When the sciences and humanities collaborate, exceptional work is possible. This is the belief of the academics working in the Urban Futures Centre (UFC) at South Africa’s Durban University of Technology (DUT), particularly the street-level drug programme.
The UFC, based at the faculty of engineering and built environment at DUT, has two key purposes, according to head of the centre, Professor Monique Marks. The first is to “develop mechanisms and strategies for improving the quality of life of people (especially the marginalised) who live in cities”.
The second is to “use the centre as an imaginary lens into city living without being constrained by dominant thinking and policy”.
Speaking to University World News, Marks said the UFC is multidisciplinary – a collaboration among engineers, architects, social scientists and others to think about cities and solutions for cities in a holistic way. “Any problem in technology or engineering has to be understood through a social lens,” she said.
This interdisciplinary “laboratory” seeks to build theory and test ideas and interventions in ways not dictated to or determined by dominant stakeholders like government or social movements. Through a collaboration between academics from different fields as well as the people who are most affected by the complexities of living in urban spaces, the centre is seen as the starting point for projects dealing with the future of cities locally (in Durban and South Africa) and globally.
Some of the projects spearheaded at the centre include urban safety and design, migration and social inclusion, narratives of home and neighbourhood and drug use in the city. All of these are research projects with an engagement component undertaken by DUT doctoral students.
According to its website, “The UFC aims to build an interdisciplinary knowledge network, encourage processes of innovation and imagination, and engage urban problems and solutions through a systems approach” by integrating intellectual, theoretical, practical and community resources.
Street-level drug use programme
It was out of this that the street-level drug use programme was born. In 2014, Albert Park in Durban, South Africa’s third largest city, earned itself the name of ‘Whoonga Park’ as it became the space in which whoonga (low grade heroin) was peddled and used. As the drug problem grew, the need for intervention became evident.
In April 2017, the UFC launched its street level drug use programme. The project is headed up by Marks who says it includes “the communities affected by street-level use, the users themselves and the various institutions responding to drug addiction in the city of Durban”. The project also brings together academics trained in sociology, criminology, education, art, public health, addiction medicine and drama.
“The drug programme is a participatory action research project, which includes all the invested sectors that assist in designing the research and developing the strategies,” said Marks.
“Participants, who are affected by drug use in different ways, provide ‘nuanced narratives’ that direct the investigation towards appropriate responses to drug use on the ground as well as through policy.”
While this programme focuses on the use of one particular drug (whoonga) and its effects on individuals and communities in Durban, the results would go a long way in helping other cities dealing with the harmful effects of street drug use, said Marks.
In the initial project, 50 low-income heroin users participated in an 18-month programme, which provided them with an opioid substitute – methadone – to help them break the cycle of addiction as humanely as possible.
Since then the project has become an important research base to test ways to reduce harm in the urban space and to advocate for better policies and interventions for drug use disorders.
Withdrawal management programme
When the 21-day lockdown to slow the rate of coronavirus infections was announced in South Africa, Marks was part of a task team assisting the homeless in Durban. Besides securing a place for them to stay, the task team identified the need to help homeless drug users cope with their addiction and prevent them from leaving the designated isolation areas in search of drugs.
Drawing on the research and experiences of the initial programme, the Durban COVID-19 Withdrawal Management Programme began a day after lockdown with 20 drug users at one location. It has since grown and includes 230 users in two locations in the city.
Besides having access to methadone, each person is given a symptom pack to help deal with the symptoms of withdrawal – pain, vomiting and spasms. Operating with a private psychiatrist, five social workers and three registered nurses, the programme has helped the 230 drug users cope with their symptoms of withdrawal. None of them left the designated lockdown areas during the confinement and this limited the risk of COVID-19 spread.
Marks said there had been a huge improvement in the quality of life of the people on the programme. From taking care of their personal hygiene to being treated for other illnesses and planning for a more stable future, the short-term drug programme has yielded as pleasing results as the long-term programme on which it is based.
With the help of the police, healthcare workers and DUT academics, the plan is to continue this programme into the future. The city of Durban has hailed its success and fully supports similar future programmes, with the mayor of Durban launching it officially on 12 May 2020.
*This article first appeared in University World News.