Alice Cabaret is a familiar face around the Maboneng Precinct, the area she lives and works out of. But this isn’t a chance coincidence, Alice is the urban strategist for the area, and is intensely passionate about cities and the potential they hold for transformation through innovative new strategies for lived urban experiences. Part in response to the top-heavy nature of the urban development industry and part in response to the realities of living in one of the major developing African metropolises, Alice initiated GRIND, an international network of incubator studios for start-up urban regeneration research and projects. GRIND promotes an ethos of hands-on engagement through 3-month long residencies at the first GRIND studios space in Maboneng.
What’s your official and/or unofficial job title?
I am the Urban Strategist for Propertuity, the developers of the Maboneng Precinct, and Director of GRIND – the Global Regeneration Initiative for Neighbourhood Development.
What did you do before this? Please tell us about your background and how you have ended up doing what you do…
I graduated with a Masters Degree in Urban Strategy from Sciences Po University in Paris. After working on a few urban regeneration projects in France, I came to South Africa to facilitate the reconversion around turning empty buildings into affordable housing in the inner city of Johannesburg. I then published a book called “Back to the Streets” (Wits University Press) and started my own consulting company. I started working full time as an urban strategist for Propertuity, developers of the Maboneng Precinct, 2 years ago and I am now also the director of GRIND, which is a platform that promotes urban innovation in areas undergoing regeneration.
When and how did the idea for GRIND come about?
The idea to build the GRIND network started after conversations last year between Jonathan Liebmann, the CEO of Propertuity, and myself when we realised that there was a lack of connection between the different urban regeneration initiatives around the world, with no common organisation that promoted sharing of skills and experience in this domain. We thought about creating GRIND as an international platform that brings together urban regeneration stakeholders. The idea evolved in the creation of a collection of local GRIND Studios for Urban Innovation. The first GRIND studio opened in Maboneng this year and is situated on the top floor of the future “Situation East” building, in a space that Propertuity has provided for free.
You’ve initiated something completely new with GRIND – what’s behind this, driving and inspiring you?
I have always been fascinated with urban transformation and innovation. I wanted to create a space where like-minded people from all around the world could implement their own urban projects. Providing the GRIND residents with an online platform where they can document their initiatives, and communicate them on a global scale, is an incredibly inspiring part of the process.
Please tells us what the overarching vision for GRIND is, and how this relates back to Joburg?
The GRIND Studios encourage the implementation of innovative and inclusive urban projects in areas that are undergoing regeneration. The residents’ project ideas and results are then shared between stakeholders at a global level, with an ultimate goal of influencing urban regeneration guidelines and practices.
The GRIND Studio in Maboneng therefore helps Johannesburg position itself as a leading metropolis in terms of urban innovation, and as an inspiring example in terms of urban problem-solving on the global scene.
With the GRIND Studio you’re promoting and facilitating an immersive approach. Please can you share with us some of your thoughts on the benefits and advantages of this…
We invite GRIND residents to stay in the Maboneng Precinct during the full length of their projects in order to get a real understanding of the area’s dynamics. We also encourage them to look at the wider Maboneng Precinct urban spaces and not focus their attention only on Propertuity buildings. The immersive approach is a key factor of successful project completion.
The Maboneng Precinct has become a kind of international model for urban regeneration – please can you tell us a little about how and why this is…
The Maboneng Precinct receives a lot of international attention (exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale; mentions in international media; architectural collaborations, etc) because it managed to provide a unique South African example of urban regeneration within an African metropolis context.
Maboneng, within the global trend of the reconversion of abandoned industrial areas into creative and mixed-use neighbourhoods, managed to also provide a platform to promote South African arts, community and culture on an international level. Finally, the extent of the Maboneng Precinct redevelopment (with 38 industrial buildings in reconversion) as well as its vision to encourage social diversity in a still economically and racially fragmented city, make the project really remarkable on a global scale.
What’s your response to the gentrification debate?
“Gentrification” is originally a term conceptualised by Ruth Glass, a Marxist sociologist, in the 1960s to explain the investment of high-income social groups into low-income areas of London – leading to the creation of upper-class ghettos. More than 50 years after the invention of this concept, “gentrification” now seems to be an overused word referring to extremely different contexts and situations, from residential evictions to the opening of trendy, independent shops in a low-income areas. The initial analysis of gentrification in terms of social classes and social conflicts by nature excludes all positive considerations with regards to social diversity, economic development and infrastructure upgrades – which are essential aspects of neighbourhood transformation, especially in the Johannesburg context.
We need to question the term “gentrification” based on the latest dynamics of our contemporary societies and case studies in different cities. First, is the word “gentry” still appropriate when we are now dealing with social groups that encompass extremely different people in terms of income levels? For example, people living in the Maboneng buildings upgraded by Propertuity not only differ in terms of their income level (from the student sharing a unit to the family with two parents working in corporate companies), but also in terms of age, background, nationality, and race.
Also, does gentrification always mean displacement or can it rather be understood as the succession or synergy of population groups, as is the case in Maboneng with the reconversion of vacant industrial spaces into mixed-use buildings? It is important to note that Maboneng projects never evict residents and never redevelop inhabited residential units. Rather, they transform former vacant industrial buildings into mixed-use urban spaces. Maboneng is not about stratification, but interaction. At GRIND we promote events that bring community members of all racial, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds together.
New urban, creative groups of Johannesburgers promote alternative ways of seeing and living in the city. They show interest in “open” rather than “gated” communities. They are inventing new forms of conviviality and urban life because they show curiosity in the “Other” and have no fear of living in spaces that expose them to the diversity of their own city. They promote open, walkable spaces at neighbourhood scale that allow users to build social links – whether achieved through a simple look, a discussion, or a friendship.
These are positive and meaningful values, which are unfortunately overlooked in the “gentrification” debate. The Maboneng Development provides a platform for these values to emerge, it is now everyone’s responsibility to make these values live and evolve – for example through partnerships related to housing, health, and education. Creative urban regeneration is an essential step to reinventing the urban lifestyle and social relations of tomorrow in a way that openly opposes gated living, hatred, and segregation. Through urban regeneration we can strive instead for a progressive, integrated urbanism.
How has GRIND spread internationally – what sort of people and projects is the organisation attracting and engaging?
GRIND, as an international platform by nature, attracts both established stakeholders involved in creative urban regeneration projects (developers, municipalities, local communities) as well as students and practitioners from all around the world. GRIND is now involved in projects in Rio de Janeiro, Accra, Durban, Paris and Panama and has partnerships with both local and international universities like Stanford and Sciences Po.
What characteristics and skills does it take to do what you do?
A background in urban strategy is an asset in terms of understanding challenges and trends with regards to urban transformation. It is important to be familiar with the urban debates, but also be ready to challenge them when necessary.
What advice do you have for young urban practitioners interested in pursuing a career similar to your own?
Walk, walk and walk. Then read, talk, and act.
What are some of the current projects on in the Studio as well as some highlight of previous ones?
The current projects include the creation of a community museum about the history and future of the Maboneng area; an innovative waste management system; and the development of a local skills development centre and jobs agency.
Completed projects include the Urban Basket fresh produce delivery system, and their GRIND Grange rooftop farm; the City Trust urban crowdfunding platform; the “Maboneng in Numbers” social research; and “Walking in Shifting”, a book and performance on walking practices in Johannesburg.
We also regularly organise events (screenings, talks, exhibitions) in the GRIND Studio. GRIND also provides consulting services to a variety of stakeholders on creative urban projects, from conceptualisation to implementation.
What’s next for GRIND?
Continue building GRIND as a leading platform for the promotion of innovative urban regeneration initiatives around the world, based on a constantly growing collection of locally based studios.
Find out more about GRIND on their website and keep up to date on GRIND Studio events and project presentations on the Facebook page.