The Social Production of the Built Environment: the Case of the Townhouse in Harare, Zimbabwe

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Virginia Tech

This research is concerned with the social creation of built environments in the Third World. The absence of appropriate theoretical frameworks has hampered the research of Third World cities. Recently, however, the opportunity for applying concepts, that have to date been largely confined to the study of western cities, has increased provided they are organized in a suitable way. Drawing on concepts such as built environment, socio-spatial dialectic, and structure and agency, this research outlines and applies a framework for the study of Third World urbanization.

In order to explore the interdependence between space and society this study "unpacks" the urban landscape of Harare, Zimbabwe. Working in the context of the culture of capitalism, the study traces the development of the southern African zonal urban system before establishing a typology of landscape ensembles through successive stages of the evolution of Zimbabwe's political economy. Within the current global epoch, the study focuses on a specific type of built environment -- the townhouse.

As a repository of contested cultural ideas and practices, the townhouse stands at the center of often conflicting socio-economic groups defined collectively as a "structure of provision". Using interviews, archival research, and a survey questionnaire, an analysis of these groups which focuses on the production and consumption of the townhouse drew the following conclusions:

On the production side, realtors have assumed a central co-ordinating role in the production of townhouses. Prior to the development of townhouses, the realtor played a more limited role in real estate market. With the emergence of the entrepreneurial developer and with the assistance of the architect, realtors have assumed a central co-ordinating role in the initiation, management, and marketing of the townhouse. Built within specific zones within the city and its suburbs, garden flats and townhouses occupy the wealthy areas of the city. On the consumption side, garden flats and townhouses are occupied by the "managerial bourgeoisie" who comprise wealthy Zimbabweans and expatriates who are predominantly White, managers and professionals. While they share some important similarities they can nevertheless, based on their consumption patterns, be divided into identifiable groups that are geographically distributed within Harare's wealthier areas. It was suggested that production and consumption are ultimately part of the same process that produces status symbols that drive the demand for consumer goods. Ultimately, however, garden flats and townhouses stand testimony not only to the wealth of their occupants, but to patterns of lifestyle reminiscent of the consumption ethic of their counterparts in the First World.

In the context of a Third World city, however, their lifestyle with its show of wealth has, not surprisingly, generated concerns about safety and security among the community of garden flats and townhouse dwellers. These concerns are historically deeply imbedded not only in the region but in the culture of capitalism. It was ultimately concluded that, within the context of late capitalism, the southern African city shares similarities with its First World counterpart.