A photo essay exploring creative and contested urban sites in Durban, South Africa. Reporting back from the World Social Science Fellowship on Sustainable Urbanization.

Warwick Junction is a densely woven city-scape of pathways and overhead passages where busy sellers and buyers pass by beautiful murals and fast-moving traffic (photo by Alisa Zomer).

Durban is a remarkable, unassuming South African city hugging the Indian Ocean. Some of the country’s most pivotal social movements originated here – Mandela casting his ballot in 1992, Gandhi’s grounding for non-violent resistance, John Dube’s “self reliance” for self-improvement, and Steve Biko’s “Black is beautiful” and “Black Consciousness” movement. Durban is also a leader in climate change adaptation, home to the largest Indian population outside of India, and a great spot for surfing.

I had the privilege of experiencing Durban with a diverse group of 17 early-career scholars as a World Social Science Fellow this September. Our task was to examine innovative forms of governance emerging to tackle the wicked problem of sustainable urbanization. Who defines urban sustainability? How are the poor considered in urban greening efforts? How are partnerships between city governments, universities, and civil society transforming cities in the Global South? What are the driving forces of knowledge production and power behind urban change?

The complexity of these questions was illustrated through two city site visits, led by the Municipal Institute of Learning (MILE). MILE is a city-affiliated group in Durban that focuses on research and lesson-sharing within the city, as well with other cities regionally and globally. The first site visit took us to Warwick Junction, a marketplace for informal vendors, built by a fifteen-year-old city initiative – now a contested site for Durban’s next shopping mall. The second trip introduced us to Quarry Road, an informal settlement on a congested riverway that’s struggling to address complex social, environmental, and political problems.

Warwick Junction and Quarry Road are vastly different examples of urban form, where formal and informal systems come together to create new systems of exchange and housing. These images attempt to briefly capture these two contested urban sites. 

(All photos by Alisa Zomer)


Shoppers come to Warwick Junction for a variety of goods including fresh produce, traditional medicine, electronics, and clothing.

A police officer joined our group visit to the market.

A street vendor at Warwick Junction slices leafy greens. Some vegetable stalls consist of tables on the street, while others are located in an enclosed market place.

Entrance to the Early Morning Market, which was designed as part of a collaborative process that allowed people to continue selling their wares, but in a more organized section. The bovine head cookers, responsible for preparing a traditional Zulu fare, were sectioned off in a single area with appropriate drainage and sanitation measures for their businesses.

[Above] Local yams, or sweet potatoes, are sold alongside homogeneous, monoculture fruits and vegetables, products of globalization that can be found in markets around the world [Below].

The market has a whole section selling colorful cotton pinafores, used as a house coats to protect clothes from the mess of everyday chores.

The site visit was led by Durban city officials, including Hoosen Moolla Senior Manager of the eThekiwini Municipality pictured above who described the strategies, challenges, and successes of the marketplace to revitalize the downtown areas.


[Left] The Quarry Road settlement seems small from the roadside. Tucked along the river and part way beneath a bridge, Quarry Road is situated along a highway. The settlement is  densely arranged around narrow corridors and greenery along the river, which is covered in debris [Right].

Rain clouds rolled in overhead and our group scrambled for shelter under over-hangings of tin siding roofs. The rain was a much-needed respite after a long dry season in Durban.

Shipping containers converted into bathrooms – with women to the right and men to the left – are evidence of municipal interventions. Efforts to upgrade settlements attempt to find common ground between contested land issues and need for basic services, including sanitation.

[Right] Professor Cathy Sutherland, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, discusses her ongoing work with Quarry Road community leaders. In particular, she highlights the complexity of interdisciplinary research, where the researcher plays a more involved, advocacy-driven role. [Left] A pile of building materials ready to reinforce and strengthen settlement units.

The World Social Science Fellows traveled from the world over to confront the question of urban governance and sustainable cities. Our group of 17 scholars put the simple question of “Where are you from?” to the ultimate test: Cordoba (Argentina), Manila, Kampala, Kingston, Shanghai, and Delhi were some of the easier answers. A Bangladeshi scholar arriving by way of Arizona; a participant from Nigeria, but living in Germany; a path that began in Ghana and South Africa but led to teaching in the UK, were more challenging to guess. Durban brought us together.

The Fellowship was made possible with generous support from the Intenational Social Science Council in partnership with The Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP), Urbanization and Global Environmental Change Project (UGEC), and Cities Alliance.

Written by Alisa Zomer, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA.