Sustainable Human(e) Settlements: The urban challenge

International conference: Lamunu, Braamfontien, Johannesburg 17th-21st September 2012

In September 2012, the University of Johannesburg, with its partners and sponsors, hosted the international conference on Sustainable Human(e) Settlements: the urban challenge. This was an activity of the CIB W110 group on Informal Settlements and Affordable Housing, which is led by Prof Happy Santosa (ITS, Surabaya, Indonesia) and Prof Amira Osman (University of Johannesburg). This research group has also been closely collaborating with CIB W104 on Open Building Implementation.

The conference partners and sponsors were the International Council for Research and Innovation in Building and Construction (CIB), Cement and Concrete Institute (CCI), Social Housing Focus Trust (SHiFT), the National Association of Social Housing Organisations (NASHO), Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), COROBRIK, National Research Foundation (NRF), 26’10 South Architects, Sharp Shop Architects, South African Institute for Architects (SAIA), Association of Schools of Construction of South Africa (ASOCSA), 1:1 Agency of Engagement and the Netherland Architecture Fund. The conference organizing committee was: Amira Osman, Finzi Saidi, Ferdinand Fester, Clinton Aigbavboa, Wellington Thwala and Jhono Bennett.

The conference was held at Lamunu, Braamfontein. This was an apt location because of the interesting urban regeneration that is happening in the area – which buzzes with student life due to the proximity to both the University of the Witwatersrand campus as well as the University of Johannesburg campus.

The conference was conceived as a “small but significant conference” intending to shed light on issues believed to add value to the debate on housing and human settlements in South Africa – ideally to be achieved through active engagement between the architectural profession and other professions and stakeholders in human settlements.

Architecture is a profession that is critical in the achievement of human settlements that are more equitable, more beautiful, more functional – human settlements that increase peoples’ opportunities, offering people a better chance at improving their lives and livelihoods. It is a profession that has the potential to offer both technical and social expertise towards the enhancement of social cohesion and integration through the achievement of a mix of income groups, housing types, functions etc.

In other words, the architectural profession has the potential to make significant contributions to environments and human settlements that are more human(e). The role of architects and architecture is critical. Yet, the profession remains largely untransformed and disengaged from these issues… something that is changing, but too slowly. This needs to change and we need to re-think the way in which the built environment is conceived, designed and delivered.

The conference had a particular approach and aimed to promote thinking on alternative strategies for design and delivery of housing and human settlements – as well as emphasize the role of architects and the architectural profession in spatial transformation and achieving more sustainable, human(e) and equitable cities. The conference themes also built on a vision for human(e) settlements developed by a partnership of individuals from various agencies (CSIR, SHiFT, SAIA, SAICE etc.), calling themselves the Tsela Tshewu Design Team, which listed 10 principles for transformation in the built environment – these principles all emphasized the need for distributed decision making and innovation in the manner in which the built environment in general, and housing in particular, is designed, funded and delivered. The need for viewing the built environment at different levels requiring careful management of the relationships between the agents that operate at those levels as well as the need to “disentangle” those levels to allow for a degree of permanence without restricting the necessity for constant transformation becomes apparent.

The 10-point vision presented a set of guidelines to apply this principle in South Africa on new developments as well as in the transformation of existing suburbs and townships and in the upgrade of informal settlements. This approach allows for the integration of low cost housing within strategies that address the development of complete housing eco-systems rather than isolating housing for the poor. It also allows for the development of housing models that make “business sense” by allowing for the involvement of small-scale construction industries in the delivery of the “lower level” of the built environment (the infill or fit out levels) while the large and more experienced companies deliver the base buildings, that is the more permanent component of the built environment. The idea here is to allow for constant transformation and innovations at the lower level of the environment – with more players being involved in decision-making at those levels – while ensuring the delivery of high quality and efficient base buildings which might be leased or sold to various agents including, possibly, subsidised rental housing institutions.

Due to this particular approach to viewing the built environment, a strong link with Open Building thinkers and thinking led to collaboration between the CIB W110 research group on Informal Settlements and Affordable Housing and the CIB W104 group on Open Building Implementation. The focus on Open Building also generated a strong Netherlands influence and interest as it is premised on writings by key thinkers in the field such as John Habraken. The strong link with thinkers and projects in the Netherlands was evident in the papers presented, the delegates that attended and also influenced the movies that were produced.

The preparations for the conference started many months before with an important collaboration internally between the Multi Media Department at FADA, UJ and the Architecture Department. The intention was to produce two movies that looked at the South African situation and presented innovation in thinking about residential developments in the Netherlands. Produced in partnership with ximage, Amsterdam, the Sustainable Human(e) Settlements: the urban challenge documentary films premiered at the Urban Film Festival organised by UN-Habitat, World Urban Forum, Naples, 3rd-5th September 2012. The movies have also been selected for the India-AARDE Film Festival, partnering with the School of Architecture, Anna University in Chennai, December 20-22, 2012. The movies have been used for lectures and presentations nationally and in the Netherlands.

The movies were produced with an intention to initiate a debate on Open Building in South Africa. The workshops had a similar aim and started the day before the conference and overlapped with its activities. These workshops aimed to better establish OB thinking in South Africa among practitioners, academics, social housing institutions and developers. Detailed reports on the workshops are being compiled.

The workshops and conference were addressed by key international figures in the field of Open Building thinking and practice. Stephen Kendall (Ball State University, USA) is one of the coordinators of CIB group W104 Open Building Implementation gave a keynote talk as well as jointly ran a workshop with Amira Osman (University of Johannesburg). Phil Astley (the Bartlett, London) led the workshop on Open Building for Healthcare Systems Separation with Georgio Macchi (Director and Chief, Real Estate and Public Buildings for Canton Bern) and Marianus de Jager (Sharp Shop Architects, Johannesburg). Jane Stanley (Director of People and Communities for the City of Ballart, Victoria, Australia), who was sponsored by the CCI, gave depth to the discussion by raising issues of participation, community engagement and re-defining community partnerships through her thoughts on “gnarly planning” and international experience in the field.

Other important events at the conference were:

  1. Technical tours organized by SHiFT which aimed to introduce the delegates to different sections of Johannesburg and using the Rainbow Rating Tool developed by SHiFT to assess the viewed projects and neighbourhood in terms of various sustainability and design criteria.
  2. A 3-hour debate on what the term “human(e) settlements” implied was hosted by Thorsten Deckler of 26’10 South Architects – the debate was convened by Anton Harber (author of the book “Diepsloot”) and the presenters were selected from a range of fields and people who had varied experience in the field of housing and informality.


One day of the conference also included academic presentations based on scientific papers, which had been subjected to a double, blind-peer review in a 2-stage process. The scientific committee and reviewers was comprised of national and international academics – this committee ensured the high standard of the papers presented and published in the proceedings.

The activities of the conference were endorsed by the South African Institute for Architects, SAIA, and are CPD accredited.