This article is a summary of the guest speaker presentation by Dr. Yashaen Luckan at the SARChI Chair for Inclusive Cities, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa Seminar Series titled Layers of Urban Complexity: Towards a Humanistic Approach to Inclusive Cities on the 25th of June 2020.

Cities historically represented complex nodes of opportunity and access to a wealth of resources; they were places to live, work and play. The advent of modernist planning and design, however, implicitly disregarded these complex attributes of the humanistic urban built environment towards spatially segregated zones of activitydefined by the centralised concept of the industrial city. The apartheid city model, in South Africa, added further layers of segregation based on social, racial and, consequently, economic profiles. The associated norms unfortunately perpetuate perceptions, attitudes and processes of spatial definition and design some two and a half decades into the democratic era. While transformative legislation talks of redress, the actual frameworks, principles and modes of thinking that inform urban design are still largely exclusive, predominantly shaped by the modes of the Global North. I contend that the exclusive approaches of the Global North cannot continue to define strategies for effective response to the problems of the Global South.

This position inherently questions the epistemological bases that define modes of thinking and practice in urban design and architecture. The fundamental problem at the epistemological level is an overt reliance on abstract processes of thinking and design that are formed within the silos of academia, disconnected from the realities of society / place. While dreaming possibilities confined by intellectual traditions, the reliance on objective tools of analysis inadvertently become the counter-intuitive blinkers that inherently discard the value of multi-sensory and psychological perceptions of place. Consequently, the rhizomic, intangible layers of urban contexts go unnoticed, resulting in the characteristic practice of arrogant imposition on society, whereby the objectivist spatial concept defines the construct of subjective social realities.

The “tools” defining perception and conception of urban spaces generally comprise abstract methods such as figure ground analysis, linkage and place theories, all of which have immense value in planning and design. These tools, however, are limited to the measurable / quantifiable attributes of space and place; they are determinate and definitive, formed by the observation of tangible phenomena. The deep layers of intangible phenomena, characteristic of the dynamism in socio-spatial interaction and the interrelationships and interdependencies of complex variables that define urban place, however, requires an epistemological adjustment, particularly in the post-colonial societies of the Global South.

Whereas the psychological mapping of space is an essential process of spatial perception and conception, modern design methodologies implicitly tend toward the “social” as spatially constructed, thereby compromising place as a social construct.

Socio-spatial dynamics, however, are dependent on the vital tensions between person, space and time; this transforms the definition of space into place. Time is a critical determinant whereby the same objective space can transform by time-dependent factors such as century, decade, season, day or even an alternating moment of change, such as the change of a traffic light and its consequent impact on the immediate nature of place. In this regard, reference is made to Christopher Alexander’s (1966) essay “a city is not a tree”.

The critical interdependencies between natural time, such as day and night and artificial time such as the moment of change of a traffic light have immense impact on the dynamic transformation of space into place. Urban design and architecture are therefore dependent on a scale of measurement beyond physical units to time scales; the scale of the moment is required to be able to respond to the real complexity of inclusive design. The concept of place-making cannot therefore exclude the time-dependent behaviours of people in place.

Conception of place, therefore, can never be independent to perception of behaviour of people, in place over time. In fact, some of the most dynamic places in any city become so through this people, time place dynamic, even when socially exclusive spaces were produced by design itself. A widely referenced example of the transformation of lost space by design, into vibrant nodes of activity is the Warwick Junction Precinct in Durban, South Africa.

The Warwick Junction Precinct, which includes the Grey Street district expresses a “dual city”, to the formal British Town, wherein deep complexities express through critically interdependent layers of formality and informality. Historically, the Grey Street district was defined as a live, work, play precinct wherein arcaded pavements would front shops, above which the respective owners resided. While trade defined the predominant activity of the daytime, the streets would transform into social spaces at night. While this changed over time, the current day activities are a complex mix of formal and informal coexistence, a place of opportunity for the historically marginalised communities. The Western part of the precinct, the Warwick Avenue / Berea Station district, poses an interesting implicit critique to modernist planning, whereby the resilience of people in a different political time period, transformed lost space by design, into vibrant micro-nodes and moments of intense vitality.

This is an apt case that expresses layers of place that could not have been achieved through abstract conception alone. While this precinct can be analysed through spatial maps, such as figure ground drawings and linkage drawings, these fall short of capturing the spirit of place at the human scale of dynamic dwelling in the “micro-urban” space. It is all the unplanned life that happens in “residual” spaces beneath, above and adjacent to the planned vehicle dominant elements, such as flyovers high traffic roads and railwaysthat defines the vitality of the precinct.

It is vital to be able to perceive the complex layers of place, the soft intangible in relation to the hard tangible, if one is to shift towards an inclusive / humanistic approach to design. It is therefore argued that designers give up their expert cultures and start to engage with spatial analysis through ethnographic methodologies situated in place. This invariably requires an epistemological shift that balances objective analysis with subjective perception. It requires the complex integration of multiple intelligences and multiple experiences; the core informant of this complexity cannot be the objective built form, rather it is the subjective experiences of people in place.While people in place provides a rich resource for perceptual analysis, the dynamism of time is a critical informant of responsive design.

“As such urban place cannot be the result of any singular act of will or genius, but rather an evolutionary process of the development of interconnected systems that develop organically over what has to be a “loosely” designed urban context”

Luckan 2014

One of the primary compromises to effective responsive urban design is that time is usually regarded as frozen, whereby, the process of design is fixed within a defined time frame, an imagined extended moment. Urban vitality, as evident, is very much about dynamic time through the interdependency of various moments which can also be considered on macro to micro time scales.

While historical trends provide valuable clues in design decisions, rapid change in the context of technological advancement and extraneous shocks, such as COVID-19, require urban design in the form of a never-ending process, agile, adaptable and resilient. This requires deep, sensitive and respectful consideration on the natural patterns that define the complexity of socio-spatial interaction in time. Urban design will have to find ways of effectively analysing the subjective social dynamics as spatial construct; an epistemological shift towards decentralised, place-based, alternative systems of the Global South is required if urban designis to achieve any advancement towards inclusive cities.