Nisha van der Hoven, curator of FuturePart, an initiative of Boogertman + Partners, on Africa’s cities of tomorrow

Q: Do you expect changes in the manner in which cities are designed, post-COVID-19?

A: Accelerated change combined with an imposed set of social norms has compelled us to move beyond the COVID-19 reality to reflect on the opportunity and potential of our cities. The social and spatial implications of public and collective space, ownership, mix of use, patterns of work, infrastructure and transport networks must be reconsidered for cities to remain resilient and to thrive. The re-appropriation of buildings and spaces, and an increased mix of use in property, is an imperative principle of responsible design and necessary to counteract the impact of increasing vacancies. New space typologies can be designed for flexibility, variety and choice, but with use changes, the support of infrastructure, city planning and policy is essential to make these opportunities available.

Q: How important is research in developing sustainable solutions for urban planning?
A: FuturePart’s research plays a critical role in re-imagining the future of the built environment and architecture. Just as conversations are a way of creating fertile ground for future projects, research helps to substantiate and develop holistic reasoning that forms the basis of decision-making. Reliable data allows a team to analyse the quality, viability and implications for clients, users and the built environment. Research findings have the potential to inform an extensive value chain of stakeholders such as city planners, policymakers, property owners, developers, urban designers, architects and the public, and can initiate the critical dialogues required to positively impact cities.

Q: What are the research considerations and parameters?
A: We use three activity streams to bring research insights back into architectural practice. Knowledge-capture documents and disseminates specialist knowledge and expertise. Knowledge-gathering encompasses workshops and techniques of capturing specific sector insights or framing conceptual hypotheses for projects. And knowledge-production grapples with some of the most difficult questions facing the built environment in Africa today. Research outputs are also explored and shared through various experimental technologies and media formats including film, street and time-lapse photography, 3D printed models, podcasts, exhibitions and journal publications. These graphic and visual tools help cast a different lens on the research insights.

Q: What is meant by ‘collective space’?
A: The possibilities of collective space were explored through the InCommon exhibition held at the Wits School of Architecture and Planning in February 2020. It addressed the need to shift our approach to the dominant social and spatial narrative of fear, mistrust, weakening social bonds and individualism, to that of inclusion, community and participation. The notion of ‘the common’ in architecture implies space as a collective and non-exclusive resource with shared and equal benefits rather than individual or private ownership. Designing for the collective presents both possibilities and challenges and finding common ground between design, culture and context.

Q: How do you close the space between practice, clients and academia?
A: FuturePart aims to bridge the gap between practice, research and academia and to share research insights with clients and institutions so that the impact and the reach is expansive.

As a testing ground for new ideas, the InCommon exhibition presented different disciplines, people, places and practices to trigger connections and explore the common ground between selected projects in an inclusive shared space. The exhibition was a way to challenge existing paradigms and place projects under scrutiny, thereby stimulating new conversations and re-imagining the role of architectural practices in shaping African cities of the future.

Q: What was revealed from your research into inner-city public spaces?
A: The first academic research project exploring inner-city ‘privatised public space’ was launched with the objective to develop a research model that brings the practice of architecture closer to the rigour of academic research, and to demonstrate valuable content and knowledge production that informs future urban design. In the CBDs of Nairobi and Johannesburg, FuturePart’s research explored if, how and where the design of inner-city spaces encourages sociability and fosters a sense of welcoming.

We used time-lapse studies, cognitive mapping techniques, walking interviews and street images to capture use patterns in public spaces that have had private interventions and/or employ forms of private management. What was evident is that the CBDs of these otherwise highly segregated cities remain some of the few places in which elite and marginalised groups are found in close daily proximity.

Q: What will the African city of the future look like?
A: While the future remains largely uncertain, ongoing research into the challenges that African cities face must be pursued to gain a critical perspective on the impacts of increased densification, urbanisation, rapid population growth and growing inequality in our cities. Research needs to address the planning, design, access and funding of urban systems in order to develop resilience and transformation at a local and global scale. Sustainable urban development, socio-economic transformation and the environmental health and wealth of both formal and informal economies should be prioritised. The ability to actively tackle the problem of a siloed urban-planning system can help enable a more circular approach to the design of our cities and a shift towards a well-being economy that has a positive impact on our human and natural systems.

By Kerry Dimmer
Image: Francesca Cockcroft

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