Through Local Eyes – Reflections from an International Conference: Place-based approaches to emerging architectural, urban design, and planning challenges in Africa and the Global South

February, 2019 Conferences


Claire du Trevou and Dolly Mdzanga, two of PEP’s staff, attended the conference, and both presented pieces of PEP’s work. This blog post is a short synopsis of some of the presentations and lessons gained from the conference.

Through Local Eyes was a three day long international conference held in Addis Ababa in late October of 2018. The conference was a joint initiative by research groups working in the Université libre de Bruxelles, the University of Addis Ababa and the Université de Liège. The conference was conceived as a platform for researchers, PhD students, academics, decisions makers and practitioners whose work engages local approaches to the built environment at different scales in the Global South and in particular in Africa. 

“The fast paced urbanisation and mushrooming of metropolitan areas in Africa and the Global South especially in connection with rights and access to basic services, have attracted much attention in the last decades from the public, local experts, decision-makers and international stakeholders. In parallel, other built environments such as emerging small towns, shrinking cities and rural areas are now experiencing important pressures and changes, and are increasingly coming under the spotlight.

Practitioners, experts and investors working in the built environment have been prone to import established solutions and concepts borrowed from architectural, urban and planning theories developed and tested in the more economically developed countries (MEDC) to respond to some challenges, whose conditions were in some cases previously established by foreign or even colonial agents. Others have felt more disconcerted in front of the emerging challenges posed by the often contradictory, unconventional, apparently chaotic, and irreducible unicity of such built environments. Despite an increasing sensitivity towards contextualised, participatory and inclusive approaches, such new and emerging strategies have been struggling to enter mainstream urban production which still remains mainly shaped by top-down planning and free market policies, often failing to ensure access to fair, safe and healthy cities.”

In response the above call for papers, academics presented papers comprised of research findings and case studies, which investigated various architectural solutions or spatial histories; urban designs or visions; comprehensive planning experiments; and governance structures or policy-making activities related with emerging challenges into built environments in Africa or the Global South. The conference was a rich well of knowledge, and all of the presentations were fascinating in some way. 

“It would be arrogant of today’s architects to dismiss the architecture of the past. Cities should be living cities, some time the older areas is where the urban fabric is the most liveliest… My work is about find a balance between the old and the new. Development and heritage protection can go hand in hand.  What is the purpose of the city? To ensure that every one in the city lives a vibrant life.” – Opening comments by conference organiser.  

The 3 days of the conference saw a variety of projects being presented. One of the attractive points of the call for papers, was the conferences call for presentations by both academics and practitioners. It was thus a little disappointing that the representatives from Peoples Environmental Planning were some of only practitioners at the conference.

Never the less, the work presented by various academics was exceptionally interesting and insightful. The research ranged from planners investigating post-colonial futures for rural communities, to climate change mitigation strategies through innovative design and landscaping.

As South Africans working in a very specific context, one can get caught up in the micro-level detail of ones own work. And so it is always refreshing to attend international conferences, to be exposed to different projects, places, to challenge ones own ideas, and within that to connect with like-minded people. The ‘Through Local Eyesconference certainly allowed for that.

Dolly did a short poster presentation in which she presented the upgrading work done by residents of Vukuzenzele. In the short 10 minute presentation she shared her experiences of working with the residents towards achieving title deeds, and examples of how the residents have upgraded their homes without the direct involvement of architects or planners. Her presentation demonstrated how the original ‘imported’ housing solution – the original houses go Vuku were designed by a Swedish architect – had now, slowly, incrementally been adapted and upgraded for the residents.

Claire’s marginally longer presentation (a petcha kucha- style presentation) focussed on the local phenomenon of backyard rentals and micro-developers in South African city peripheries. The presentation shared how typically single story, low density neighbourhoods developed through state housing subsidies post 1994, are being slowly transformed through the addition of rental units that are being made in backyards. The rental market demand is growing at such a rate that homeowners reported that as soon as building supplies arrive at their home, they have people coming to ask if they are able to rent out spaces.

The presentation illustrated a few of the case study houses that had been investigated, sharing how homeowners funded their additions, as well as how much income they made from the rental units. Finally the presentation share the potential that such a model has to transform the housing landscape of the post-apartheid city.Both presentations were well received by the audience with critical and insightful questions being asked, giving both Claire and Dolly lots to think about.

All in all, the conference as well as the trip, was an incredible and educating experience.

Thanks to PEP for the opportunity to travel somewhere new, present our work, and connect with new peers in the development field.