Living the (Planner's) Dream

“Life in a box is better than no life at all, I expect,” mused master wordsmith Tom Stoppard. And he's right. But what of life completely void of any boxes? That, dear friends, is the life of a Fulbright recipient. There are no restrictions. No one to whom I must report, no one to whom I am beholden to submit reports or publish articles. Every aspect of my research is something I dreamed up, something in which I am truly interested and to which I am totally committed. It's the ideal research scenario. The crux of my current project is the generation of a dynamic image of Johannesburg to show how spaces are used and connected, framing the study of people within a city in terms of how they interact with the built environment. Johannesburg, perhaps more than any other city in Sub-Saharan Africa, is poised for tremendous growth. It is the economic hub of the region and has enormous social capital that is growing by the second; yet over a quarter of the population is unemployed and an estimated fifth of its residents live in abject poverty (Official Website of the City of Johannesburg). This stunting of growth is in no small part due to the physical residue from the apartheid era, but to be able to effectively reverse it requires an understanding of the linked spatial and social dynamism that defines the Johannesburg of today.

To develop Johannesburg in any way, be it economically, socially, or physically, a clear picture of the present state of the city must be attained. It is in the dissonance between how the city was planned and how it is actually used that the ways in which development can occur are illuminated. Spaces within a city that are activated are integrated into the urban fabric economically, socially, and culturally, and to have a clear picture of which spaces are activated and which are deactivated is essential. The areas residents avoid and the times they travel tell us  about the security and limitations on mobility, while the paths they take tell us about the linkages between places within the city. And there is no better way to capture all of this information than with a map. The generation of such maps was the essence of my Fulbright.

For my project, I chose to focus on the inner-city area that has a reputation for being the most violent and crime-ridden of all. I had previously conducted research there and found it to boast an air of hope that was missing elsewhere in the city. You see, in other parts of Johannesburg the general attitude among the economically disadvantaged was survivalist – doing enough to get by and move somewhere that they hoped would be slightly better. When asked what they saw as the main issues, Hillbrow residents didn't mention the crime or the violence that residents elsewhere invariably cited; instead, they cited the lack of investment and interest in the area due to its negative reputation. Somehow in Hillbrow, people had visions that went beyond the immediate and the practical: they wanted to do more than survive.

My fieldwork started out swimmingly – door after door after door, flung open at the mere mention of my Fulbright. I spoke to the right people, got the right maps, and got myself the right fixer. I was totally self-reliant. I had no need to go through organizations to make contacts or follow standardized protocols; instead, I made all of my own choices and formed all of my own relationships, facilitated in large part by the contacts I had made during my previous two stints in Johannesburg.

My first plan of attack was to present residents of my study area in the city-center with a street-level map of Hillbrow co-opted from GoogleMaps on which they could pinpoint locations and routes that they frequented. This approach was a dismal failure. When presented with a map, it was all residents could do to find their own home within five minutes, let alone identify other key places that figured into their lives. But as always, the wisdom of American urban planner Kevin Lynch reigned eternal, and cognitive maps were the order of the day.

Once the cognitive map collection started, patterns began to emerge. The maps depicted lives centered around home or transit that rarely extended more than a few blocks radially, with very few exceptions. There were distinct communities and linked areas within the city, oftentimes correlated to specific demographics, largely due to the lack of cohesive public transportation that would facilitate movement both within the city-center and the general metropolitan area. One of the more disturbing findings of my research that became apparent early on, however, was that the activated spaces of my study area still experience high levels of crime and violence. My hope had been that the activated corridors of the city would correspond to lower levels of crime and violence, making the spaces ripe for development clear-cut and easily defined. No city is ever quite so straightforward, though, and the search for ideal development sites continued.

It should come as no surprise that as the months of fieldwork went by, my project became increasingly personal. Informants became friends and the city streets became my community. Eventually the statistics of crime and violence caught up with my reality and one of my closest friends was murdered. My faith in Hillbrow was shattered. From the beginning I had known that there were murders in Hillbrow almost daily, so this murder did not change the reality of the space in the slightest. It was my own perception that was altered and nothing more, but reconciling my perception with the quantitative picture of Hillbrow that had dictated my research seemed an insurmountable task. Without any stringently established protocols to fall back on, it became harder and harder to remain emotionally divorced from my project. I fell down the rabbit hole. My perceptions became conflated with the hard facts of my research. At first, I chastised myself. Where was my professionalism? My ability to separate emotion from work? But then I realized that perhaps when studying people, a bit of subjectivity might not only be unavoidable, but ultimately quite useful. The study of a city is the study not only of statistics, but of people, and objectivity may cloud judgment more than clear it.

Research cannot be conducted solely based on emotions and instincts, but that does not mean that they cannot serve as another tool in the planner's toolbox. It is through the stories of a city's residents that a clearer picture of its potentials and its pitfalls emerges, and through the simple experience of walking a city that an accurate picture can begin to form. Cities are a complex amalgamation of the subjective and the objective, of people and statistics, and every so often it's okay to step outside the box of standardized research methodologies. It's okay to be both a planner and a person.

Anna Premo received her master's degree in city planning from MIT where she was part of the International Development Group. A 2012 Fulbright recipient for South Africa, she is now living in Johannesburg at the Cities Institute at the University of Witwatersrand and can be reached at