Designing with Communities: CPUT – Manenberg Studio 2014

By Yolande Hendler (on behalf of CORC)

Manenberg community leaders and architectural students from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) recently collaborated on a six-week long planning studio in Cape Town (March-May 2014). The studio aimed to generate ideas around alternative housing design and delivery options that would address the needs of Manenberg residents within their existing challenges and ‘urban’ conditions.

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CPUT students with Manenberg community leaders Terence Johnson, Melanie Manuel, Na-eema Schwartz & Errol Snippers (left to right)

Manenberg

Manenberg was established in 1966, during a time of forced removals when the apartheid government relocated low-income coloured families from District Six and other parts of the city to an area known as the Cape Flats, 20km away from Cape Town city centre.  During Manenberg’s construction phase in the late 1960s it was classified as a ‘sub-economic housing development area’. Although the design and structures of these semi-detached houses and project-like flats differed, this term indicates that most did not have ceilings, inside water or doors to their rooms (Reference). As construction continued into the mid 1980s, other buildings and social amenities sprang up. Many people currently live in backyard dwellings. Along with experiencing overcrowded living conditions Manenberg’s communities are continuously exposed to high crime and gangsterism.

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The studio brought together about 40 students from CPUT’s Department of Architectural Technology and Manenberg community leaders who represented the Manenberg Slum Dwellers, the Movement for Change, the Backyarders Network, the Federation of the Urban Poor (FEDUP) and the Informal Settlement Network (ISN). The studio was facilitated by ISN and supported by the technical team of the Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC).  For more background on ISN-affiliated communities in Manenberg and backyard dwellings click here.

ISN representative and Manenberg community leader, Melanie Manuel, explained that the studio offered an opportunity for Manenberg residents to come up with a better proposal to address overcrowded conditions and inadequate basic services. For the students the studio offered valuable exposure to inclusive planning practice. They were tasked to assist the community in the design and planning of housing and the related community ‘place’ layout.  This required students to work closely alongside community leaders to explore innovative and relevant concepts that would generate flexible solutions. Mizan Rambhoros, Senior Lecturer at CPUT, explained that

“Traditionally, architectural students work on hypothetical projects. This makes working with a community in a studio and involving a community in the design process a completely different scenario. In a ‘live’ project it’s not possible to follow a rigid process – this really opened the student’s eyes.”

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Sharing planning concepts with community leaders

The studio began with a site visit to Manenberg in which community leaders highlighted their primary concerns to the students – recurring floods, fires and security issues. Together, they identified the site they would engage with – the block between Red River Street and Red River Walk that experiences a high prevalence of crime and overcrowding. Students continued to meet with community leaders on a weekly basis, altering and adjusting their housing design and concepts according to the communities’ feedback.

“By working together with the students we could share our experiences and give them more in-depth input on what would work and what wouldn’t – especially because they were honest and open to criticism”

(Melanie Manuel, Manenberg community leader and ISN representative)

‘Incremental Growth’ and Final Presentations

On 9 May, the students presented their final design and concepts. Each group presented their understanding of the contextual and conceptual issues they encountered, designs of a detailed layout and a model of proposed housing units.  The idea of ‘incremental growth’ presented a common strand through all presentations. Several groups highlighted how external circumstances influence mind-sets and subsequently how people interact with each other. This caused them to ask: how can space facilitate a change in mind-set and interaction with people?”

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In responding to the presentations, Na-eema Schwartz from the Manenberg Backyarders Network, commended the students for addressing aspects that were highly relevant to community members – such as idle time and space, fire, flooding and security. In reflecting on the studio, Errol Snippers (Manenberg’s Movement for Change) shared his experience:

“These youngsters have opened my eyes to the way I look at buildings and safety features. Maybe they’ve learnt from us, but I’ve learnt from them too. In this short time we’ve gotten to know each other. I love their passion and drive and would love the kids in Manenberg to have the same passion”

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Errol Snippers (Manenberg Movement for Change)

By the end of the studio it was evident that ‘incremental growth’ was not only reflected in architectural concepts and designs. Even more so it was reflected in both community leaders’ and students’ reflections.

“The studio presented our first opportunity to work on a ‘live’ project in which we needed to feed back our ideas to the community and think about what would be relevant to them.  At the beginning, some of us had quite a stereotyped mind-set. Working together with community leaders in the studio was a learning curve for us all. We now design and accommodate for people’s social situations because we understand them.  How do you design with communities? You have to become ‘part’ them”

(Nomfundo Dlamini, CPUT student)

The next step will see community leaders share the students’ work with the rest of their communities and establish how to use and implement the concepts and design. Such community-based, participatory planning practices contribute to harnessing local knowledge and packaging it into an action plan. In this way communities become key agents in their own development plans.

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