Grappling with the legacy of apartheid design

Global Urbanism Studio helps reimagine Johannesburg

The Global Urbanism Studio investigates commonalities among, and differences between, some of the world’s most important urban centers. A glimpse of this year’s visit to Johannesburg, where students studied efforts to overcome the legacy of apartheid design.

Johannesburg is a modern global city, the second largest in Africa, its metropolitan area home to nearly 8 million people. Yet the legacy of apartheid has left it a city of spatial segregation — a city of walls, of racially divided townships and populations pushed to the peripheries.

Last summer, nine Master of Urban Design students from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts traveled to Johannesburg and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, as part of the 2015 Global Urbanism Studio. Led by John Hoal, PhD, professor and chair of urban design, and lecturer Matthew Bernstine, the immersive 13-week studio explored commonalities among, and differences between, some of the world’s most important urban centers.

“This is what I call a research/action studio,” Hoal said. “Students do significant original research, but they also resolve that research into a specific design.”

This 2015 studio centered on Corridors of Freedom, an ambitious urban design program that aims to improve transportation throughout the Johannesburg region. Students explored the city, met with practicing design professionals — including professors from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and members of the Johannesburg Development Agency — and then created detailed speculative projects that could be slotted within the larger Corridors of Freedom framework.

The visit to Dubai, another rapidly developing global city, provided the students with a resonant point of comparison and counterexample.

“You start with how people actually live,” said Melisa Betts, who is pursuing dual degrees in architecture and urban design. “Urban design is not imposing — it’s creating and crafting, using what is actually there.”

Other participating graduate students were Dhay Aldhawyan, Siobhan Glass, Andrea Godshalk, David Leitman, Deena Saeed, Tianyue Shi, Sminu Sudhakaran and Bin Yan.

Previous Global Urbanism Studios have examined conditions in Chicago, Copenhagen, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Shanghai, Singapore and Tijuana, among others.

For more information about the Global Urbanism Studio, visit