Wits City Institute Master Class

Social Justice and the ‘Corridors of Freedom’

The Andrew W. Mellon Chair in Critical Architecture and Urbanism and Director of the Wits City Institute Professor Noëleen Murray co-hosted the Harvard School of Design’s Professor Toni L. Griffin to a masterclass convened to review and critique the City of Joburg’s Corridors of Freedom initiative.

1 June 2018 / WCI Studio, Room 141 Robert Sobukwe Block, University of the Witwatersrand

Words: Refilwe Namise / Jill Weintroub

Image: Nocebo Bucibo / Masterclass participants adapt Just City planning tools to the Turfontein artery of the Corridors of Freedom initiative.

The masterclass gathered to work hands-on on ways of adapting the Just Cities toolkit developed by Professor Toni L. Griffin through her many interventions in American cities including Detroit, Newark (New Jersey), Memphis, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, with a view to bringing aspects this method and thinking to bear on the City of Joburg’s widely celebrated but now largely stalled Corridors of Freedom planning programme, designed (under the auspices of the city’s previous ANC-led administration and Mayor Parks Tau) to undo the exclusionary planning of apartheid and to re-stitch urban spaces through the instantiation of mass public transportation arteries in three key quadrants of the greater city.


Griffin developed her set of benchmarks in the course of several decades of working on transformational planning for American cities in which the goal was to drive urban transformation in cities through ‘the advancement of design practice, education, research and advocacy in ways that build and sustain resilient and just communities, cities and regions’. The toolkit encompasses a set of design indicators seeking ‘to define the core values of a just city and offer a performance measure tool to assist cities and communities with evaluating how design facilitates urban justice in the built environment’ (www.gsd.harvard.edu/person/toni-l-griffin/).


At the masterclass, Griffin elaborated on the toolkit, suggesting that the method could involve using a facilitator to make sure that all voices – especially those marginalised – were heard. It was crucial too, that the exercise was based on a fundamental understanding of one’s relationship with space – and especially the relationship between space and justice, which was something that needed to be instilled from childhood, she said. The masterclass audience included planners who had worked on the CoJ’s Corridors of Freedom project, and who described the original project as ‘central’ and ‘nuanced’, but with a roll-out that was now uncertain due in part to the change in city politics following the 2014 municipal election.

Interventions for participants included making the point that notions of equality, justice and freedom could vary among different stakeholders in any design process, that the Just City idea could suggest the idea of the ‘city’ as a single entity when in reality the concept was fluid and encompassed a range of inhabitants and belongings, and that marginal voices and languages were always prone to being silenced by the dominant ones in any design context and planning process.

Aspirations of a Just City

1 June 2018 / Wits Club, University of the Witwatersrand

Later that day, Murray together with Wits City Institute researcher Mpho Matsipa participated in the Just City Dialogues with Griffin. The panel, chaired by Gilbert Khadiagala, Professor of International Relations and Director of the African Centre for the Study of the United States, shared insights on the planning of Johannesburg and St Louis in Missouri (US), and explored ways in which these cities might be transformed as both have similar histories of segregation and oppression, for Johannesburg being apartheid and St Louis being slavery.

Transformation is a growing imperative for cities to undo the historical disparities of the past. Cities in Africa owe much of their segregated town planning to the colonial powers who designed these cities. Infrastructure and town planning were used as elements to divide cities. In South Africa, the apartheid regime’s Group Areas Act was one of the tools used to further segregate cities while creating unjust systems within cities. The question was how architectural planning might contribute to transforming cities and embracing urban justice.

‘St Louis has a long history of conditions of injustice going back to the reconstruction of a country coming out of slavery of where black bodies were viewed as property. Today, the US still has cities that are segregated by race,’ said Griffin. These forms of segregations were ‘due to the legacy of past laws and regulations of our city that excluded blacks and moved them into a certain part of the community and pushed them to another,’ she said.

Griffin leads The Just City Lab, a research platform at Harvard that investigates the definition of urban justice and the ‘just city’ and examines how design and planning contribute to the conditions of justice and injustice in cities, neighbourhoods and the public realm. Through her work, she is trying to understand how cities can move from conditions of injustice to justice.

Murray suggested that cities need to be reimagined differently for them to transform. She leads the ‘New’ South project researching the ‘unplanned’ outcomes in built environments to the south of Johannesburg, where a ‘dream-like’ planning and design initiative was instigated by the Rand Mines Property company in the twilight years of apartheid. The project investigates the making and unmaking of the space envisaged by a set of key architects, planners and urban designers on out-mined land in a scheme that did not come to fruition. Murray said that there is no doubt that town planning contributed to the segregation and segmentation created by the apartheid government.

‘We should all be worried about planning. Planning is what made apartheid happen. It made it material. The Group Areas Act and Population Control played a huge factor in segregation,’ she added.

Matsipa, whose work is focused on urbanism and art, shared her experiences of the injustices that exist in the inner-city of Johannesburg. Like Griffin, she believes that radicalism is needed to address issues of injustice in Johannesburg and to transform the city. ‘The question we need to ask ourselves is how do we reimagine the city and what are the kinds of interventions that are radical and transformative for that city? We need to claim the rights to imagine the city that we want to live in without necessarily feeling completely beholden to certain planning gestures that were fundamentally intended to segregate the city,’ said Matsipa.

For more on the Harvard School of Design and Professor Griffin, see www.gsd.harvard.edu/person/toni-l-griffin/