Professor Edgar Pieterse
Edgar is a Professor in the Department of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at the University of Cape Town and he is the Founding Director of the African Centre for Cities. You can listen to our conversation with Edgar in Episode 1 and Episode 3 of The DNA of Cities podcast.
Photo credit: Ronni Kurtz via Unsplash.
In your sense, Edgar, do cities have DNA? Can they have DNA? And is this concept more usefully understood as a literal application or as a metaphor?
I mean, I must confess I guess like all of us, we throw this idea around in the heat of the moment when you're on a podium or in a meeting. But it was really, really provocative to be asked by you to think about this a little bit more and have a more considered reflection on it. So these are still very off the top of my head. I haven't had oodles of time to prepare. But for me, it's very clearly not literal. It cannot be, because I don't think you can transpose the biological meatbag that we are into the multidimensional entity that an urban system is. So I think its primary utility is metaphorical.
I've been doing some intensive work again in Cape Town over the last few years, which came up to wrestle with the question of why social-spatial segregation is so stubborn and persistent in Cape Town. And it was a deliberative process where I involved numerous people. So a lot of my thoughts, I think, will be clouded by my Cape Town experience. And because you're asking about DNA, because I was born here and the city is, I guess, in my DNA in some ways, it will be my primary reference point. But I'm happy to reflect on the broader African urban condition, if you wish, with specific prods.
So, yeah. So for me, it's definitely a metaphor. And the most important thing about DNA, of course, is that it captures one’s inherited qualities. So what gets passed on generationally and how that blends with an environmental context to make a complex psychosocial human being.
And of course, as soon as we go to questions of inheritance, in our context, it takes you right back to the colonial encounter and to questions of violence and how so much of what we wrestle with today, both in terms of the identity or identities, plural, of the city and its pathologies, can be traced back to that origin moment in some way or the other. And a lot of, I think, the attempt to make sense of that is to recognise that at the heart of it are questions of violence and shame. And the compensatory mechanisms for that, of course, is denial and repression, and so to repress those dimensions of one's identity. And I think if one wants to identify a city that is an exemplar of living in denial of itself, it would be Cape Town. And so this idea of how, when and how a city can reproduce a sense of self in denial of its origins and history is for me, I guess, in reflecting on this, one of the most powerful utilities of this metaphor in thinking about the nature of the city.
Let's now jump to the question about the limitations of this idea. I'd love to hear reflections on that in relation to everything that you've just been speaking about.
Yeah. So why I think there's limitations is because, of course, even though human beings – and we now know the brain is so complicated that despite all of the hype around A.I. and so forth there's going to be at least another century before machines will be able to emulate even a fraction of the complexity of the human brain. And so there's an inherent complexity and incapacity to contain and fully grasp the biological and psychological functioning of a person. But still, it is contained within a body and it's contained within a psyche and it's contained within, I guess, the DNA signature. Whereas cities, of course, it's an amalgam of not just a multiplicity of those, but also the interactions between those bodies and other systems.
And I think even more, in a more complicated way, it's not so much the other material systems, but the cultural systems which are inherently beyond resolution. You can't find an identity or descriptor or a form of accounting that can cover that diversity because at its core is a fundamental set of contradictions that are irreconcilable. Now, of course, the psyche is similar in terms of the subconscious and the conscious. There's irreconcilability there. But I think that the scale question and the magnitude of complexity with the city makes the metaphor – so there's an entry point for me to have a set of conversations, but it cannot stand in as an analytical mechanism to really understand a city because it will be too limited in terms of what we look at.
So that's my discomfort with it. But I think as a thought experiment and as a way of thinking about the inheritances that we have in urban spaces and the interaction between that inheritance and the environment around it that's obviously fascinating. And I think it opens up those questions in an interesting way.
So, Edgar, I think it would make sense if we invite you to reflect a bit on Cape Town then before we go on to the more set questions, because these issues of inheritance and of conflict and violence and denial and as it were, these irreconcilable dimensions and tensions and this multi-scale thing, give us, in a sense, if you'd like to, your picture of how that plays out in Cape Town.
So – I'll send you a link to it – I ran a studio called the Integration Syndicate, which brought together 25 leaders from different sectors in Cape Town. And the idea was to meet once a month for nine sessions in a highly curated process and then have a meal together at the end. And we used an art gallery space so that people felt out of their usual environments. And also, we could really play in the space, if you will. And then at the end of that, the idea was to say, how can we reframe the question of spatial inequality in Cape Town and not end up every single time with a very banal question about racial integration, and secondly, gentrification in the inner city, which really only speaks to about 60000 people, whereas it's a city of four million people and it's a metropolitan region. And so in the imaginary, there was no capacity to think at a metropolitan scale about questions of integration.
And so that was the intent why I did it, because I got so frustrated with the public discourse around this obsession with gentrification. And then at the end of it, we generated five provocations, which was a response to our collective understanding as that was forged. And then I convened five focus groups on each of those with stakeholders in the city with a direct vested interest in each. And then we had a very heavy design component throughout. So everything was heavily illustrated. And we used visualisations as a way of bringing different people into the conversation.
And then I ended the process with a public festival of ideas in Langa, where we used a cafe-style technique for everyone to have an opportunity to spend an hour with each provocation and respond to it and so on. And then I've collected all of that into a book, and I'll send you the link. And the book captures the process and the arguments because I wanted to demonstrate we can have these citywide conversations in a different way. And part of why we are stuck is because we don't spend enough time curating the conversation so that we can get to the deeper underlying questions which everyone is afraid of. And then they latch onto whatever's popular in the contemporary discourse at the time, whether it's gentrification or it's shopping malls or whatever the case may be.
Anyway. So the point is that I was really struck in that conversation about the inability people have to think about precisely this question of intergenerational trauma. Right? And so in the case of Cape Town, you have a city which is upper middle income. It's got everything going for it. You know, diverse economy, incredible nature. One of the five top tourism hotspots in the world, an incredibly culturally rich population, which lends itself to a diverse economic strategy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, four universities, oodles of talent everywhere and so on. And yet the city is consistently regressing on every single metric, whether it's the economy, it's jobs, it's cultural identity and so on. And also it has the highest rate of social violence in the country. And, of course, South Africa's in the top 10 in the world. It's got the highest rate of communicable diseases like TB and it's got extremely high rates of interpersonal family-based violence, particularly paedophilia and so forth.
And so a big part of that, I'm pretty sure, one can trace back to the colonial encounter and what was built on top of that. And of course, it's not just the question that, of course, demographically speaking, Cape Town is predominantly mixed race, which is a direct manifestation of the colonial encounter, of course. And yet there is no public discourse on slavery in the city. There's no heritage tradition, there's no memorialisation, there's no nothing in the curriculum. It is just this big public secret that no one – not just that people are in denial of it. There is no capacity to talk about it. There is no language for it. So that's one part of it.
But also, it, of course, found expression in the built environment So you have this combination of a built environment that reproduces Europe or England in particular at the tip of Africa, combined with not just that built fabric, but a set of planning and regulatory systems that defines a certain set of behaviours and a certain set of ways of being in the city as the norm and as the ideal, which again is the Eurocentric ideal and it not just criminalises, but it actively discriminates against indigenous cultures and beliefs and traditions and so forth. And so to live with that routinised cultural oppression day in and day out overlaid with this extreme economic inequality sets up an urban environment that, of course, is unsurprisingly extremely violent, extremely intolerant of difference. And it's an insidious gendered violence in particular, which is so acute that it is too traumatic to acknowledge and to deal with. Right? And so for me, that's the question is how does one intervene into that environment and build a cultural and identity literacy for young people, for black young people in particular, who have got zero economic trajectory or prospect, and help them rebuild a different narrative? That's, for me, the most important and the most urgent work that's required.
And so then one gets into questions of how does one use the arts and technology and storytelling and social media and so forth as resources to think through what a really bold and ambitious public program might be to target, for example all young people between the age of 13 and 17 in a systematic program of cultural engagement and innovation. And so the project touches a little bit on that. We come up with one provocation on how that could be done using podcasting and the idea of radio broadcasting as a mechanism to teach high school learners how to tell stories and to use their neighbourhoods and their own personal social histories and so on as the raw material for that. But then to embed that in a curriculum stream that could be proliferated throughout all high schools and so on. Of course, the Western Cape government is never going to do that. But we can dream. We can propose.
But yeah, but that's for me,, when I think of DNA and I think of your questions and I think of all the challenges we face is how do we take the absolutely necessary process of engaging with that inheritance as a resource to think through the depth of what transformation might mean, what would economic inclusion mean, and how do you begin to deal with it?
So in that sense, I think it's very powerful to get to a much more rigorous and substantive conversation than the usual policy templates that gets applied and run through the typical economic development strategy of the city of Cape Town. Anyway, that's way too much information. Let me stop here.
No it's not. I mean, apart from the fact that it's inspiring work, and thank you for telling us about it, you're also, I think, saying something very directly, which I just want to check: that the inherited DNA of a place may be actually very problematic, may be partially obscured, partially denied. But there is a therapy that you might apply, which is a process, if you like, of removing the denial and beginning to grapple with this inheritance in such a way that it becomes a source of storytelling and identity-making and new narrative creation, new mythbuilding, and if you like, you're beginning to define what that process could be. Therefore, in a sense, how can you not so much change your DNA, but how could you use that inheritance as a trigger to be, in a sense, different to what your DNA would otherwise have you be?
Absolutely. I mean, you can really kind of, I think, foreground the right questions which is I mean, the modern policymaking and the entire consultancy armature that supports that militates against that. because it wants this very neat, two by two matrix frame for everything that takes you from problem to solution. And by the way, we've got all the tools to get you to your solution. So you've got employers for the next three years thing. So, we both know that game very well. So I think that this, though, requires of you to say if you're serious about it, you've got to open yourself up to a lot less certain and a lot more risky set of processes.
And so the American case is interesting. I mean, if we look at the Black Lives Matter movement and how that translates into a public policy claim to defund the police, which is an unfortunate, I think, term because it's confusing for people. But the point is that it gets to a set of conversations that are almost impossible for Americans to have, but just near impossible. But of course, unless you do that, there's the cycle that we see repeating itself. They're just never going to change. Right? You've got to fundamentally at the root, transform how public policing occurs and restrict it down to a set of very core community-based functions and let the social services deal with all the stuff the police is currently doing that they shouldn't be doing and that they definitely are not trained for.
So that's my point, is that it will open up these very militant, very angry, but very necessary social clashes. And it's only in that context, I think, that you begin to get to a different narrative and a set of public policy ideas that could shift things in a fundamental way.
Yes. And you're making the point that you're designing a process to try to do that, which is a process of, to use some very funny old language, constructive engagement and participation, rather than seeing this process resulting in oppositionalism, violence, crime, et cetera, et cetera. So you're trying to create something which is a safe human process. I'm tempted to ask, are there not opportunities for philanthropic organisations to sponsor some of the work that you've been writing about?
Not in the South African context. There should be s the short answer, there isn't is the unfortunate answer, because South African philanthropy has still stuck in the 1970s. So they do soup kitchens and crèches, and most importantly, they sponsor rugby and cricket. You know, that's their thing, which there's a place for that. But the point is that anything related to research or to difficult social processes, this may be a very, very small pool of those. And interestingly, those ones that I can think of, they all create their own entities to do programming. So they fund themselves as opposed to existing institutions in society. Anyway, that's to answer that question.
So Edgar, what might constitute the metaphorical genetic code of a city as you see it?
Yeah, I think I've addressed that to a large extent, but I think it is for me if I think through the typology you started off with, Greg, I obviously do take the historical layering approach. That's very much my take on it. But I think that obviously that's not a static process. And because we've got this foundational encounter, extremely violent and brutal encounter that then morphs into this intergenerational set of pathologies that hardens with every generation. Because you have, of course, in our case colonialism gets transplanted by apartheid and so you end up with 350 years of a consistent project.
What is interesting, though, is the wholehearted embrace from the 1950s onward of a very specific Anglo-modernism. So everything from bureaucratic design and local government systems, for example, is like an exact replica of the British system to planning codes, plannings and so on and so on. But then when those things get dismantled, I guess by Thatcher at one point and then later on a New Labour in its own ways, we got a slightly different direction, of course.
But the one important thing to remember, and this is maybe way too tangential, but I think it's very relevant, is that when 1994 happens and we get a new constitution, we don't redesign the public sector. And that's linked to the fact that as part of the sunset clause, we wanted to keep senior white bureaucrats in the system. And so they get a guarantee of five years or something like that before a black leadership emerges in the public sector in South Africa. But the unintended effect of that was that we never questioned the fundamental assumptions of the bureaucracy. And at the city level in particular the basic rule book of, let's say, the big engineering departments like Water, Transport and so on, was almost identical to what it was in the 1920s and the 40s and 50s and so on. And the same sensibility of sectoral specialism and sectoral expertise remains the dominant factor. And so you end up with this very weird contemporary condition in post-apartheid South Africa, where you've got a set of very progressive policies because of one of the most progressive constitutions in the world that guarantees socioeconomic rights. And you've got a set of public institutions that are designed to do something completely different, but unable to give up any power. And so you just have this war of attrition where the power and the resources shift either between the legal services people or the finance people or one or two of the big engineering departments. But it's not able to adopt a strategic, intelligent capacity because it's just a leadership vacuum.
And so what that means, I guess, is that you've got this veneer of a very modern, open, forward-looking set of public policy sensibilities on top of a built environment that's the legacy of the racialised modernism. And at the bottom of all of that is that you end up with 60% of the population just screwed by the system. They've got no hope of a responsive governance system, except for at least accessing a certain set of minimum services, because there is the sense of engineering has to work. You know, we've got to demonstrate we can get water through the pipes, and so on. And that's the difference to a lot of African cities. But fundamentally, all of the resources and potential and opportunity is not harnessed because you sit with these contradictions. So that's the layering recently. And I would certainly, from a city leadership, public institutions, the possibility of city development, that for me would be the contemporary DNA of the city governance system in Cape Town.
You're saying something, again, very, very important, Edgar, if I may say, and you're talking about institutional lock-in and past dependency and the failure of institutions to emerge, so you're talking about an intergenerational inheritance, which creates a rigidity, which means that the institutional framework is not able to respond. I mean, you've said it very clearly. There's no need to repeat it. But I think what you're saying is that because it's not able to respond to the agenda, it therefore has the effect of reinforcing some of these intra-scalar, intra-social inequalities.
And I'll give you one very good example that became really stark. And you'll see that the figure in the book when I send you the link. But basically, the most manifest issue of this legacy is the fact that about 15% of Cape Town's households don't have access to decent sanitation. So they're reliant on communal sanitation in the informal settlements. And because of poor lighting and so on, women and children get raped. And at any given moment, only 20% of these collective toilets work. And so it's a level of neglect that is completely and utterly avoidable and unacceptable in a wealthy city like Cape Town.
Yet when you look at the CapEx projections for the city up to 2032, and this is the figure you'll see in the book, they allocate a disproportionate amount to the road infrastructure for the Bus Rapid Tranit (BRT) system, knowing the BRT system is a completely inappropriate policy response for a sprawled urban environment like Cape Town. It's totally unaffordable, can never pay its own way et cetera, et cetera, but because the transport engineers made a case and a certain mayor attached her own whatever to that agenda come hell or high water even though it is brutally obvious that if you just shave off 10 per cent of that CapEx budget over a decade, you can solve sanitation within two or three years and how the money is there. But they're just not able to see those inconsistencies, if you know what I mean. And that, for me, is one of the most telling examples of exactly that phenomenon. Things that are bloody obvious to do and will buy so much goodwill to project an interest in building a more inclusive and just society, they just don't do.
Do you want to take a couple of minutes to talk more generally about African urbanism now? Because in a way, you've alighted on a topic which is a good segue for that, to do with colonial governance inheritances.
No, no, that's fine. I'm happy to do that. So, of course, the sub-Saharan Africa is qualitatively different to South Africa just because obviously the economies are a lot smaller, tax bases are smaller, and you have a colonial inheritance of a very different scale. So, yeah, so typically everything is inverted. So we've got about 20% of households living formally in Cape Town. And in most sub-Saharan African cities it would be about between 65 and 80% would live informally. And you can imagine what all the infrastructure implications are of that. So that's the one observation to make.
The second observation is that only five out of the 54 African countries have economies that can be classified as diverse. And so what that means is that the vast majority of them are trapped by resource-extractive sectors that dominate everything. And essentially that gets compounded by a set of trading rules that make it impossible to break out of those value chains effectively because these countries don't have the bargaining power, even if they have the political interests to do that. And that, of course, is a very direct colonial inheritance because that's how the colonial economies were built. And then the multinationals from the Metropol economies remain behind and basically agreed to pay for all of the pilfering by the new independent elites. And the system just reproduced itself for a long time.
But of course, that was when urbanisation was 10, 15%. It's now anywhere between 40 and 60% in the majority of countries. And so you sit with vast populations that require basic services and. Infrastructure. And so what has happened in the last 20 years is as GDP has consistently gone up, averaged about 4.5% over the last 20 years, which is not shabby, how that is translated in the urban governance and decision making is that you've seen the emergence of gated estates for the elites. And even though a lot of the financing of that is not always directly off the books of the public sector, all of the enabling infrastructure to make that possible is and that then has an opportunity cost associated. So it means that of a very small tax base there's even less left to deal with the majority who live in slum conditions. So that's the one piece.
The other piece is that you have, which is the slightly different colonial inheritance, is that your economic and political elites are a lot more tightly integrated. And so you've got small elite structures that have a vested interest in this distorted development form. And the only political agreement they have is we don't like cities because opposition political parties, they breed there. And so let's starve them of capital and power. And so that's the – I mean, obviously that's drawn in a very exaggerated way and you'll get significant variances and so on. But in broad brush stroke, that is the inherited legacy we're dealing with in most of Africa, cities. And so we are waiting, we're trying to use the new national urban policy instruments to say at least 38 African countries have committed to do these things, which is a first step.
Of course, the quality is atrocious, and they just farm it out to some consultancy firm. But the point is that it's a start and at least one can begin to make certain claims about what would constitute something that's more effective and that's driven from deliberative fora and strategy at the city's scale. So that's slowly starting. That's quite a bit of the work we're doing at the moment, is to – and then to make an argument that you've got to drive them from the cities and build these multistakeholder platforms with local universities plugged in, with a very clear Research and Development agenda around how they can solve the infrastructure crisis and housing crisis, and then make claims for the macroeconomic strategy of a country to have a much stronger urban focus so that you have a political rationale for urban investment.
So that's the work we're trying to do. But I can tell you having done laboratory-driven policy development in Ghana and Tanzania with the Coalition for Urban Transition over the last three years, I mean, the politics is rough. It's just the political economy of these dynamics is so – yeah. So I don't know if that answers your question. I'm trying to be as pithy as possible, but yeah, but that's more or less how some of those issues manifest.
I think that's hugely helpful. And obviously there's a lot more depth behind what you've said. But in terms of describing the contours of the inheritance that these African cities have in common, I think that's brilliant.
You’ve covered so much of what we had asked you in many of your answers. I think there’s one final question that I have which is how – and I think you have explained this in the context of Cape Town, but how might cities understand their DNA and then how might they use it and what purpose does it serve?
Yeah, as I've intimated before, so for me, I think it is an extremely provocative and stimulating question to pose, and precisely for its metaphorical value. And it allows people, I think, to get to a set of conversations that validate different experiences of the histories of the city and how those histories manifest themselves in the contemporary era. And of course, that's the big issue urban conversations and discussions about what the city is, who it's for, where it's going. You know, that's usually typically an elite conversation, even though they talk a good participatory game. You know, those participatory approaches are often so stylised and performative that they don't really touch sides with, I think, some of the more unruly opinions and experiences of a given city. So I think as a provocation, to have a much more substantive and meaningful set of conversations and so forth, it's very powerful.
The second point I would make is that for me similar to, I guess, what is an implicit understanding of this body of work that you're doing is that a city succeeds when it's able to confront itself in the mirror in some ways, when it's able to deal with all its challenges and difficulties and so on. And I think that the more you trust processes that allow the full spectrum of democratic passion and opinion to surface, the more you can get to some of the nerve endings of these painful histories. I think when you work with those nerve endings, that's when you get to strategies that resonate and that can really feel that they belong to that place, and those processes of people feeling they are seen, they are heard, that they are part of a larger dynamic of placemaking, just that atmosphere that that generates and all of the energies that unleashes, that's what will make a place unique. Not getting a Guggenheim museum, not doing another bloody waterfront, not another convention centre and so forth. And I think the worst expression we see on the continent of getting this wrong is the thing where they go for all of those images which there's a place for them in a modern economy, but they give them the most kitsch African trappings. I mean, it is just so offensive.
And to give you an example – so for me, one of the saddest things in Cape Town is the indigenous African population, because coming of age is a very important cultural ritual. And all young men have to go through that. But it involves four to six weeks of seclusion in nature. And of course, people who live in the city have to do this. Not all of them can afford to go to the Eastern Cape and the rural hinterland. And so people find intercessors in the city to do it. And we've got all of these natural parks, mountains, whatever. And we've been unable as a city to validate that absolutely essential cultural practice by making available the commons in a way that dignifies something that is so fundamental to the identity of now 40 per cent of the city's population. Right.
So that is just an indicator of what gets lost and opportunities that aren't – and so it's not all just about the big social justice transformation questions. It's just about validation, about seeing citizens, about giving and restoring a sense of dignity, because you see people and you validate and celebrate their culture and it's like basic things. But for me, just that would probably make such an impact on the crisis of masculinity and violence that I spoke about earlier but like, yeah, there's no space for that because they're not supposed to be here. These are poor migrants from the Eastern Cape, you know, that we the middle classes have to subsidise to live in the city and they will be murderers and thieves and whatever. So I guess I'm trying through that example to illustrate the potential we're talking about if we do this.
And it makes me think then to ask you the question the other way round, which is in your studies and your scholarly work and also your travels, have you found places where you think actually they have got something right in terms of reorientating the place towards the DNA, the cultural inheritance, the intergenerational endowment, in such a way that you feel some authenticity or some distinctive richness has been created?
So Medellin, I thought that, I mean, the way they've been able to combine really design excellence with very careful deliberative processes with communities and quite a wide range. And to then combine that with to turn that into a design challenge how do you do high-quality design for the commons? But that is deeply embedded in these cultural lineages so that they can remain a resource for the social process work. So they invest quite heavily in social history building, in narrative construction, engaging with indigenous cultures and so on, but it all happens in these very high-quality public spaces that are beautifully designed and curated and so on. And it's an ongoing program.
So that's the one. The second, I would say, which is a very similar thing, is the work that the Centre for Contemporary Culture in Barcelona does. So they have a very high falutin', globally recognised curatorial program for the museum and so on and so on. But because they get funding from the regional and the city government, they have a mandate for every single installation they do to produce curriculum for high school learners. And all of the kids go through every single exhibition throughout the year in the Catalan region. And so for me, again, that's a way of using a high end. So it does all of the global-facing stuff that you have to do in the context of globalisation, I guess, but it redeploys that as well to really build incredible cultural muscle in the city.
So, yes, I think those are two. And then I personally think that I absolutely love the – what I would describe as authentically tacky everyday architecture and culture in Bangkok. So the way in which the Thai are able to do everything like within one square foot high modern, the most traditional, best quality food, most obscene, sexual, whatever. What I can't wrap my head around whenever I'm there is how at ease everyone is with all of that juxtaposition. And I find it incredibly beautiful and moving. So, yeah. So those are my three off the top of – not all of them, but yeah, they're examples, I guess.
So the final question, Edgar, is if we were to have asked you a better question, would there have been anything else that you would have wanted to say about the DNA of cities?
No, no. I mean, I thought the questions were really useful to help interpret and think about what we'd be talking about, but also not so prescriptive that I couldn't go on all the tangents that I did. I'm sorry about that. I guess my only reflection would be not about the questions, but about the potential of this work. And Greg, I guess I'm laying this at your feet because you've been so instrumental in, through your OECD work and some other things, in helping cities be more intentional and more strategic, but there has been a degree to which that has created a homogenised culture of what represents good governance and effective strategic planning and so on. And I think what we see in the Mediterranean, what we've seen in the US, what we see in Brazil, India, Philippines, et cetera, et cetera, I think all of us, our generation in this business I think there's a bit of culpability at our feet that we haven't pushed these leaders hard enough to really confront these legacies of structural racism and systemic violence that persists and that is so compatible with modern governance and globalisation and all this policy stuff. So, yes, I guess that it would be fantastic if this work can in some ways be part of that critique and helping leaders that you have access to ask deeper questions and be less certain. You know, there's just so much certitude, right, in this public policy environment and not enough appreciation of that there's a lot we don't understand and that that's just beyond our ability to strategically map out and have a clear response to. And so anyway, that's my last five cents.