is that through the lens of the amagwinya seller. The sites at which amagwinya sellers trade are yes, a stage for making money, but in no way accommodate the needs of women selling at peak hours. How do we design appropriately to respond to the multiple needs and potentials of this stage?
Design: The Amagwinya pop-up Kiosk-Box
The immediate conventional spatial consideration that arises is deciding on an approach that is either permanent or impermanent. However, an Afro-futuristic outlook on space dissolves the binary thinking of approaching design in this way.
Our response is described by a disobedient object (Grindon & Flood, 2014): The amagwinya pop-up kiosk-box. This dynamic object initiates a plurality of various engagements, giving agency to what would ordinarily simply be a box generating a pop-up shelter. The object becomes a moveable structure, that can adapt to the informal flexibility of the urban nomads: traders, street vendors, informal taxi and bus drivers and many more…
Addressing the needs of the often forgotten nomads of the urban context becomes a fundamental start in developing a form of inclusive architecture, placing relevance and value in the informal civilian.
By employing object design, the prototype is impermanent and transient giving room for it to capitalize on the dynamic condition of global southern conditions of flux. These pop-up structures serve multiple urban goers. They indicate major transport nodes in a fluctuating masterplan, allowing for the natural phenomena of spontaneity to occur as externalities shift according to informal systems; an ecosystem of flux. These objects become structures in the urban context, playing a navigational and trade infrastructural role. More importantly, at the crux, these structures respond to the needs of the urban nomad, improving conditions for their everyday economic transactions and experiences of the bustling public realm.
This design concept is currently being prototyped and will soon be under construction, therefore all working and design drawings are currently not disclosed. All rights of this idea are reserved by Matri-Archi(tecture). For any inquiries contact the authors at email@example.com
References and more reading
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