Rolling with Difference

July 17, 2020

The image I chose for my humanities moment is representative of how I have come to understand myself, society and the cities around the world. While many might see poverty and struggle in Africa, this man is a waste-picker (recycler) in Johannesburg who plays a critical role in the overall sustainability of the city. After my early career as an urban planner in South Africa thinking through many ways of reducing urban poverty I have had to unlearn the developmental approach to cities in the ‘global South’. This image is representative of the shift I believe urban specialists need to make. That is, following normative global trends in urban design, policy and planning is not always the most appropriate change to make in a particular context due to its situated differences. In Johannesburg a waste-picker’s lane or a shared bike/waste-picker’s lane would address environmental and economic sustainability more holistically. In a postcolonial world teachers and researchers of urban-related disciplines need to be critical of extant theories and practices that disenfranchise cities through entrenched mechanisms of spatial violence.

More personally, this relates to a life-long journey of understanding ‘difference’. As I white child born at the end of the Apartheid era, having anti-racist liberal parents but also born into an Afrikaans family, I am exposed to stark identity juxtapositions. Being sent to one of the first multi-racial and multi-cultural schools in South Africa I grew up fortunate enough to build strong, life-long relationships across social borders. Without knowing it, from a young age I embarked on a process of unlearning unjust, societal norms. In my career and personal life I continuously work to understand differences that exist within me; those that are and that which is different to me.

My doctoral research delves into understanding and articulating the tensions that exist from stark differences found in urban space and how this may change the meaning making and conceptualization of ‘place’.