In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Understanding environmental change in South African cities:a landscape approach1
  • Zarina Patel (bio)

'…the making, remaking and making again of places and environments are an essential part of what human beings do'.

(Campbell 2002:273)

'have faith in human creativity and change: movement and change are life: and the only enemy, the only heresy, is finality'.

(Mellows 1967, in Harrison 2002:1)


Although change is characterised as an inevitable force, with multiple catalysts, having diverse effects, the forces responsible for environmental change are not all inevitable or unavoidable.2 The approach taken in this paper in describing environmental change in South Africa is one that acknowledges the pivotal role of the relationship between society and nature in understanding environmental change. This paper rejects what Macnaghten and Urry (1998) have described as 'environmental realism', a doctrine that separates the environment as a physical entity from social practices and human experience. Instead, environmental change is understood as resulting from of a combination of natural as well as socio-cultural and political processes.

Decisions about the allocation and consumption of resources are deeply political acts, entrenched in systems of power, with the effects of environmental change being experienced differently by different sectors of society. As such, there is no single interpretation of environmental change, or of nature for that matter. What exists instead are a diversity of natures and interpretations of environmental change, which are constituted through a variety of socio-cultural processes (Macnaghten and Urry 1998). Documenting changes to the environment will vary depending on the eye of the beholder. The effects of these changes will also vary, depending on who [End Page 24] is doing the interpretation (Hajer 1995). Given the complexity of discussing environmental change, any discussion on changes in the environment in South Africa must therefore revolve around developing a conceptual framework for understanding how changes in the environment are interpreted and acted upon.

This paper proceeds to describe some of the changes in the environmental landscape of South African cities. In doing so, it argues that a positivist approach to understanding landscape change falls short of providing us with a deeper engagement with the political, social and cultural processes that shape the landscape. Furthermore, descriptions of the environmental landscape do not allow for a discussion of the forces and influences that do not take on a physical manifestation, but have a crucial role to play in understanding transformations in South African society and its relationship with the environment.

It is argued that an approach to understanding changes in the environment that will yield a more textured appreciation of environmental change would depend on the development of a framework within which to understand environmental change. This paper makes use of a landscape approach for understanding environmental change, in order to allow for an engagement with the political catalysts for environmental change, and the social and cultural filters through which landscapes can be interpreted. A number of case studies are used to demonstrate the usefulness of a landscape approach for achieving this objective. A more nuanced approach to understanding environmental change and society's changing relationship to the environment, will serve to contribute towards previous calls for the development of a 'clearer, indigenous conceptual framework [for sustainable development] … tailor made for the priorities of South Africa' (Patel 2000:394).

The environment and the urban landscape

South African cities have all been shaped by common national processes but also have their own distinctive features in terms of the natural environment, economic, social and cultural make-up, and current dynamics (Roberts et al 1998). The stark juxtaposition of first and third world conditions in close proximity within the urban environment presents a range of environment and development challenges. Cities are characterised by well-developed and powerful institutional, financial and technical capabilities, concentrated mainly in the urban core (Hindson and Patel 1999). [End Page 25] Cities are also the focus of much industrial and mining development, controlled largely by multinationals, impacting negatively on marginalised communities living adjacent to and within industrial development zones. At the other end of the spectrum, cities have massive townships3 on their peripheries, and informal settlements are burgeoning as households expand and as rates of urbanisation...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 24-40
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.