Disruptive urbanisation- the city hacked

March 4, 2017

Hacking the city: unruly urbanisation



On the outskirts of Johannesburg, one hour from the centre of the city, 2000 people have erected glistening steel shacks on empty land. They have come from the rural areas. They are strangers. They have never met before, but they have organised themselves miraculously in the space of two weeks, around a common purpose- a planned invasion of land. The process takes 24 hours. 2000 shacks erected in such a short space of time is no easy task. And so the question remains how does a group of strangers coordinate a planned occupation? There are signs of ‘settling’ already. Goats in one yard and washing lines in another, a young man sits outside his shack speaking on his mobile phone. The South African state is compelled to provide housing to the urban poor- it is a Constitutional Right.  And the courts uphold the rights of its citizen. By the time the authorities arrive, it’s too late. Johannesburg has been hacked.


“The right to the city, is not merely a right to access what already exists, but a right to change it after our own hearts desire” Professor David Harvey.


We are not entirely sure whether ‘informality’ or ‘informal urbanisation’ will lead to millions of people reshaping cities after their own hearts desire. But we do know that these processes are disrupting the status quo. The private property system is being hacked. Like computer hackers, authorities are annoyed by the unruly nature of those in the ‘informal’. It flies against the notion of orderliness and the market allocation of property. They are disobedient. They break rules. The time of unruly urbanisation has arrived.


The fight between city authorities and the ‘right to the city’ is a fierce war. When clashes occur between the state and occupiers - lives are lost. Livelihoods and property are destroyed. For cities such as Johannesburg, Lagos, Accra, Mumbai -informality is an ‘urban pariah’.  It is a far cry from their global ambitions to become world class. This is really the age of ‘disruptive urbanisation’ an epoch in which the classical principles of urban planning are overwhelmed by the force of urbanisation. Accepting this reality is the first step, innovating and working with this disruptive urbanisation is the second tentative step towards solutions.


In this fierce war between, the state, private landowners, the slum dweller, the trader and the courts- is there evidence of innovation and creative problem solving? Or simply a fierce tug of war for property rights? Where there are winners and losers? Are we experimenting with new forms of land use control and planning? Is the policy and regulatory regime of cities adapting and changing to this new reality? Our notion of intellectual property law is arguably under revision with the advent of the Internet. We have no choice. And therefore are we considering new laws for land use planning and administration, more attuned to the realities of ‘disruptive urbanisation’? Are we expanding our definitions and models for property management? 

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