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Corobrik's Most Innovative Final Year Landscape Architecture Award Bridges the Formal and Informal Sectors

"We are Europe," an elder in an informal settlement told University of Cape Town (UCT) architectural student, Amy Thompson, during her extensive research for a thesis that won this year's Corobrik Most Innovative Final Year Landscape Architecture Project award.
His comment and Thompson's enlightening discovery of the deep sense of community and the true complexity of an issue that has been poorly addressed over the past 10 years led to her giving her thesis the same name.
"My thesis critiques the perception of informality within the city by addressing failings in policy and legislation to allow for better informal settlement upgrade to occur. It is my hope that, by challenging the perception of informality and providing the socio-economic facilities called for within policy, the physical and symbolic boundaries separating the formal and informal parts of the city will be dismantled," she explains.
Corobrik's Manager Western Cape, Christie van Niekerk, says that this award, which is now in its fourth year has, more than ever, demonstrated how up and coming architects are grappling with the idiosyncrasies and diversity of South Africa's unique built environment and using the tools at their disposal to interrogate and transform the world as we know it 20 years after achieving democracy.
He pointed out that Thompson's thesis which addressed a potentially controversial and more immediate issue contrasted with that of runner up and fellow UCT student, Wallace Honiball, in his project entitled ERF 217 The Company's Garden. He worked within a formal and historical setting as he addressed the functional re-organization and replanting of trees in Erf 217, one of the South Africa's oldest gardens with a 350 year history.
Van Niekerk said the Corobrik award for the Most Innovative Final Year Landscape Architecture Project provided a valuable opportunity to showcase new ideas and approaches that were relevant within both the formal and informal built environment.
One of the chief challenges facing local and provincial government, in particular, is urban sprawl which unfortunately tends to reinforce historic spatial, economic and social divides rather than address social and economic needs and cultural development.
"You can't address (the issues surrounding informality) through building RDP houses," Thompson believes.
She says the extensive work behind We Are Europe could be divided into two the first segment saw her doing a large amount of research to unpack existing legislation and investigate why it had not been applied.
"The aim of this thesis is to investigate new ways in which informal settlements within South Africa can be upgraded on an ad hoc, in-situ basis and create a land tenure system for the community based on its existing evolved physical and social structure. Keeping everyone within 50m of where they currently live allows for socio-economic facilities and future high density development to occur," she explains.
Thompson believes that one of the obstacles to a more forward approach to informality is a lack of understanding of how the built environment works.
A typological study into how a particular informal settlement was situated, how sites evolved and how land lines were drawn up followed. She says she looked at how different buildings were used how a church and a shebeen met different community needs, for example.
The policy that she created in response to her research was applied to Europe, a well located informal settlement within the City of Cape Town that accommodates 7 500 people. Europe is close to the Cape Town CDB, a kilometre away from the Cape Town International Airport and situated along the commercial corridor of Klipfontein Road. Because of easy access to schools and jobs, she says she soon discovered that the community did not want to relocate as they valued the convenience, community bonds and the sense of place.
"The name of the settlement represents an aspirational feeling among community members as well as a sense of pride and ownership over the land. The name 'Europe' prompted me to draw parallels between the incremental making of the informal settlement and the characteristics of similarly evolved medieval towns in Europe proper," she says.
"As well as inverting colonialism, this parallel between the two becomes an act of valuing the presence of informality within the city and viewing it as a process to be accepted (which in Europe proper led to contemporary Europe) rather than an element to be eradicated," she continues.
She says that, by superimposing the qualities of Europe within the local settlement of Europe, she was able to identify design characteristics and principles for the making of public space that were currently lacking within the settlement. These will accommodate the densities of the community, provide civic nodes, function as flood mitigation and allow land rehabilitation to occur.
"By challenging the perception of informality and providing the socio-economic facilities called for within Chapter 13, the informal settlement will be connected to the surrounding area and the physical and symbolic boundaries separating the formal and informal parts of the city will be dismantled," she says.
Thompson says that she hopes that her findings and perceptions can be applied to informal settlements in the future. Despite the fact that agreement from a wide range of stakeholders would be needed, she feels that her thesis proves that incremental development is possible and that tenure rights and social cohesion can be valued as informal settlements are viewed as a valuable part of the built environment.
UCT Landscape (2) Amy Thompson is pictured receiving her award from Christie van Niekerk of Corobrik, right is Dr Julian Raxworthy from the University of Cape Town.