Community Caution

…this project exemplifies community architecture…”,

…the community built this structure….”,

…the community protested against…”,

”..the community agreed with….”

When one read these sentences captured in the above picture, hears these When one reads these sentences captured in the above picture, hears these phrases, or even shares these words in your practice or institutional spaces, a particular set of images, ideas, and actions are brought to mind. Perhaps a smiling, but determined woman carrying a heavy load; a group of laughing children playing in a desolate street; maybe a modest – but proud – homeowner standing against a ‘humble’ dwelling as the sun sets in the distance…(see more on this type of spatial-romanticism here: [0]) No? What imagery appears in your mind’s eye?

How to Write About Africa | Binyavanga Wainaina | Granta
How to Write About Africa – Binyavanga Wainaina[o]

The answer to this question would largely be dependent on your social upbringing, your experiences growing up and demographic background. As a South African, I would argue that when we generally talk about ‘community’, we are at some level describing a tightly knit group of similar people: most likely economically struggling, bound together through difficult social or cultural circumstance and working together to overcome a series of socio-economic circumstances and events set in a deeply unequal world– but most likely I would confidently guess that when we use this term, we are describing a group of people who are primarily not white presenting and who face discrimination or disadvantage on some societal level.

The South African Journalist, Rebecca Davis, in her satirical reflection on Being the Best White[1] points out an unspoken rule that South African journalists follow to distinguish between ‘neighborhoods’ and ‘communities’ depending on a tacit reading of the racial profile of the residents. Through my experiences as a South African an urban researcher and spatial design practitioner; I would agree that there is a similar uncritical use of the concept of ‘community’:  a reductionist, intersectionally myopic and generally unhelpfully – and sometimes romantic – version of this concept that I have seen employed across various political, social, civic, and even corporate marketing initiatives. Often these narrative focusses on particular imaginative of unanimous cohesion, dire vulnerability and optimistic hints of hope for those affected by South Africa’s legacy of spatial inequality – for what means? This is an important question, and something that I hope this short text can begin to outline but what I suspect, will be a question that I will most likely find myself working through for the remainder of my practice career.

When reading this last statement, I’m sure many of those who have engaged in dedicated socially focused ‘community work’ will disagree and even possibly feel offended by such a general statement. Towards which I would like to state that I do not for one moment deny that the values of social cohesion and collective identity exist across the many groupings of socially and spatially marginalized people. I believe strongly in the power of any grouping of people’s cohesion towards not only overcoming difficult circumstance but to changing whole societies[1]. I recognize that this term, when used with integrity, clarity and intent to describe and celebrate actual ‘communities’ is an important acknowledgement of people’s collective identities and can be a powerful call to arms for social and grassroots movements[2].  In addition, I recognize that in South Africa – and I’m sure in other socially fragmented spaces – we are often speaking between languages, cultural norms and in general certain words and terms are inherently multi-faceted and can cover overlapping concepts.  


This article is really not meant to dissuade anyone from using this term, from working with groups of people nor to speak against groupings of people in difficult socio-spatial circumstance; this point is being made to better articulate the nature and complexity that makes up this type work and hopefully by the end of this reading, to offer some suggestions on how those of us working in this sector can work through this complexity more effectively and responsibly.

Whatever the type, community is mostly an ideal in development that we evangelize, something good and worthy…but community can be as much a part of the problem as a panacea.

Nabeel Hamdi: Small Change [19]

Irresponsible Romanticism

With this in mind, my initial concern in the way the term ‘community’ is conceptualized and used in South African spatial development, lies in how there exists a dangerous duality in how his term can be wielded by both marginalized groups to unify around common causes as well as less well-meaning private sector entities, politicians or even xenophobic groupings of the very ‘communities’ that are working towards overcoming a difficult situation to commit or support exclusionary and prejudiced collective acts.

Variations of Community – Author

Anyone who has grown up or worked in a spatially vulnerable context has at some point seen what a Johannesburg city official once described as the ‘…dark underbelly of community…[4] and witnessed this duality of cohesion and exclusion to various effects and actions.  To recognize the negatives aspects of people who are living in difficult circumstance is not made to undermine such people’s cohesivity to be worked with, but to point out that people are generally; people.

In particular, people who have found themselves or have been pushed to the edges of our societies support can be living in multiple forms of scarcity and will act in ways that reflect this both positively and negatively. To ignore both sides of this reality is irresponsible and perpetuates many of the ‘savior’[5] paradigms that are found in this sector.

Who wants to be a Volunteer? – SAIH

Over-Simplified: Over-Designed

There is something quite unfair in expecting a group of people – and in many cases socially marginalised already – who share little more than a spatial boundary to somehow magically be unified, act as a cohesive group (determined by an outsider) of thought and vision and speak with a singular voice or vision. An analogy we have used in 1to1, when trying to describe the complexity of working with any group of people is summarized in a question we have asked ourselves in projects:

If 5 people can’t easily agree what they want for dinner that evening, how can we expect 5 000 people to easily agree what they want for their neighborhood for the next 50 years ?” [6].

This rhetorical question is meant to challenge the assumption that when working with ‘communities’ we are always working towards consensus and agreement – this is not the case, and the underlying belief that this is what participative processes do is largely the reason why the complexity of these conditions is often over-simplified and reduced to very romantic or simplistic ideas of process and people.

Participation does not necessarily imply self-help home building by undernourished and over-worked people without credit, with inadequate tools and poor materials . . . The central issue is that of control and power to decide”.

John Turner[7]

So, what happens: spatial designers tend to (unconsciously?) simplify the user group into something engageable and answerable as a way of being able to provide a simplified and ‘innovative’ solution that can be understood by peers, lecturers or funders of a project. This can be seen across the schools of design[8] in South Africa as well as the awards section of social innovation projects, re-enforcing the ideas that a ‘solution’ can only be seen as effective if the problem itself is understandable – or even seen as a problem to the jurors. I was once told by someone involved in a ‘community-design’ project that they had gotten community consent for an idea because “They had asked the community what they wanted.”, when I asked where and how they had asked this question, this person explained quite confidently how they had walked through the neighborhood and asked someone they walked past what they thought – and this person had agreed. Participation done.

More specifically there is danger in how this term is used in professional practice across the spatial design disciplines, particularly the way clients, residents, user groups and beneficiaries[9] are described and as a result ‘designed-for’ or even with.  When a group of people who are dynamic and complex (as any group of people are) are reduced to a singular version of complexity and a product (building, infrastructure or process) is designed based on this understanding, the result can only be something of less value to all involved –  or as a scathing critic to participative design once said to me “…participative design reduces good ideas to the lowest common denominator…” [10]. Instead of allowing complexity to exist and developing longer term and more accountable systems that not only start engagement before, during and most importantly after projects are finished  it is much easier to simplify this process and impose one’s own values into a context.

Un-Critical Conceptual Roots

Part of the challenge comes from a largely westernized version of ‘community’ that has roots in early colonial descriptions[11] of groups of people living in mostly rural areas who by geography or based on access to environmental resources were spatially communities based on a settlement patterns, cultural grouping or other framings that brought people together. These rural origins of describing people carry with them connotations of the Group Areas Act’s need for black South African to be rural and overlayed with controlled urbanization, tribal separation in townships and self-grouping settlement patterns[12] based on a  type of rural starting point. This same pejorative framing of people being a community by virtue of their ethnicity echoes the minority/majority mis-framing we have inherited from a broad global discourse when describing South Africa’s nuanced socio-political context. 

Rural versus Urban in post-Apartheid South Africa – HSRC:Nelson Mandela Foundation

What is even more terrifying is when this reductionist understanding of people  and the subsequent simplified product (more often than not a ‘community center’[13]) begins to ‘fail’ and the very people it was meant for – are blamed for it’s failure: ‘…ah, these people don’t look after anything…’, ‘…they vandalized this – they have no respect…’.[14] These failing are usually due to various systemic factors (often the misunderstanding of the context by either the designer or project producer). These shallow and surface level variables of a project cannot be the only metrics for ‘good participation’ or ‘project success’; nor can they be metrics for explaining how complex groups of individual and collectives appreciate, use or value such shared infrastructures – is the Sandton Public Library not successful because it is not used by everyone in Sandton?.

Beyond Consensus or Agreement

When working through 1to1, we have been told on many occasions that there is no budget for participatory processes, or it will take too long to engage people, but in many South African government interventions require participation) and even make budget allocations for this work (UISP actually outline 3% of the project cost for social-engagement[15], but it is far too easy to get ‘happy letters’[16] or document people pointing and agreeing at models and maps to convey a good participative process.

Proponents, myself included, of participatory design processes will defend that this obstacle is surmountable through careful, considered and inclusive methods and approaches to spatial development[17]. But a key challenge toward this becoming a norm lies in broadening the understanding various values and principles of inclusive processes (the why is more often more important than the how of participatory design work) and an important recognition of both the limits and opportunities inherent in such processes. In addition, it is vital to not romanticize nor offer participatory processes a a ‘solve-all’ for all urban challenges, there is a dangerous undercurrent of expectation for participatory processes:

Will participation guarantee a successful project?

Will participation empower and support everyone involved?

Will participation undo generations of unequal development and make all involved absolved of their privilege and guilt?”

The answer to all of these questions is clearly: No. But, somehow participatory processes carry the implication of these statements within them – which often result in those involved asking post-project what the point of including people in the decision making points was? In the same vein, I don’t believe that we can weigh our personal value (yes, this happens a lot, whether we admit it or not) of a process based on it being a success in our short involvement or project lifetime: the challenges that such projects try address are located across sectors – so how can a simple built project or practitioner claim to change a whole system through such a specific intervention?

Ping Zhu and the Center for Urban Pedagogy: Don’t be a Dick

Somehow ‘participatory design’ conducted with ‘a community’ is seen as a purer process than traditional design, and when done ‘correctly’ is smooth and joyful (another dangerous misconception – participatory work is generally full of productive disagreement and conflict ) and more often than not conflate ideas of capacitation with participation.[18] We somehow see these ways of engaging as silver-bullets to the layers of social challenges that we face. These conflictual expectations and overloading of impact is a large part of why the professions, the politicians and the funders of such projects struggle to qualify and value such processes and we as practitioners overload these processes with our own expectations and hubris. This over-expectation and delivery from those who are arguably the most vulnerable members of projects requires a careful personal and disciplinary introspection. 

The treatment of local areas as communities of homogenous interests, said Lisa Peattie, way back in 1968 ‘can result in severe damage to the interests of the weakest inhabitants’. There is an emerging consensus that we bypass the notion of community altogether in favour of a more direct link between household and civil society.

Nabeel Hamdi: Small Change [19]

What next?

To re-iterate:

I don’t feel that ‘community’ as a concept is non-existant or that we shouldn’t use this term in practice.

For those that skipped ahead in this article.

My concern lies in the way people with societal power use this term to further their own misreading or re-enforce unhealthy and often damaging framings of people and their cohesion. In particular, I am concerned with how ‘community’ is used in spatial design practice in the built environment and how this un-challenged term often reflects unconscious (or sometimes overt) bias that results in ill-considered buildings, programmes or spatial strategies. In my experience thus far: more often than not, this idea of a ‘community’ is used as thinly veiled attempt by designers to simply imbue the proposal with their own values of what a ‘community’ should look like, want or even need, resulting in the string of ‘white elephant’ infrastructures we see across our country and being celebrated through media outlets and the year-end reports of NGO’s[20].  This critique does not mean that practitioners cannot find ways (and more importantly reasons) to work in ways that not only include people in the process and draw from this untapped pool of social capital.

This article has been developed closely with peers in the field who believe in the importance of inclusive approaches to spatial development but are equally as frustrated by the way in which this work is seen and practiced in South Africa. In particular, this article is directed at my fellow white-identifying – alongside other privileged spatial design practitioners – who, like me, grew up in a context that did not support productive self-criticality and ignored important nuances in how we both understand ourselves and those we engage with.

My suggestions (and continuous self-challenge) for those that see value in this discussion and generative critically is – for now – summarized in the following provocations:

  1. Can we adopt and normalise a more complex idea of ‘community’ being multiple communities and individuals who share space?
  2. When we say or think ‘community’, can we allow for people to question what we mean by that towards a better understanding of a context?
  3. Can we be more specific to describe what we mean: a neighborhood, a group of men/women/children, the church goers, the football players e.t.c – this will allow your designs more variables to draw from?
  4. Can we allow for dissent, non-agreement and conflict – these are as crucial for good participation that agreement, cohesion and consent are often based on reductive and simplistic ideas of people who are as a rule complex and nuanced and not perfect?
  5. How can we meaningfully recognise and value the project beneficiaries and adjacent grass-roots actors in projects in ways that support financially, experientially and creatively?

[0] Inspired from the wonderfully satirical How to Write About Africa – Binyavanga Wainaina

[1] Davis, R.2015. Being the Best White, and Other Anxious Delusions. Pan Macmillan, South Africa

[2] This belief is a founding principle of the organization I co-founded in 2010: 1to1 – Agency of Engagement

[3] Guijt, I. & Shah, M.K. Eds. 1999. The Myth of community: gender issues in participatory development. New Delhi: Vistaar Publications.

[4] This was shared during a presentation to students of architecture in regard to the dynamics of social engagement in 2014.

[5] Flaherty, Jordan.2016.No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to Saviour Mentality. AK Press, USA

[6] An analogy that changes and is adapted to various contexts, but both an external and internal critical self-checking question.

[7] Turner, J.F.C. & Ward, C. 1991. Housing by people: towards autonomy in building environments. Reprint ed. (Ideas in progress). London: Boyars.

[8] In my experience as 1to1 project leader, lecturer at schools of architecture and government meetings in South Africa.

[9] See; 4 other ways to describe people sharing space other than community. Hamdi (Small Change[19]) refers to Communities of Place:

1. all communities spatial, but in cities this is more through networks, porous and not confined

2. place assumes more importance than space, particularly for vulnerable like elderly or disabled — security and accessibility precedence over use value or identity

3. there exists a relationship between place and identity, where place is often appropriated to empower community, coded

4. spatial sense of community can change over times of day and over time more generally

[10] This was a real statement made by a built environment practitioner working in low-income housing used to justify why he doesn’t believe in participation.

[11] Cooke, B., & Kothari, U. (Eds.). (2001). Participation: the new tyranny? London ; New York: Zed Books.

[12] Myambo, M. T., Appelbaum, A., Rubin, M., Sobantu, N. N. and M., Weintroub, J., Burocco, L., … Bond, P. P. (2018). Reversing Urban Inequality in Johannesburg. (M. T. Myambo, Ed.), Reversing Urban Inequality in Johannesburg (1st ed.). Johannesburg: Routledge.

[13] See the NOCC Project for more details on this.

[14] More on this in a future article….

[15] UISP: Chapter 3 of the South African Housing Code

[16] A field term used to describe a form of ‘proof’ that a group of people has agreed to a project or idea.

[17] Hamdi, N. (2010). The Placemakers’ Guide to Building Community: Planning, Design and Placemaking in Practice. London; Sterling, VA: Earthscan. — Consensus gains the passivity of people not their active participation. It is in this sense exclusionary and encourages independence rather than interdependence. In encourages non-participation. (p137)

[18] Bennett, J. (2018). Un-learning ‘community’: reflections on socio-technical spatial design support with Slovo Park. In Out-Of-The Box 2018 Conference Proceedings (pp. 165–180). Pretoria, South Africa, ZA: Department of Science and Technology and Council for Scientific and Industial ResearchCSIR.

[19] Hamdi, N. (2013). Small change: About the art of practice and the limits of planning in cities. In Small Change: About the Art of Practice and the Limits of Planning in Cities. Earthscan. p70,72

[20] Again, I urge you to enjoy the satirical Dick & Rick: A Visual Primer for Social Impact Design