Umthombo 2 - Page 20



How we put
African urbanism
on the map
Asking better
questions
Real-world problems have always
been at the heart of the African
Centre for Cities’ (ACC) approach.
“When the ACC was founded as
an interdisciplinary UCT Signature
Theme in 2007, our mandate was to
be responsive to issues facing Cape
Town,” explains Professor Edgar
Pieterse, ACC director.
But instead of starting out by
defining the problems facing Cape
Town, the ACC’s founding researchers
took an unusual approach: they
listened.
“We asked people who worked in
the public sector and civil society what
they thought were important issues,”
18
says Pieterse.
“This meant that as researchers,
academics and students, we stepped
outside traditional roles towards a
deliberative context where we were not
the experts. In short, we had to learn
how to ask better questions.”
Over time this approach generated
the ACC’s core thematic concerns: the
informal economy; hungry cities and
urban food systems; urban resilience;
and urban systems related to climate
and other risks.
Retaining a
radical openness
At first, the ACC relied on funding
mainly from development agencies.
According to Pieterse, they soon
realised that academic grant funding
was a more sustainable way to ensure
the longevity of multi-year research
projects.
“Funding from large research
organisations like the International
Development and Research Council
is extremely difficult to get, but it
also has two major advantages,”
he explains. “First, it often requires
comparative work, which has provided
many opportunities for us to work
with partners around the continent.
Secondly, it encourages empirical work,
an essential way to guard against our
work becoming too rhetorical.”
Using this funding, the ACC has
created a sustainable model of
multiple three- to five-year projects
built around key themes. According to
PHOTOGRAPH: ANDY MKOSI. ILLUSTRATION: SHUTTERSTOCK
Over the past decade, the African Centre for Cities has
become an authority on African urbanism. Professor
Edgar Pieterse, director of the centre, tells the story
of how an experimental research institute grew into a
leading intellectual voice in global urbanism.





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