Intangible elements of City-Making

Intangible elements of City-Making

by Siwe Ntombela
26 May 2021
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The rate of violence and suffering South Africa is constantly experiencing, is a result of the scars from apartheid and colonialism. The noble rainbow nation ideal and peace-seeking agenda helped us transition peacefully into this democracy, but many wounds were left unhealed, and our collective trauma has not been dealt with.


Space has power, is political and has meaning. Our cities were designed to divide, and apartheid is a living history. The concept of Separate Development was rooted in psychology and manifested in the apartheid city. The apartheid government found the brightest architects and planners to conceptualise the apartheid city.


Healing Fields, a project by the South African Cities Network, intends to create a space for individuals to gather in a safe (virtual) space, to be still in acknowledging our traumas and its impact. This project came out of the Built Environment Integration Task Team (BEITT), which is a collective of city practitioners convened by the SACN. The BEITT seeks to understand why our cities are not transforming at the pace that they should be and shares knowledge across cities to advance this agenda. In a range of conversations with the BEITT, the issue of healing has surfaced, given the crucial role human interactions play in urban development. Once a month, the BEITT holds the Healing Fields sessions, as the project has progressed the need to broaden the Healing Fields has become more evident, with these issues transcending the realm of development practitioners.


Although the space of urban development is often about hard infrastructure and making cities work better, “there are deep psychological scars that affect the work we do every day”, as reflected by a BEITT member. Zanele Dlamini, a South African writer, wrote a book called Wounds of Ignorance, which tackles the issue of healing so aptly. The book follows the story of a 12-year-old boy, Simo, who was recruited into a guerilla group during the IFP and ANC war in the early ‘90s in KZN. While unearthing some extremely painful stories of violence, rape and destruction that happened during that time, the book leaves one wondering how many young men were exposed to that trauma and how that has influenced who they are today. It is not easy to forget this gruesome past that created havoc in many communities in South Africa. This devastation happened in public spaces and inflicted an unknown level of trauma on people. Our approach to transformation in this country has not considered this lived experience of people who carry this pain every day.


Prof Amira Osman, our guest for Healing Fields in March, stressed the need for anti-fragility, where community, mental health and institutional transformation can help us cope and even thrive under the volatility caused by a pandemic. She further highlighted that disease shapes cities and in the context of a pandemic, architecture should be seen as a first responder. Epigenetics is the study of how your external environment can cause changes to your genes and mental health. The external environment for many South Africans includes exposure to violence, poverty, racism, classism, and other kinds of oppression. We have transitioned from one extreme (apartheid) to another (democracy) and there has been a lot of collateral damage in the process. We have been forced to adjust to these new circumstances without acknowledging our past and how space influences our wellbeing. “Create inhumane environments and people will behave likewise”’. From this notion, we should not be surprised at how much oppression has impacted our behaviour or the way we relate to one another.


For some reason, many people are in a rush to “go back to normal” after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides but in a country with the highest inequality in the world, is going back to normal really what we want? It is this same masculine approach to moving on without taking time to be still, reflect and confront our trauma that will lead us to where we are now. COVID-19 hit South Africa when the conditions for resilience were not there– many communities did not have access to water, adequate housing and even those with jobs were just one paycheck away from poverty.


The Healing Fields project aims to provide a space for development practitioners and the communities they engage with to come together and share their experiences. The monthly sessions have mostly been attended by women, which highlights that this issue is thought of as feminine and not part of the hard, technical solutions to our city spaces. But development is healing, and rebuilding society will require all of us to connect more deeply with the intangible elements of city-making.


The Built Environment Team  recently released the BEITT Compendium, celebrating 4 years connection, learning, debate and growth. To get your copy please click here

Siwe Ntombela is a Built Environment Researcher in the Inclusive Cities Programme at the South African Cities Network. To contact her email