Park life

It’s 2pm and 16 degrees Celsius. Council workers in green overalls are side by side, unravelling rolls of kikuyu grass on to recently flattened earth.

They are involved with what Johannesburg City Parks (JCP)—reality-show style—terms an “X-treme park makeover” in Wilgeheuwel, near Roodepoort on Johannesburg’s West Rand. The 24-hour makeover is aimed at creating fanfare about the environment.

Greater Johannesburg has 870 parks, ranging in size from a postage stamp with a swing to massive “flagship” parks, and over 2 300 undeveloped open spaces; many of these, the city hopes, will be contracted out to private entities for redevelopment.

“It’s magic,” says one contractor about the transformation of Wilgeheuwel Park.
“Contractors put all their heart and soul into these projects,” he adds. “But they [parks] are not maintained as they should be,” he admits, concerned about the future of the space.

More than 20 hours before, the roughly soccer-pitch-sized park was one of Johannesburg’s forgotten spaces—leftover land between average, middle-class neighbourhoods and massive retail malls.

Electricity pylons had their place, with rocks littering the bank of a stream that runs through the land. Previously maintained by the community, the park was used as a thoroughfare between surrounding neighbourhoods. It was pleasant and tidy, but only became a real community asset when it was turned around over a week ago.

At a cost of about R2,4-million, it now has a bridge over the stream, “pigmented concrete” walkways, seating, a circular fountain complete with rock features and spraying jets, and a children’s play area.

At its inner-city summit held in May, the City of Johannesburg publicly stated its intention to have two hectares of quality public open space for every 1 000 of its residents by 2015, and that 5% of the total inner-city region would be devoted to these spaces, with no one having to walk more than 300m to access one.

The on-site parks contractor, who asked to remain anonymous, has worked on a number of such projects for the JCP. “The city puts capital into the parks itself, but it doesn’t bother to add that same amount proportionately to maintenance,” he says.

He suspects that, despite the good design and infrastructure, a lack of maintenance and security could see the newly renovated park becoming a “hang-out for the wrong crowd”.

Describing other projects developed in Soweto, Orange Farm and the inner city over the past two years, the contractor says that due to little maintenance, some elements have been neglected.

“Trees lie on the ground; people use it for firewood and things like that. So you end up spending R500 on a new tree, because you won’t spend R100 a lifetime just to look after it. Even the toilets are closed [in some of these parks]; there is nobody to look after it, to change the toilet paper, to maintain and clean them,” he says.

Over-utilisation

However, the parks are “well maintained”, argues Luther Williamson, MD of the JCP. “It’s more of an issue of over-utilisation, because there are inadequate parks and facilities [for the amount of people],” he says.

Williamson says the city decided to centralise the running of public toilets, meaning that once the final upgrades to the new structures are complete, people will then be allocated to staff them on a regular basis.

But for the contractor, it does not make sense for the city to spend between R400 000 and R500 000 on these public utilities when they stand locked and unused.

Vandalism is also a big concern. The contractor says a lack of security at parks means there is no way to ensure the facilities are not tampered with.

“A problem is going to be security,” he says about the Wilgeheuwel site. “There isn’t security full-time at parks; that’s a cost, and it’s even more than the maintaining [costs] — We even hire our own security to look after things when construction is carrying on.”

Williamson agrees that it would be ideal to have separate people in charge of maintaining and securing each park in Johannesburg. “But the reality is that there are over 2 000 open spaces, and we cannot have over 2 000 new employees.”

He says there are currently 34 park wardens who—with the help of surrounding communities—patrol parks on a rotational basis. “It’s about trying to look at how effectively you can use your resources.”

Where does the money go?

On the other side of town, in Yeoville, there are those who feel the city has not put its resources to use effectively enough.

Two months ago, a park on Raleigh Street was renovated by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) on behalf of the JCP. There is a recreation and skills centre, a nursery and multipurpose sporting facilities, but they do not function optimally.

The Yeoville Recreation and Skills Centre has sealed itself off from the rest of park, keeping its front door permanently locked for safety concerns. “All kinds of people come in here, and they swear at us. They are angry and ask, ‘What have you done with R1,7-million [the cost to develop the park]?’” says one worker at the centre who asked to remain anonymous.

The worker says the Yeoville community is angry because the park has not been fully completed: bricks are already falling off the front of the centre, the tennis courts have not been in working order for the past 18 months, and a section at the back of the park is yet to be completed—at present, there are mounds of bricks and parked trucks.

“It’s not a joke; it’s a lot of money—they should have done something better from what they did,” the worker says. “The park is nice in the way it has been done, but it is half done — It is nice, but it will be gone within a minute.”

“There is high occupancy in the inner city, and more than before,” the JCP’s Williamson emphasises. “Stemming from that, people spill over into the parks and there is excessive utilisation of facilities.” He says the city needs to increase the number of parks so that the existing ones are not over-used and abused.

“In high-density areas, public spaces become magnets for undesirable elements,” agrees Lael Bethlehem, CEO of the JDA. “And derelict old spaces are what draws these elements, not newly built parks.”

Safety first

But in Yeoville, it’s not safe, the centre worker says. “The front of the centre is not safe — Those people are sitting [out] there,” she says, referring to a group of men gathered near a slightly crumbling front wall. A security guard posted outside says the men are a bunch of known criminals, but the police station next door does nothing to monitor them.

Prior to redevelopment, the park had a surrounding fence for security; now, the fence has been largely removed to become a space of which the community can feel part. “We told [the developers] about the safety, but they said the community might complain and say that it’s not a park [if they left the fence up],” the worker says.

Maurice Smithers, of the Yeoville Stakeholders’ Forum, feels the fence wasn’t protecting the recreation centre, as there was free access into the park through an open gate. “It was definitely not controlled access before,” he says, but agrees that the area “needs mechanisms to undermine criminal activities”.

“There is not enough visible policing — The city should encourage the police to patrol the park once every hour. Then criminals will begin to see that they can’t get away with these things ... I do think [putting more money into maintenance and security] is an issue City Parks needs to address,” Smithers says, adding that there needs to be an emphasis on urban management and communication between the city and its citizens.

The JCP’s Williamson says that more than 80% of the agency’s projects are successful because they actively engage with and involve the surrounding communities.

But “there is very poor urban management in the Yeoville area”, Smithers says.” You need to look at the overall question of urban management, by laws, and community responsibility — The city needs to communicate more in order to build good citizens.”

He adds: “The health of a city can be measured by its use of open spaces. City Parks still faces the challenge of providing enough parks, but also of providing good enough parks that people want to go to.”

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