Dr Naomi Roux will present the Department of Archaeology seminar with a talk entitled, " Conservation and Spatial Justice in South African cities". 


This seminar will be a work-in-progress presentation of a new research project funded under an NRF CSUR grant, “Conservation and Spatial Justice in South African cities”. This project seeks to explore what the relationship is, or could be, between built environment conservation and spatial justice. Is conservation inherently conservative, or can it be a tool for imagining and making more equitable, just, and livable cities? In this presentation I will present the framing of this project and some preliminary discussions based on workshops, interviews and experimental participatory inventorying processes conducted with the South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union and Reclaim the City.

Historically, built environment conservation in South Africa has drawn on European architectural conservation practices and associated values around what constitutes “important” or “conservation-worthy” architecture. Globally, heritage practice since the 1970s has undergone a shift towards greater inclusivity, participatory practice and acknowledgement of the intangible, and these shifts are to some extent reflected in the framing of the 1999 National Heritage Resources Act. In practice, heritage practice in the built environment is still often perceived as elitist, exclusionary, and a tool of NIMBYism rather than one of inclusivity, material redress and justice. But is it possible to frame built environment conservation in a more radical way, linked to the demands of urban transformation and spatial justice in post-apartheid cities?

Answering this question requires sensitivity to several contexts and agendas. In Cape Town, important public debates have begun to take place around housing, land politics, densification and inclusive development. Urban densification is both an economic imperative and a political one, and if managed well is an important strategy for undoing spatial legacies of apartheid: as such, there are strong imperatives for radical spatial change and transformation of the built environment in South African cities, including within well-located historic neighbourhoods. At the same time, many of the communities most at risk from gentrification and economic displacement are also spaces where residents identify a strong sense of collective identity and everyday intangible practices, the ephemeral and phenomenological qualities of spaces that “feel like home”. Although intangible, ephemeral and everyday, these practices are nonetheless intrinsically entangled with the materiality of the built environment. This study aims to work through some of these ideas, debates and contradictions to test a transformational framework for conservation practice.


Naomi is a senior lecturer in UCT’s School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics, where she convenes the MPhil programme in Conservation of the Built Environment. Her current research work focuses on the intersections between heritage, urban transformation and the politics of memory, and she has been working between heritage studies, urbanism and visual culture for the last decade in various research and teaching positions in South Africa and the UK. She has previously held Urban Studies postdoctoral fellowships at the African Centre for Cities at UCT, and at the London School of Economics. She has a PhD in History of Art from Birkbeck, University of London and a Masters in Heritage Studies from Wits University.