City occupied: A neighbourhood-based comparison of informal land occupations in Bogota, Cape Town and Sao Paulo

Lead Applicant:

Dr Suraya Scheba


University of Cape Town, Human Sciences Research Council, University of Manchester, Reclaim the City – Cape Town


This project “City Occupied” studied land and building occupations in three neighbourhoods in different cities, Bogota (Columbia), Cape Town (South Africa), and São Paulo (Brazil) to contribute to an understanding of a global housing crisis and citizen-led initiatives to achieve more equitable and just cities. By employing a collaborative, neighbourhood-based research approach to informal occupations, the project explored the everyday practices, struggles and future possibilities of occupations. In collaboration with residents, we produced and disseminated material via print and visual media, prioritising counter-narrative and self-representation to challenge problematic ‘dehumanising’ official narratives of residents living in occupations.


The project was designed to offer an improved understanding of informal land/building occupations and how this relates to variegated state-citizen relations. Three occupation (land or building) sites were selected across the three cities for in-depth analysis. This was supplemented by additional interviews with city-wide actors. The methods included interviews, participant observation, workshops, and photography.

The research objectives, explored per site, were as follows:

  1. Trace how occupations have emerged, evolved, and how these relate to state and private sector interests in the city
  2. Document the everyday land occupation and infrastructure practices employed by occupiers
  3. Capture the ‘collective organising’ relations and tactics employed; and how these intersect with public and private actors
  4. Reflect on how the 3 sites compare to each other, and what insights they offer toward the advancement of urban governance for more equitable and sustainable cities

The Covid-19 pandemic impacted on the project plans and methodology. We significantly cut down on international travel, which freed up money that we spent on local research assistance. In each city, the constraints varied, due to shifting lockdown measures, and infection numbers. Nonetheless, we were able to adapt, primarily through rethinking the methods in use per site. For example, due to strict lockdown measures in Brazil, (zoom) interviews were the primary method. In the other two cities, participant observation and workshops were possible. The implication is that the depth and extent of material per site varies. This was a shift in relation to the original project design. Nonetheless, we were able to continue to retain the fundamental research objectives, with the project outputs contributing to comparative knowledge production. The research process and outputs also focused on shared learning and collaborative engagement with the occupier communities per city. This is an intent we centralised and is reflective in the popular material (including a documentary) emerging from the project.


Cape Town:

The research project has contributed to wider efforts in the city amongst civil society actors (Tshisimani, Ndifuna Ukwazi, Development Action Group) to shift the discourse around occupations and occupiers. Specifically there is an effort to focus on the history, circumstance and personal narratives of occupiers, as a counter to criminalisation and stigmatisation. The zine has been especially influential in these efforts, having been taken up by an initiative titled ‘Occupier Diaries’ as a model of counter-narrative production that can actively contribute to a humanisation of residents of occupations across the City.

In Cape Town, the emerging media – zine and rough cut of the documentary – have been launched and screened at the Cissie Gool House occupation, as part of a close of project event. The intention to host a further close of project event that is more public facing, and could include a presentation of preliminary findings, a panel discussion, and a photo and media screening. This will take place later in 2022.


The research project strengthened the capacity of local research activists who benefited from learning and working with colleagues from other cities. Short videos were captured (via smartphone) by researchers and some identified community members. This approach contributed to methods that support participant self-representation. It provided support to ongoing local processes aimed at advancing the sustainable neighbourhood agenda. The project helped to bring together the Community Task Team of Altos de la Estancia through two workshops to develop community indicators to follow-up on promises made by the municipality in terms of supporting the local community gardens. The project also strengthened the community gardens network by serving as a platform for the different gardens to come together to discuss collective action around the area which was declared a high-risk zone.

Sao Paulo:

The research project has lead to a widening of dialogue and exchange across occupations in Cape Town and Sao Paulo. Through the research the commonalities with respect to building structure, practice, and engagement with the State (including mobilising legal frameworks) were identified. An online dialogue has since been held, including occupiers, activists and academics from the two cities (in May 2022). A second dialogue will be held in July 2022. The intention is to establish a platform of exchange.

Follow up funding has been received from the University of Manchester to support a dialogue around the concept and practice of repair, which is central to the type of labour that occupiers are engaged in on a daily basis. This initiative was lead by Dr. Millington, and details can be viewed here:

Further funding has recently been secured from the Centre for Urban Studies (University of Amsterdam), where Dr. S. Scheba was based as a fellow for 3 months in 2022. The funding will support the development of a cross-city comparative funding bid.

We worked with a professional filmmaker in the development of a short documentary titled ‘City Occupied’ that offers a glimpse into the everyday practices in each of the occupation sites. This person was selected, based on their portfolio and local recognition.

Furthermore, to create long-term access to our outputs, we are in the process of setting up a website. We have already registered the domain, which is, and identified an appropriate design. We are preparing the individual sites and content for the website at the moment.

We have also written up a blog, and the ‘zine has been featured in local media (refer below).

We are currently in the process of developing journal articles from this research, to be completed in 2022, into early 2023. The papers will be organized around the objectives. Targeted journals include Progress in Human Geography, Radical Housing and Urban Geography.

In terms of the difference between our initial intentions and the consequent outcomes, the significant shifts included the need to modify methods (as a consequence of the pandemic) and delays in timeframe, specifically in terms of academic publications. However, we have realised several outputs thus far (refer below), and 3 publications are currently in draft form (with more to follow, as the comparative material is consolidated and processed).

Project Outputs

We have generated several outputs, directed toward academic and non-academic audiences, concerned to contribute to housing justice in the city (discursively and materially).

Zine: One output is a ‘zine’ of the residents of the building occupation, Cissie Gool House (CGH), in Cape Town. The zine, which was developed as a photographic and counter-narrative based output, centred the stories of 14 of the residents of the occupation.

It can be viewed here:

The zine has been well received by the participants at CGH, distributed in alternative bookshops in Cape Town, and been picked up as illustration of counter-narrative production, and a tool for advocacy. We have consequently been involved in workshops with the members of the ‘occupation diaries’ project, concerned with supporting land occupiers across the city in generating similar ‘stories’, as counter-narrative.

The zine has also been written about by the social justice media publication, New Frame, here: Residents, not occupiers, live at Cissie Gool House : New Frame

The zine has also been drawn on in co-design workshops at CGH, advancing planning from below, as a challenge to municipal efforts to proceed for social housing plans.

Documentary: We have worked with film-maker, Sara Gouveia, to produce a short documentary entitled ‘City Occupied’, that offers a glimpse into the labour and life making efforts in the occupations per city. The documentary is close to completion and will be screened both in academic and activist spaces in the future (as a teaching and advocacy tool).

The documentary can be preview under:

Blog: As a collective, concerned to engage in in-depth and comparative conversation on housing access, we have also contributed to a blog on covid-19 and housing, here:

Academic outputs: We are in process of developing journal articles targeted for Progress in Human Geography, Radical Housing and Urban Geography – per city and comparative – currently. In addition, 4 Honours thesis have been written on land/building occupations in Cape Town; and 2 Masters thesis are being completed – supervised by Dr. S. Scheba.

The title of the four completed Honours thesis are:

  • Yonela Gojo (2021) Examining occupier-state practices on land occupations in Cape Town during the Covid 19 pandemic. University of Cape Town
  • Kezia Fortuin (2011) Cissie Gool House: A media discourse analysis. University of Cape Town
  • Camden Ravenscroft (2020) Tracing land occupations and evictions in Cape Town during the Covid-19 pandemic. University of Cape Town
  • Nelisa Khwela (2020) Tracking and analyzing different state responses to informal land occupations in Cape Town between 2017-2019. University of Cape Town

Future Activities

In Cape Town, the emerging media – zine and rough cut of the documentary – have been launched and screened at the Cissie Gool House occupation, as part of a close of project event held on 17th February 2022. The intention to host a further close of project event that is more public facing, and could include a presentation of preliminary findings, a panel discussion, and a photo and media screening. This will take place later in 2022.

Furthermore, to create long-term access to our outputs, we are in the process of setting up a website, to be launched by June 2022 (at the latest). This should ideally be linked to the SHLC website. We are currently in the process of developing journal articles from this research, to be completed in 2022, into early 2021. The papers will be organized around the objectives. There are also 2 Masters thesis that will be completed by the middle of 2022, and one of the Honours students (that completed a desk-based discourse analysis for her thesis) has registered for a Masters degree in 2022. In addition, the project PI, is currently on sabbatical and will undertake a fellowship at the University of Amsterdam (Centre for Urban Studies). This will be used to engage in dialogue and seek out collaborations, to support future funding opportunities to sustain the project beyond the CDAF funding.

Capacity Strengthening

The project strengthened the capacity of the team members to conduct complex comparative research across three different cities within a difficult global context shaped by the coronavirus pandemic. Despite major challenges given the enormous health crisis and associated research/living restrictions because of lockdown regulations, the project team continuously adapted its approach and strategies according to a changing local context, adopted new technology to conduct meetings and activities online, and found innovative ways of producing academic and policy-relevant knowledge on an increasingly important topic. The project strengthened project management capacity of the PI and all Co-PIs, who learnt valuable lessons from this experience. This included lessons regarding the communication required to keep the comparative project running, the efforts needed to find a common language across geographies and disciplines, the importance of good support and administrative staff, the need to remain flexible and adaptive to changing circumstances, the efforts involved in ensuring genuine collaboration and partnerships with research participants, and the time required in producing different outputs for different stakeholders. However, by going through these challenges together the project built stronger relationships between team members and project partners.

The project strengthened relationships and built trust with occupier communities in three different neighbourhoods. This was achieved through genuine collaborative engagement based on the principles of respect and honesty.. Participatory research methods were designed in close collaboration with occupiers and their leadership structures to maximise the impact and uptake of project outputs. Collaborative research contributed to learning, exposure and opportunities for occupiers to showcase their histories, living conditions and aspirations with the ultimate objective of claiming their rights for a decent home (refer to research outputs for further detail).