The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


In Memory of Vanessa Watson

6 October 2021

It is with great sadness that we acknowledge the passing of Vanessa Watson, a valued and much admired colleague of the DPU community.

Vanessa Watson

Vanessa's active and inspiring engagement with and outstanding contribution to academic planning scholarship, urban planning education, activism and the planning profession locally, regionally and globally will be acutely missed. 

Vanessa and I met around the mid-1970s at UCT where we both did our MA Urban and Regional Planning and worked in the Urban Problems Research Unit (UPRU). Since then, our lives took often similar, but also geographically different trajectories that frequently overlapped – with regular encounters in Cape Town, in London and in other cities in different parts of the world. It is so poignant that our last formal professional encounter was an interview for the KNOW 2021 Annual Workshop on the meaning of legacy in research programmes. Vanessa’s legacy is vast, significant and, in many ways unique.

Her academic scholarship is widely recognised and acknowledged, and it is hard to imagine the planning field without her regular contributions, making her legacy all the more precious. She critiqued traditional planning practice and its colonial roots, she dissected and challenged new trends generated by the increasing marketisation of urban planning, she contributed to and pushed the boundaries of planning theory – always driving alternative visions of a more just city in which all its citizens would be equally recognised and could live decent lives.  

Her contribution to planning education not only in Cape Town but within African Planning Schools and international debates about the education of planners, is enormous. Vanessa understood the power of networks and collective institutional endeavours.  She worked tirelessly with others for the revision of the Department where she was educated and over time become a member of staff, and for the establishment of the African Association of Planning Schools, the African Centre for Cities at UCT, and of the Global Planning Education Association Network (GPEAN).   

This opening up and co-constructing of a different planning education locally, regionally and internationally was closely tied to her activism, which she saw as a central part of reshaping the content and pedagogy of planning education, bringing planning into direct conversation with poor urban dwellers and their claims for more just living conditions. In this regard, her work talked directly to DPU’s long history of similarly driven active, embedded, reflexive, and citizen-centred planning education for planning in cities.  This inevitably led her to challenge the planning profession in many geographies and to question and challenge the ambitions, conceptions and practices of urban planning – leading to her recent important work on planning integrity.

Yes, the gap Vanessa leaves is enormous, but so is her legacy.  More than anything, she leaves us with the inspiration and determination to continue our work and struggle for justice and decency – as individuals, as scholars, as university departments, and through forward-looking networks at all scales.   We offer condolences and comfort to her family and friends. May she rest in peace.

Caren Levy