REVIEW: Negotiating Space, by Isandla Institute

Here at we are want to shed light on some of the most pressing issues facing cities today. Informal settlements will therefore always be a top priority. In this review we take a look at what Isandla Institute's documentary Negotiating Space speaks about participation and incrementalism in upgrading informal settlements. 

Late in October, Isandla Institute, a research and advocacy organisation based in Cape Town, released a documentary titled Negotiating Space, subtitled "participation and incrementalism in informal settlement upgrading". What does participation and incrementalism mean in the context of informal settlement upgrading? Have a look for yourself. 

As the documentary goes on to show, when planning and construction is opened up to the very important contributions from people living in informal settlement, things look a bit different compared to when government or companies do things in isolation. So why does this matter? Well, as we have argued here, informal settlements in South African represents some of the most pressing challenges in South Africa and many other countries, but could also hold the key to alleviating poverty, growing small businesses, and slow but surely building neighborhoods.

Also, development will not take place in one sweep. Rather, smaller scale interventions over time (ie. incrementalism) are being made that are not disruptive to people's living environments, yet addresses short term needs. The examples offered in the film include Emthojeni's (VPUU) -- multi-use public spaces -- and re-blocking (SA SDI Alliance) -- rearranging shacks and delivering services. 

Negotiating Space explores the potential for informal settlement upgrading to bring about social and spatial transformation in South African cities. We invite you to use the documentary as a tool for animating conversation about innovative and rights-based practices that can be used in the making of inclusive and sustainable cities.
— Adoné Kitching and Mirjam van Donk, executive producers, Isandla Institute

This documentary is a welcome edition to films that take on development issues. Not only does the content of the film address some of the top policy challenges, it also visually grips your attention and draws you into deeper insights. The 22 minute film tracks a number of informal settlement upgrading practices around Cape Town, particularly those of communities aligned with the South African Alliance associated with Shack / Slum Dwellers International (SDI), Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading, and Social Justice Coalition.

Expert interviews with Edgar Pieterse (Director, African Centre for Cities), Seth Maqetuko (former director of Human Settlements, City of Cape Town), Andries Nel (Deputy Director, Department Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs) and Johru Robyn (Manager, Informal Settlements, Stellenbosch Municipality) spotlight the importance of the examples Isandla Institute gives insights to. 

However, this is not only a story of success, and for this reason, all the more powerful. Meetings break down, governments clash with communities, progress is stalled, and projects can fall in disrepair. The film takes you deep into community meetings, planning forums, and project implementation stages. There are a few gems hidden here. For example, a meeting in Langrug around the maintenance issues of a shared water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) mixed use building showcases the difficulty of sustaining interesting and problem-solving projects. Interviews with NGO staff and community leaders point to other opportunities, such as improved communication, better planning and design, and faster project progress. 

This film is really worth watching. It builds on Isandla Institute's long history of pointing to policy issues in the urban sector. This is their second film, following the success of the film Right to the City (note: the link is a poor quality version). We think they did a pretty fine job of it. 


© Isandla Institute
Executive producers: Adoné Kitching and Mirjam van Donk
Directed and edited by: Leasha and Bart Love
Illustrations by: Mark Tronson
Animation by: Steph Botha
Translation by: Michell Mpike

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