Internationally recognized urbanist Sophie Oldfield is an experienced global leader in Southern urban studies, informing theoretical and primary research with questions that address housing, informality and governance, mobilizing and social movements, and urban planning and politics. Oldfield recently co-designed and developed two new graduate programs connecting urban concerns across continents; co-edited the Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South (2014); and co-founded the Southern African City Studies Network in 2007. For her consistently forward-thinking collaborative engagement, leadership, and research, Oldfield was recently awarded a fellowship from the Society of South African Geographers. Oldfield officially joins the department on January 1, 2022.
You are an urbanist and educator; how did you know you wanted to study cities — where did it all start?
I moved to Cape Town, South Africa, from the U.S. in April 1994, just before the democratic elections — a moment when South African society opened itself up structurally, politically, and symbolically. It was a period of immense change, of active reimagining and reconfiguring, bringing into being the idea of a new nation. While we can be critical of outcomes, processes, and the actual state of transformation in hindsight, this was a significant reckoning. It was a rupture, a moment that invited experiments of many kinds and demanded commitments to finding new and different ways to move together — to re-inhabit the city and society.
My first job in South Africa was as a temporary teacher in a formerly segregated Black high school. Teaching in Cape Town, a radically divided and grossly unequal yet beautiful city, grabbed me in so many ways. I was lucky. I taught in an unusual school where teachers and students could together pursue what intrigued them. I was given carte blanche to toss out the old curriculum, a relic of apartheid racism. I could teach what seemed most important. My students and I immersed ourselves in the city, venturing to places we had never been, to places off the map (today, unheard of). It felt like a literal odyssey.
This entry rooted me in both Cape Town and a personal and professional imperative to traverse boundaries. It was a mix of navigating the city's segregated present and planning legacies, as well as its creative energy, and its verve and openness to critique, conversation, and change. I glimpsed the beauty of teaching, learning with students, and throwing ourselves into out-of-the-box projects. This, and much of what these experiences inspired (my return to the U.S. for a Ph.D. in geography and a dissertation on South African urban transformation, for example), planted the seeds of my urban interests, my love for pedagogy and research, and for thinking and talking — for finding ways of working and engaging together.
Your work is very specific and yet part of a larger paradigmatic shift in planning and urban studies — from views and conversations that have traditionally been framed by the Global North, to a Global Southern perspective. How do you work within and between these spaces? How does this shift affect planning practice and pedagogy?
It's a fantastic time to be a southern urban scholar. We have an invitation to think differently. We have an invitation to work differently.
My own research sits at the cusp of planning and urban studies — it is interdisciplinary both by nature and by choice. For me, interdisciplinary approaches are key to both facing crises in our cities, and to the creativity we need to think about and engage with planning and with the urban more generally. In my research, I engage the terrain of the "urban everyday" — the sometimes invisible, often contentious, organized and mobilized, "invented spaces" of planning — sites of critical urban politics and dynamic change. I build my work around collaborative questions of urban studies and planning, drawing on forms of ethnography, thick description, and methodologies of engaged research and writing to understand depth and variety across planning practices; specifically, the practices ordinary citizens enact to make do, to survive, and to live fully.
Many planning questions that come up in southern urbanism studies focus on service delivery and governance; on state-driven, capital-centric structural processes that shape the city. These processes are important, of course, but they are one sliver of a complex story. All over the Global South, and increasingly in the Global North, people are doing things themselves out of necessity — constituting publics, constructing buildings and spaces, making infrastructure relevant — all in conditions rooted in the creativity crisis so often demands. This gets at the heart of urban planning practice, its complex mix of actors. It is an inspiration and a challenge to find or invent new ways to engage, understand, and represent that complexity. And these are challenges that open up possibilities and contradictions for all of us — as citizens and scholars.
As researchers and practitioners, and as educators, we need the methodological range and conceptual vocabulary necessary to engage urban practices of all kinds. The ways we have theorized, written, and engaged cities in the past just aren't sufficient. There is such a massive gap between shifting empirical realities, the dynamics that shape cities, and our knowledge base. I think we need to have conversations and find practices that embrace that gap, to find ways to insert ourselves in it, inhabit it, and think critically and creatively in that space. We need to render the complex things going on in cities visible in our work — and this is a context where we have a considerable need for research. Bold research. In some instances, this can be overwhelming, but doing this work meaningfully has tremendous implications for our disciplines, our practice as planners and urbanists, and as scholars and professors guiding the next generation.
Spanning geographies that encompass a global range of complexity and lived experience in cities, can you share any specific ways you build collaborative and engaged approaches into urban research and pedagogy?
Teaching engaged and collaborative approaches to planning and urban studies has been at the core of nearly everything I've done over the past two decades. Methodology — the how of what we do as scholars and practitioners who work in and on cities — continues to shape how I think about pedagogy and planning.
I've been very lucky to have spent the last five years working with colleagues to design and develop two bespoke graduate programs — a Master of Philosophy in Southern Urbanism at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and a Master of Arts in Critical Urbanisms at the University of Basel in Switzerland.
A central element of both programs has been a city research studio where collaborative approaches have been very effective in grounding research and teaching in critical questions of activism that are important in neighborhoods and communities, and to student learning. For example, we've focused on questions of housing justice and building partnerships with movements, NGOs, and communities active in the Cape Town debate and struggle for housing and land access. These projects provide a pedagogical context where students learn with and from our partners, most importantly ordinary residents who engage with the hardships of everyday life, such as the struggle for decent housing and community building. This mode of teaching embraces multiple forms of urban knowledge and expertise beyond the conventional classroom context. Each year's studio project is carefully negotiated and organized, and run collaboratively. And, each produces a beautiful book that shares our collective inquiry, bringing together visuals and analytical materials as well as narratives of neighborhood families who face the challenges of access to services and housing from the state. Distributed across the community and city, these volumes are resonant in neighborhoods where we work and have become key to both advancing NGO efforts to shift planning policy and theorizing possible avenues for change.
In sharing the struggles for housing justice, our work challenges reductionist assumptions that formality leads to the security of homes for people. We work against purely instrumental and technical understandings of the relationship between (in)security and (in)formality in practice — challenges that are central to planning and to the future of cities across the Global South and North.
Can you say more about points where urban conditions in the Global South intersect with those typically associated with the Global North? Can relationships, overlaps, and interfaces between the two frame new ways of thinking about cities and planning practices in the U.S.?
Here, I think there is a fantastic and critical conversation to be had. It is key that we acknowledge and engage with the hard geographies and contexts that divide us across north and south. Yet increasingly, questions of southern and south-eastern urbanism are the realities and provocations of the Global North, too. Infrastructure crumbling, precarity, increased challenges around housing, for example. There are relational geographies that entwine and entangle urban realities lived around the world — all shaped by global movements, individual and collective mobilities, as well as the tensions of borders and boundaries that shape our present moment in such powerful ways.
These are also many of the disparities and tensions COVID has laid bare, accentuating global apartheid, making crystal clear who has and does not have access to vaccines, health care, and food, for instance. And, at the same time, the crises of our time bind us in our shared global reality.
I'm interested in thinking through urban crises as a project of doing relevant work, of engaging with the challenges and possibilities of planning practice and scholarship that are rooted deeply in the complexities of our cities. I'm particularly excited about options that might emerge from "juxtaposing dissimilar cases," to draw on Teresa Caldeira's language (2017). What might happen if we think within and across these boundaries to work collaboratively to engage transversal logics that shape urbanization and cities across the world.
Crisis in southern cities is normalized, overlaid, and multiple. In the global southern conversation, we constantly invoke, index, and engage with northern literature. There's a beautiful opportunity to think across these conversations and geographies, to participate and shape global urbanism that is rooted and contextual, but also cosmopolitan.
What are you working on now?
At the moment, I am finishing a beautiful book project called Knowing the City: From Apartheid to Democracy. Working with my colleagues, Anna Selmeczi at the University of Cape Town and Clive Barnett at the University of Exeter, the book is a creative intervention that reflects on the project of urban scholarship and practices in South Africa. It explores the ways that our work has shifted across regime change, generations, and urban contexts. On the one hand, cities have changed from apartheid to democracy; on the other hand, urban problems are intransigent, deepened, and intractable.
My collaborators and I hope this intervention will muddy stark divisions between theory and empirics, policy engagement, and radical critique, making visible the wide array of practice that roots us across generations in the city and in questions of decolonization and transformation. In this complex and contested context, we ask questions like: how has our urban and planning scholarship shifted? How have we, as practitioners and scholars, shifted in these changing and challenging urban contexts?
In response, we invited a large number of urbanists and planners from different generations, regions, and universities across the country who have moved between the academy and fields of policy, consultancy, activism, and advocacy. We designed an experimental participatory and dialogical workshop method through which we could map together — remember and reflect on genealogies of South African urban debates and their periodization in critical moments of struggle. We built conversations to track questions, issues, and troubles that drove particular debates. We reflected on our experiences researching the city, stories of fieldwork, partners, and the inspiration that drove us. We explored ways to map the shifting spatial, personal, and institutional networks and contexts that shaped different generations' entries into the field. The book aggregates and shares a rich array of narrative, visual, and archival materials that weave the scholarly, political, and personal together — a mix of autobiographical and conceptual provocations. In short, it explores the "intellectual problem spaces," as David Scott (2014) calls them, those that have defined urban scholarship and all of its debates, anxieties, hopes, horizons, doubts, and objects that "emerged as questions to have answers to."
This story first appeared in the News section of the Architecture, Art, and Planning website.