Photography by:
  • Kagiso Dlamini & Amanda van der Walt

Spatial imaginaries (2022)

Imaginaries are a perennial theme in research because they are a useful way of thinking about the relationship between the visions of urban space that people hold in their minds, the way in which they form and communicate these visions and the production of space. They invoke the interior world of the mind’s eye, and the human capacity of conjuring spaces virtually. Imaginations are, furthermore, social in that they are socially produced and socially held (Watkins, 2015).

The literature on imaginaries reiterates the dialect relationship between imaginaries and the material world (Lefebvre, 1991). As Cooper notes, hegemonic ‘[i]maginative projects have material consequences’ (Cooper, 1996, p. 457) and can shape the ‘boundaries of the possible’ (Cooper, 1996, p. 5). They shape the way that people inhabit, avoid and act on space. Yet the reverse relationship also applies, the material world shapes our imaginations of it.

We can examine the way in which different imaginaries are co-present in any given context, each with its own genealogy and social positionality. We can examine, too, the way in which people evaluate these various imaginaries quite differently; orders of thinking and acting that seem normal and right to some are profoundly unjust to others (Gregory, 2004; Said, 1979). Specific imaginaries become elevated to the position of official policy for periods of time, while others remain alternative, vernacular or subaltern. Hegemonic imaginaries are received in various ways by society at large – some buy in, others are alienated by them. Meanwhile, imaginaries that were once legitimate and dominant can have complex afterlives even long after they have been discredited (Hamann & Ballard, 2018).

This project has resulted in a special issue of Transformation journal on megaprojects in South Africa, including contributions on Modderfontein, housing policy and the Corridors of Freedom. Furthermore a research report is being finalised for publication. A summary of the substantive chapters follows:

  • Richard Ballard provides a conceptual framework for urban imaginaries. Imaginaries appear, in the first instance, to be features of the mind, functioning to form impressions of places, people, and so on even when we are not directly sensing them with our eyes and ears. However the extensive literature on imaginaries shows that they are not simply private interior phenomena, they are relational. They relate to the material world through our direct encounters with places around us, and these encounters inform our mental conceptions of it. Imaginations are also formed through our relationships with other people, who represent how they see the world in conversation, writing, images that we encounter. Finally they are relational insofar as they impact on the way in which we act in and upon the urban environment around us – our choices on where to go, live, or how we might build accommodation for ourselves or for large numbers of people and activities.
  • Alexandra Parker considers the role of film in our imaginaries of Johannesburg. Film making processes have a two-part relationship with imaginaries: they reflect the imaginations of film makers, and they also inform the imaginations of those who watch these films. Our reading, hearing and viewing of the depiction of the world creates social meaning – interpretations of the world around us that we develop together through communication. Films hybridise fiction and material spaces in the narratives that they tell and help constitute a recursive relationship between the city as it is and our imaginaries. Our encounters with material spaces are informed by the ideas that we have accumulated about the spaces depicted. Meanwhile, our consumption of representations – such as film – are informed by our encounters with material spaces, those directly represented and others not represented. The depiction of Johannesburg has shifted in telling ways over time. Johannesburg’s skyline signified aspiration in some films, through its association with metropolises elsewhere in the world and as a site of consumption and becoming. However, Johannesburg’s geography changed with the appearance of Sandton 12 km north of the downtown area. In the 1990s many businesses and people decamped from the city centre to Sandton which acquired a significant skyline of its own. Accordingly, recent films have used Sandton as the setting of aspiration and South Africa’s social transformations in race and gender.
  • Aidan Mosselson shows how suppliers of accommodation imagine themselves to be businesses that are functioning within a market, even in the case of social housing providers whose products are state-supported. This has important implications since many of those in need of accommodation do not fulfil the requirements of customers in a market, given their inadequate or irregular incomes. Residents who are not the target market for accommodation are liable to be displaced from buildings that are being redeveloped. Yet developers are not narrowly extractive; they also seek to contribute to a virtuous cycle in which revenue contributes to the payment of services, maintenance of buildings and broader neighbourhood improvements. This articulates with their business model insofar as it increases the viability of living in these neighbourhoods for those to whom they market property. They also seek to offer affordable housing rather than price their products to be exclusive. In these ways, the conduct of developers responds to the realities of Johannesburg’s inner city. Their work is not only dictated by abstract imaginaries, their imaginaries are also shaped by the social difficulties of the spaces within which they attempt to create viable property markets. Mosselson contrasts these imaginaries of property providers with the more heavy handed impulses of state actors which are indicative of the way in which the state can be out of touch with these inner city realities.
  • Sandiswa Mapukata explores the dialectic between the imaginary of public sector officials and professionals and their attempts to intervene in particular spaces. She does this through the recollections of officials and professionals who were involved in the Alexandra Renewal Project in the period after its launch in 2001. The chapter shows the way in which officials understand Alexandra township as a space that is the legacy of a complex history of dispossession, segregation, internal division, location and densification. Given this complex history, officials and professionals understand Alexandra is a place that requires intervention in order to bring about improvements, including processes to relocate people from overly dense spaces, and to improve connections with the rest of Johannesburg. However their recollections also consider the limits of the agency of authorities to bring about improvements given the intractable nature of problems such as crime and social divisions. Some also engaged the way in which the programme’s policies have, in their assessment, had counter-productive consequences.
  • Sally Crompton’s chapter provides an analysis of imaginaries of diversity in Brixton. Brixton is a small suburb four kilometres west of Johannesburg. It has transitioned from being designated as a white suburb under apartheid to a mixed suburb today. The study offers six imaginaries of the social composition of Brixton. The first imaginary is the historical imaginary that Brixton was a white residential area. This is an imaginary that once normalised and is now out of kilter with democratic South Africa. Nevertheless it remains a reference point in recounting the history of the neighbourhood, and has complex afterlives today. The second narrative is that Brixton has undergone a transition in which large numbers of people who would once have been excluded on the basis of race now live there. Third, although it is mixed, it is also frequently imagined as a bifurcated space between an affluent section and a working class section. Fourth, residents hold an imaginary of there being at least some trust and interaction across difference within the suburb. Fifth, city officials enfold Brixton in larger scale imaginaries of diversifying and densifying the city through transit oriented development. Sixth, however, some Brixton residents believe that city imaginaries fail to take account of the way in which Brixton has transformed.
  • Rosa Sulley provides a case study of a particular effort to connect the historically segregated spaces of Sandton and Alexandra township. Between 2015 and 2017, the Great Walk/Kopanang pedestrian and cycle bridge was constructed in order to enable thousands of commuters from Alexandra to get to their places of work in and around Sandton. This initiative began as part of the broader Corridors of Freedom initiative intended to ‘restitch’ the segregated city back together. As such, this intervention was simultaneously practical and symbolic. However some commentators observed that although the bridge enables an easier commute for the working class, it does not transform the nature of inequality and enduring segregation.


Research report

Ballard, R., & Mapukata, S. (Eds.). (2022). South African urban imaginaries: Cases from Johannesburg. GCRO Research Report 13. Gauteng City-Region Observatory.

Short output

In April 2015, the Gauteng Provincial Government (GPG) launched a new policy entitled ‘Mega Projects: Clusters and New Cities’ led by the Department of Human Settlements. The Spatial Imaginaries team joined with others in producing a map of the month with an accompanying narrative on this new policy.

Journal special edition

Ballard, R. (2017). ‘Prefix as policy: megaprojects as South Africa’s big idea for human settlements’. Transformation. 95.

Ballard, R. and Rubin, M. (2017). ‘A “Marshall Plan” for human settlements: how megaprojects became South Africa’s housing policy’. Transformation. 95.

Ballard, R., Dittgen, R., Harrison, P. and Todes, A. (2017). ‘Megaprojects and urban visions: Johannesburg’s Corridors of Freedom and Modderfontein’. Transformation. 95.


Richard Ballard (September 2018). 'A ‘Marshall plan’ for human settlements: How mega projects became South Africa’s housing policy', Guest Lecture for 3rd year Wits planning students, 25 September 2018.

Richard Ballard (May 2017) 'A ‘Marshall plan’ for human settlements: How mega projects became South Africa’s housing policy' Lecture to housing certificate students, Wits school of governance. 11 May 2017.

Richard Ballard and Margot Rubin (April 2017) 'A ‘Marshall plan’ for human settlements: How mega projects became South Africa’s housing policy' Faces of the City Seminar series. Wits University. 11 April 2017.

Richard Ballard (September 2016) ‘Imagining Gauteng’. Society of South African Geographers biennial conference in Stellenbosch. 26 September 2016

Richard Ballard (September 2016) ‘Scaling (back) up: South Africa’s policy references to “Mega Human Settlements'’. RGS-IBG. London, 1 September 2016.

Richard Ballard (August 2016) ‘How did we get here? Mega human settlements as an emerging policy idea’ Gauteng Planning Forum. 18 August 2016.

Richard Ballard and Margot Rubin (March 2016) ‘A big solution to a big problem? Mega Human Settlements as a policy idea’. South African Cities Studies Conference, Durban (18 March 2016).

Last updated: 11 August 2022


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