Photography by:
  • Mzwakhe Tshabalala & Irene Lambrianos & Kirsten Thomson

Gauteng's urban space economy (2023)

‘Urban space economy’ is shorthand for the distribution of economic activity in space, considering: how the spatial form of cities is structured by dynamic changes in economic activity; how economic opportunities and constraints are structured by spatial form, fabric and function; and the changing nature of economic space itself.

This project aims to:

  1. Deepen understanding of how the urban space economy of the GCR works, through innovative mapping, analysis of quantitative data, a number of qualitative case studies, and a re-examination of the theory;
  2. Interrogate how government in the city-region has understood the challenge of intervening in the space economy of Gauteng over the last two decades, and how it has built institutional arrangements and techniques through which to perform ‘economic development’ functions;
  3. Through (1) and (2), reach conclusions on how government in the GCR might sharpen future policy and practice on facilitating economic activity through spatial interventions.

The entry point for this study is the concept of ‘agglomeration economies’. The idea has its roots in early economic theory and has more recently been re-invigorated in economic geography and regional studies. Agglomeration refers to the positive externalities of business co-locating in the same place. Put simply the idea is that when economic activities cluster together spatially there are advantages to all the actors in the cluster in the form of lower input prices, more efficient labour markets, and, in particular, the spill-over and intense exchange of ideas in a way that spontaneously increases innovation and productivity. While the concept is well-rooted in academic literature there remain many questions on precisely when, where and how agglomeration works, and how – if it all – it can be fostered by government intervention.

It is also debatable whether ‘agglomeration’ is the most appropriate conceptual framework for understanding the space economy of ‘cities of the south’. Some cities house millions of people who somehow assemble a livelihood in the absence of any economic activity manifesting as ‘businesses’ located in commercial, industrial or retail property. Sometimes strange and idiosyncratic spaces in cities create unusual economic opportunities (see for example GCRO’s photo essay on 'Scavenger economies of the mine-dumps economies of the mine-dumps’). Often what bears explanation in economically dynamic neighbourhoods is how street and building spaces are configured, often provisionally, and in tenuous articulation with faraway places, by the micro-logics of production or trade. And frequently the most important economic agent in areas marginal to economic cores is government, with its sometimes peculiar conceptions of how the economy in that area ought to be developed.

This project explores the working of agglomeration economies in the GCR, and also dynamics in the space economy of the region that cannot be easily accounted for by the theory of agglomeration. A number of case studies on aspects of the GCR’s space economy were commissioned from external experts in 2014. These were, over time, published in various formats, or inputted into larger published works (See below).

In 2016/17 the attention within this project space focused on the firm level survey project being done in collaboration with the Gauteng Growth and Development Agency (GGDA), HSRC and CCRED. See that project space for various deliverables.

In early 2021 Shirley Robinson, who previously worked in the Government Technical Advisory Centre (GTAC) and City Support Programme (CSP), approached GCRO with a view to publishing some of her work emerging from a long term effort to use anonymised tax data to depict economic activity spatially. Her deep background account of what it took to array institutions and systems in order to access the tax data was published as a GCRO Occasional Paper in December 2022.


This project is now in abeyance, although it may be resuscitated with new outputs in future.


Academic publications

Gotz, G. and Todes, A. (2014). ‘Johannesburg’s urban space economy’. Harrison, P. et al (eds.). Changing Space, Changing City: Johannesburg after apartheid. Johannesburg, Wits University Press, 2014

Zack, T. (2015). '‘Jeppe’ — Where Low-End Globalisation, Ethnic Entrepreneurialism and the Arrival City Meet'. Urban Forum. Issue 2(2015).

Rogerson, C.M. and van der Merwe, C.D. (2016). 'Heritage tourism in the global South: Development impacts of the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site'. Local economy. Vol 31, Issue 1-2, 2016.

Ledger, T. (2016). Empty plate: why we are losing the battle for our food system, why it matters, and how we can win it back. Jacana Media. November 2016. (This work was based mainly on Dr. Ledger's PhD. However it also drew on analysis GCRO commissioned into food economies on the West Rand.)

Recent GCRO outputs

Robinson, S. (2022). Adventures in city data: An ethnographic story. GCRO Occasional Paper 20, December 2022.

Götz, G. (2021). Patterns of new work for those economically impacted during COVID-19. GCRO Vignette. December 2021.

Götz, G., Maree, G., Hamann, C. (2022). Economic impacts of COVID-19. Map of the Month. Gauteng City-Region Observatory. April 2022.

See also a related but separate project on Economic Geography of the GCR, led by Dr. Koech Cheruiyot.

Last updated: 3 March 2024


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