Perspectives from the Global South: AESOP Booklet on Prof. Vanessa Watson

8 min. read

Increasingly, the issue of cities in the global south has gained more attention within urban studies and urban planning academia. In attention to the need of alternative perspectives that can provide a better engagement with southern contexts, many scholars have focused their attention on new methodologies, theories and perspectives to understand the area of the world where the majority of the urban space is now located. These new views are not only useful to analyse southern cities, but also to bring balance to an overtly ‘northern’ scholarship, in which the focus on theories and rigid methodologies can act as a blinding lens to understand the peculiarities of southern phenomena.

There is perhaps no other author as prolific on these issues than Prof. Vanessa Watson from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, as she is one of the very few scholars who from very early has extensively published in international planning journals with relation to cities in the global south. Her concept of ‘Conflicting Rationalities‘ for example, has informed many studies and research dealing with the nuances of southern urban policy and practices, particularly how to deal with the ubiquitous nature of informality, and definitely serves as a ‘bridge’ between scholarship in both the ‘north’ and the ‘west’ with the ‘south’ and the ‘east’.

In its booklet series, the Association of European Schools of Planning and the Young Academics Network is recognising her work and thanking her for the multiple contributions she has provided to southern urban theory, praxis and most importantly, activism. And from the YA Blog we want to publicise this recognition in the booklet project as the first of a series of posts and articles focused on issues from the global south.

Since we passed the torch to the new editorial team, we have been interested in introducing the issue of southern planning, have an increased amount of articles on those contexts (as we already had recently on contemporary planning in Central America), and help build the conceptual bridges between the practices and theory emerging from the south into the discussions and discourse of European academia. We hope that this booklet, together with the recently published special issue on planning practices and theories from the global south can help nurture that much needed discussion.

Stand by for future articles from these series that will came up on our blog, starting with our co-editor and participating author of the last special issue booklet that will give us some thoughts on southern urban practice and theory.

For now, we leave you with an extract of the introduction for Prof. Watson’s dedicated booklet, asking for your thoughts and discussion that this thought-provoking booklet with certainly generate. We give thanks to Aditya Kumar and Ananya Ramesh for their amazing work in the authoring and production of this document.



“ So, Vanessa’s work, alongside that of several other key planning theorists has served to challenge a dominant theoretical paradigm from the particular perspective of urban realities in the Global South. This has undermined the attitude of universality that often characterizes work produced in the Global North (i.e. if something is true for the US or Europe, it must be true for all contexts). She has been at the forefront of a movement that sees planning as an inherently political activity that, in some cases, is itself directly in-volved in the reproduction of socio-spatial inequality.” James Duminy

Watson’s Inaugural Lecture (2005) and her critiques of the validity of ‘universalism’ and the widespread practice in planning to import ideas from the North as ‘best practice’ were timeous, in that the Republic of South Africa state was in the midst of aggressively formulating a wide range of mainly neo-liberal policies and strategies to guide development for the post-Apartheid state.” Cecil Madell

Prof. Vanessa Watson is one of the most prolific Global South planning theorists. Her research and writing on Southern cities and the complexities of urban politics is unprecedented. In particular, Watson’s work on “conflicting rationalities”, “deep difference” and “seeing from the South” present-ed a new way of thinking about co-production and participatory processes. It emphasises the idea that ‘place matters’ and Global North concepts and approaches cannot be ‘universalised’ to the African continent. Her ongoing critique of the neoliberal African ‘world class cities’, as an aspirational European or North American city, has informed key gaps in planning and land regulations across the continent. To address this gap through planning education, Watson was amongst the founding members of the Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS). AAPS has currently established a network of close to 50 planning schools in the continent. She is also a founder of the African Centre for Cities at University of Cape Town, which has grown to become a pioneering research centre across the continent. Through her sustained commitment, several collaborative pursuits, through Association for African Planning Schools and African Centre for Cities, and between academia and civil society, were conducted leading to new ways of thinking about the African city. AAPS and Watson have been instrumental in rethinking planning pedagogy and curriculum for the Global South- a milestone achievement given the pressures of complying with European and American norms.

Besides being an active scholar and academic, Watson has on numerous occasions demonstrated her passion for activism and struggle for the urban poor. In 1986, Watson was one of the founding members of Development Action Group (DAG), an organisation that advocates for land and housing rights. On several occasions, she has taken strong positions on key urban development projects and processes despite facing the repercussions of debating political agendas and confronting business lobbies. She has inspired and mentored many different activists to utilise their planning skills in order to make cities more inclusive and liveable. As the first female professor at the planning school at University of Cape Town, Watson continues to play a key role in shifting the perception of gender biases in planning education and practice, which have primarily been male dominated. Watson’s scholarship evolves from deep and deliberate reading, reflection and response to the socio-political, economic and cultural context as well as the everyday realities of the economically weakest segment of society in South Africa. By questioning and revisiting the normative frame, Watson encourages us to root planning within its context and power relationships…



  1. So inspiring that global north models are being interrogated, especially in the context of growing informality in South Africa and elswhere in the South.

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