Art and Design – a catalyst for social cohesion?! – a picture blog

By: Nidhi Singh nee Batra, Senior Programme Officer, PRIA

“What is a City?”

City is “a theater of social action,” and everything else-art, politics, education, commerce-only serve to make “the social drama richly significant, as a stage-set, well-designed, intensifies and underlies the gestures of the actors and the action of the play”.

 City is “above all things a ….theater”

– Lewis Mumford (1895-1990)

 A quest in this stage of action is to permit all actors to perform and act in a just and equal manner. In a context where the poor and the marginalized are excluded in the society and physical set up of the city, how is it that ‘design’ and ‘art’ can attempt to make the lives of these any better?

Here is a  picture blog that shall take you through – in answering just that!

In 2007, I had an opportunity to work as an Urban Designer in the slums of South Africa with a team of 75 other professionals through Global Studio. The project highlighted below is in the slums of Alexandra – Johannesburg.

The township of Alexandra (Alex) was established in 1912 and is close to the center of Johannesburg. It covers an area of over 800 ha (including east bank) and its infrastructure was designed for a population of about 70,000. Current population estimates vary widely and have been put at figures ranging from 180,000 to 750,000.

Its original stands of size of 500-600 sq.m are characterized by sizeable houses of reasonable stock but usually with 3 – 6 additional separate rooms built in the original gardens, each usually housing an additional family who rent from the main householder. The additional rental units, which provide a significant income to the main householder, are termed “backyard shacks” although many are of brick or block construction of reasonable quality.

There are an estimated 20,000 shacks of which approximately 7,000 are located in “backyards”.

Intervention: Urban Revitalization through Re-appropriating Public/ Semi Public Spaces

What is a public space?

A public space may be a gathering spot or part of a neighborhood, downtown, special district, waterfront or other area within the public realm that helps promote social interaction and a sense of community.

Possible examples may include such spaces as streets, plazas, town squares, parks, marketplaces, public commons and malls, public greens, piers, special areas within convention centers or grounds, sites within public buildings, lobbies, concourses, or public spaces within private buildings

Characteristics of a Great Public Space include:

• Promotes human contact and social activities.

• Is safe, welcoming, and accommodating for all users.

• Has design and architectural features that are visually interesting.

• Promotes community involvement.

• Reflects the local culture or history.

• Relates well to bordering uses.

• Is well maintained.

• Has a unique or special character.


Existing Public Spaces at Alexandra

Alexandra has a unique urban pattern, with a hierarchy in movement pattern with primary east-west roads, secondary north-south avenue roads and a tertiary movement through internal yard spaces . These yard spaces act as SOCIAL SPACE OR A SEMI-PUBLIC SPACE in a compact extremely dense settlement.

The functioning of the yard is undergoing transformations which direct a threat to its characteristic of an active social space. These vary from a very physical problem of maintenance, limitation/restriction of its connectivity against how it was used by residents to move one yard to another.

This restriction is generally a wall or an illegal encroachment which restrict the pedestrian movement. Thereby the transverse movement through series of yard connections, now no longer exist in a legible pattern. Loss of the inter-connectivity / through connection has resulted in low/no maintenance of yard spaces by the community along with the loss of an active social space

Yards are formed in the cluster of houses between the avenue roads.Yard space itself holds permanent structures such as the house, shack, room along with temporary structures/ infrastructure/ facilities such as toilets. It is currently used as social space for private purposes like meeting, sitting under the sun, washing-drying and playing.

The front part of a yard is mainly occupied by the ‘owners’ while the backside is generally rented. They have no vehicular access, and the pedestrian access is narrow. The inter-connectivity between the yards has been blocked and restricted by the residents. Most of the residents have constructed a wall or defined a defensible space

Approach for intervening through design:

I. Yard Networking – Utilizing ‘heritage’ as a resource to generate heritage walks/ paths that promote yard development and rejuvenation

II. Personalizing ‘Public Spaces’ to generate a sense of responsibility/ participation

I. Yard Networking

Over 100 heritage sites have been identified in Alexandra and now 25 have been prioritized by the Alexandra Tourism Society. Each will get signage in the coming months indicating its significance. A heritage and culture map has been compiled detailing their locations. Examples of the heritage sites include the Alexandra Beer Hall, Twelve Apostles Church of Africa, prominent family homes, the Alexandra Cemetery, hostels, Freedom Square, the Anglican Mission School, and the Msomi Gang headquarters

Also, any Yard Improvement project should respect the desires of the residents which ranged from developing mixed use in their yards, to even dreaming of having their own swimming pool! We worked with the community on how they envisison thier Yard Spaces!


Objectives of the Yard networking project

 1) Functionally seeing the yard as a multipurpose space, and include various public and personal activities within it.

2) Physically the yard space needs to be improvised, with proper sanitation; wastewater management, pavement etc and residents need to take interest and initiative for its up gradation

3) Economically, the multifunctional character of yard itself is an opportunity to generate employment for women, unemployed youth etc through the house itself.

 4) Socially, the potentials of yard as a civic and social space is immense and it inherit in local culture.

5) Connectivity through the yards would network a third legible movement pedestrians path, which would not be in conflict with the intense vehicular movement on the avenues

Heritage Resource as an ‘opportunity’ – Developing concept of Heritage Walks Alexandra already has 25 identified heritage structures, which are associated with South African Apartheid struggle. Heritage here is expressed as its symbolic significance rather than the architectural value of the structure or its style Thereby, Heritage structures in the Alex were seen as the medium to connect appropriate yards and heritage structures internally. A physical Heritage Zone is then extracted after seeing the intensity and density of Structures between first to twelfth avenues vertically, and between Hofmeyer to Jo Nhlanhla Roads horizontally The walk intends to go through the semi-public yard spaces. The project aimed to achieve dual functions of Yard networking as well as Community networking, connecting heritage structures. The project involves Physical Yard improvisation, and adding new commercial functions, which the owners and residents can capitalize on.

II. Personalizing ‘Public Spaces’


  • To engage residents especially children in the processes of forming their own spaces.
  • To celebrate the creative potential of everyday objects.
  • To build friendships through creative expression


Use concrete blocks that are used as multi-purpose building blocks in the slum of Alexandra as the ‘community binding block’

Explored potential alternative uses for the concrete block:

• Heritage walk markers

• Safety house markers

• Off the grid lighting

• House numbers


Involved local children to ‘personalise’ these building blocks:


They created a park too in their own slum – in one empty vacant plot!


The blog above is just a reminder for all of us –that there are many ways to reach to the community; there are many ways to communicate with and to them! Art, architecture, design – all can together work towards social justice!

All we need to do is use the many varied tools that we have to catalyze social cohesion and action within the communities we work!… and have fun!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: