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Everyday African Urbanism

Project Overview

Everyday Urbanism is a conceptual framework that filters out the macro picture of city life and instead focuses on the micro-spaces of everyday engagement and interaction. To re-imagine and re-define the meaning of urban life and ideally plot a different future/s, we first have to understand what is actually going on through the practices of the people who live there. The Africa Centre has applied this framework to its initial intervention – Food Security Lab. To date, the Food Security Lab has comprised 12 months of research within a community called Kanana in Gugulethu, Cape Town, South Africa. The research included over 600 residents and focused on how households with monthly incomes of R4,000 or less manage their food requirements. It examined: why do they purchase the food they do; where do they shop, how often; beyond resource constraints, what influences their food purchasing choices; at what income level is it possible to secure a high quality regular diet; and what are the environmental, social and psychological factors that may be preventing a strategic approach to food purchases and consumption? At the centre of this research was an exploration of how the local/immediate food suppliers (spaza shops) participate in creating an environment of food insecurity.

Why We Do It

Urbanisation can be defined as the rapid and massive growth of, and migration to, large cities. We are currently experiencing the second most important period of urban growth and transition in the history of the world and this process is almost entirely localised within the Global South. Statisticians have been measuring this transition since 1950 and expect it to continue until approximately 2030. Over this period, the Global South will see the urban share of its populations grow from 18 to 60%.

Although today 39% of Africa is officially urbanised, this figure hides enormous discrepancies across the continent – certain countries (all of the large African economies) and regions have already reached the 50% mark while others lag far behind. However, the reality of African urbanisation disproves the generally accepted principle that economic prosperity is associated with higher rates of urbanisation. In fact, Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) which represents over 90% of the continent, has the largest population in the world today living in slums and the most extreme depths of deprivation within these communities. Cities and towns in Africa have been growing in tandem with slums and informal economic activity. 62% of African urban dwellers live in slums and in SSA, only 20% of the population is linked to an electricity network; 40% to portable water; and 27% have access to sanitation. The reason that Africa’s rapid urbanisation has translated into the explosion of poverty, slum living, and gross inequity is of course, complex and manifold. One clear, material issue that is poorly understood is the lack of competent theory, appropriate policies, and good and visionary practice or governance at all levels of public and private sector leadership – city, regional and national. This is where we think we can actively contribute and actually redress some of the outcomes of Africa’s rapid urbanisation. It is clear to us today that the grand majority of public and private sector leadership in Africa is using policy frameworks and social and environmental interventions that are flawed, and that by and large are unable to come to terms with the reality and implications of rapid urbanisation. We are persuaded that to redirect the trajectory that Africa’s urban development is on, a new body of both theory and practice must be created. In other words, unless we can imagine and develop a more credible account of everyday urbanism, the desire for urban improvement will remain a frustrated yearning.

A significant resource of literature dealing with everyday urbanism already exists and holds the potential to establish common ground between the critical perspectives on urbanism from Northern city literatures and contexts with the growing work of scholars in the global South who seek to develop African-based urban theory. Everyday Urbanism is a conceptual framework that filters out the macro picture of city life and instead focuses on the micro-spaces of everyday engagement and interaction. To re-imagine and re-define the meaning of urban life and ideally plot a different future/s, we first have to understand what is actually going on through the meaning-making practices of the people who live there: the principle being that more often than not, theory is developed in the abstract and remains without practical application. While trying to understand and think about day-to-day life in multiple African cities, we have chosen five benchmarks to use as common denominators or unifying filters to which we can return, compare and build forward. These include: senses of belonging, attachments, zones of contact, deal making and lines of movement.

  • One. What are the senses of belonging that ordinary citizens feel, display, mobilise, or invest in? How does this change over time or according to different social contexts? Is a sense of belonging regulated by fluid or fixed rules? How does the work of belonging and social association impact on the spatiality of the city?
  • Two. Which attachments do city dwellers display? How does or should one attribute value to these attachments? Are attachments to consumables more or less important than social ones? Is this consideration of attachments relevant at all? How do conflicts over, particularly, consumer and gendered attachments shape inter-generational and inter-class conflicts in the social reality and/or spatial geography of a city?
  • Three. How can we define, uncover and understand the multiple zones of contact across a variety of social and identity boundaries? In other words, in most African cities there are counter-intuitive processes underway undermining with surprising ingenuity seemingly rigid divisions in society.
  • Four. Inherent within the conceit of daily practice, is the question of deal making. What are the elaborate and intricate processes inbuilt within agreements and underpinning all types of co-operation, necessary to achieve even modest access to cash, information, favours, goods, and the possibility of a reciprocal return in the future?
  • Lastly. Perhaps of greater symbolic importance, we will be exploring the various lines of movement and trans-section that ordinary people use to read, navigate, divide and represent their city. How do we remap the geography of connection, as well as the reality of its interconnectedness, across the city from the perspective of those who make these journeys all the time? If we take the care to represent accurately the navigational registers that underpin our daily routines as well as our more ambitious migrations to foreign lands and opportunities, a completely different geography of movement, open and closed spaces and the like can and will emerge.

How We Do It

FOOD SECURITY PILOT The initial manifestation of the Everyday Urbanism project is the Food Security Lab. Although South Africa is one of the wealthiest countries in Africa, it is also the most unequal. Measured by income, South Africa, and its cities in particular, have the largest levels of inequality on the planet. One of the most overt reflections of this disparity is manifested in the level of food insecurity that exists in South African cities. South Africa produces more than enough food to sustain its citizenry with the right balance of calories and nutrition, yet 11 million people are consistently hungry, go without regular meals, sacrifice a meal to feed someone else, or are not getting the right nutritional balance to optimise health, education and work functionality. Beyond this reality however, little is understood about how people below the household income of R4,000 per month manage their food requirements. Why do they purchase the food they do? Where do they shop, and how often? Beyond resource constraints, what influences their food purchase choices? At what income level is it possible to secure a high quality, regular diet? What are the environmental, social and psychological factors that may be preventing a strategic approach to food purchases and consumption within these families? Understanding the answers to these questions and modelling alternative solutions to the existing food purchase and consumption paradigms, provided the motivation for creating the Everyday Urbanism Food Security Lab project. The Lab’s first manifestation focused on an in-depth review of these questions through the lens of the spaza shop. Spaza shops proliferate low-income communities and often function as the sole or primary point of access to the food economy within a community. As such, gleaning an in-depth understanding of what food is made available and why, what spaza shop customers want, what food purchase choices they make, what influences these decisions and how to change both what is sold and what is consumed, can leap our collective knowledge forward in developing solutions that address the food security challenges in South Africa. The focus of the Food Lab was on a section in the Cape Town community of Gugulethu called Kanana. Kanana is comprised of just less than 4,000 households, all shacks, where 90% have electricity and 1% has running water and ablution facilities. The research involved over 600 people who participated in a three-part data collection process. The first part measured the participants’ own belief systems about their eating and food purchasing behaviours; the second part collected 30 days of food diaries, where detailed information was tracked by all participants about their eating and purchasing behaviours; and the third part collected data regarding the motivations behind their eating and purchasing behaviours. The findings and conclusions will be available for review by 31 May. Post the release of these findings, the project will then migrate to the solutions phase. The intention is to test various interventions that make healthy, affordable food available, and motivate more healthy eating behaviour. The first interventions based on the research are planned to start in July 2014.

With Thanks

Partners