By Marc Sherratt
Managing Director & Professional Architect at Marc Sherratt, Sustainable Architects (MSSA)

A vision for Johannesburg’s public parks

The failure of the garden city

Don’t we all love the wonderful purity of an expansive green lawn, people picnicking under oak trees, children playing in a safe public park. However is this utopian, European picture of a great public park naïve in a city like Johannesburg?

I have lived in Johannesburg my whole life. I can’t remember a single time I went to a public park as a child. My parents owned a large home in the northern suburbs with a private garden set out in a classical French style. This landscape approach matched the architecture well, that is to say it was based on a philosophy of symmetry and imposing human control over nature. Sadly behind our high, electrified walls we had no need as a family to use public parks. This left us as children climbing trees in safety but I wonder if opportunities to meet others of different races, religions and social-economic positions were missed. For me one of the most important aspects of any public scheme is to encourage opportunities to build cultural respect and ultimately cultural unity through dialogue but also in something as simple as public witness, as personified in the Zulu greeting “Sawubona” which literally means “I see you”.

Having travelled most of the developed world I recognised modernist concepts like that of the “garden city” have been borrowed from places like London to form the philosophy and therefore policy behind Johannesburg’s public parks. My experience-based reality of Johannesburg’s public parks however is not one of an idyllic public park of safety, natural beauty, physical exercise and rest – that is to say, not yet.

Nocturnal magic

Many of Johannesburg’s parks have been fenced to control access as a safety measure. This has changed them from a public space to a semi-public space. This tradeoff leaves many of them without any formal nocturnal function and so they become ghostly quiet at night as the middle-class escape to their fortified homes.

There is however magic that takes place in Johannesburg’s parks at night. Spotted Eagle Owls begin hunting rodents, Small Spotted Genets clamber through our anthropogenic forest, and the homeless silently take up many sleeping spaces under trees, bridges and bushes. In light of the above we felt obligated as a design firm to begin to uncover and highlight this magic to others as we sort concurrently to develop a model that could move our public parks into an era of contemporary usage.

Noting the challenges but also opportunities in our parks we presented our company to Joburg City Parks and asked them for their most difficult problems to solve. Homelessness, crime and the lack of finances to manage their parks came up as core issues. Many public parks such as the Braamfontein Spruit (said to be the longest longitudinal park in the world) have uniquely local problems such as polluted water quality with E. Coli levels dangerous to human health. These rivers flood dangerously quickly absorbing most of our stromwater runoff that comes from the excessively hardscaped areas (non-permeable areas to water like tar or paving) of our surrounding roads and buildings. The speed of the alluvial water rise within these rivers has caused many deaths over the years. If we don’t create sustainable urban drainage systems (also called SuDs) these deaths will continue.

Developing an Urban Park Regeneration Strategy (UPRS)

So how do we start to develop a model to solve such difficult problems. Our first question to ask was who are the real clients of a public park. We interviewed many of the homeless and found some have been living in our public parks for more than 30 years. This broke our assumption that the homeless were only temporary visitors of parks. Of course many are, however many are resident and arguably a greater user of the park that anyone else. This led us to form a strategy around the employment of such people into what we called an Urban Park Regeneration Strategy (UPRS) rather than to dismiss such people as outside the scope of existing park policy. Many of these people knew local parkland much better than us and had inspirational ideas for its development. Things like urban farming, outdoor cinemas, park restaurants, all became ideas of social and economic regeneration. In our projects we were able to bring together local residents and the homeless in a collaborative with Joburg City Parks to take back responsibility of our public park spaces.

Much of our initial conversations were around whose responsibility it is to maintain our parks. The current reality is that Joburg City Parks does not have the finances to maintain all our public parks as well as they need to. The responsibility in the short to medium term therefore falls to the residents that live around such areas. Once this shift in mindset happens, that you are also responsible for the maintenance of your public park, people came together. Maintenance however must fit into an overall plan approved by the municipality and that’s were we found our skill in urban, landscape and architectural design was needed to develop this approach into a plan that can be implemented. This was conceptualised into a pilot project located on the Braamfontein Spruit that is poetically called the “Park of light”.

The Park of Light

The first hurdle to cross in this project was to break the preconceived idea of what a park should look like and what functions it should have. The idea for example that the grass must be cut as soon as new growth appears was shown to be ecologically damaging. Grassland being Johannesburg’s original landscape before the city came is one of the most productive of all terrestrial biomes. The starting point of the project was to first build a healthy, indigenous grassland eco-system. This started by mapping exotic, invasive and indigenous species that existed onsite. Removing invasive species, re-introducing the correct indigenous species and linking that system into the existing man-made forest of the city, (which is a largely overlooked ecological system in the city that needs much strengthening). The local training of staff (the resident homeless) to know how to manage such a system was the second step.

Once the baseline reference habitat was established for the park other social and economic activities were added to activate the system and make it relevant for the local community surrounding it. With adequate biodiversity buffer zones urban farming was designed that would grow produce for high-end, park-based restaurants. The homeless were employed and trained to manage the farm and protect the biodiversity of the riverine habitat. Water for the farming was collected from rainwater-harvesting systems installed in middle-class homes adjacent to the park. This system helps to reduce the large amount of stormwater channeled into the river system during the summer.

At night an air pollution sensing lighting system (senses gases such as CO, CO2, NOx ) educates and encouraged people to use the park at night on their way, as a pedestrian, to an outdoor dinner. A temporary art gallery located under a bridge at the entrance to scheme was designed to discourage people from sleeping under the bridge which becomes a very dangerous area when the river floods.

The most difficult component to solve was the sleeping in the park of the homeless. Once someone permanently sleeps in a park the space changes from public to private, which we wanted to avoid. However until more permanent facilities exist we had to provide some sleeping accommodation for these vulnerable people. Our design includes sleeping pods for the homeless that can be used only at night. These are reserved for those part of the “Park of Light” project as they move from homeless and unemployed to employed and able to purchase their own home.

Future Johannesburg as a water purifier

Many people don’t know that Johannesburg sits on a continental watershed, where rain that falls to the south flows to the Atlantic Ocean and rain that falls to the north flows to the Indian. One aspect of our vision for the city is for it to give back the water that flows into these river systems as cleaner than how the city received it, free of pollution and full of life. This is the opposite of what is happening today.

We cannot keep treating our public parks as places that are only our municipality’s responsibility to maintain. With the limited tax base government has it cannot fix issues such as these without all of our support at a local level. If you don’t know how to help, look around at the community in which you live, join your local community organisation and understand your urban issues from a more holistic perspective. Let’s move our parks to indigenous reference habitats that put biodiversity first, intelligently balancing this with a social and economic system that provides the finances and community we need to keep these places safe and healthy for future generations. Johannesburg is not just the modernist inner-city skyscraper or the glazed Sandton office block it is also the man-made forest with Jacaranda in bloom from which the Hadeda Ibis pronounces its very loud morning call.

Perhaps if we regenerate our parks we can also regenerate our communities, which form the basis of attaining our South African dream of a democratic and economically equal society. Perhaps then our children will make the special memories we didn’t, in a city at peace with itself and its environment.