Public parks, the people and peace of mind.

In Johannesburg, depending on where you live,  parks are infamous as chaotic and undesirable spaces that are unsafe and will offer a disappointing, anxiety inducing experience, sometimes worse.  Inadequate and vandalised park equipment, broken bottles from the inconsiderate among us, the homeless and unaddressed often finding refuge and rest in parks, making  use of the sometimes available water resources to take care of themselves. Hardened and opportunistic criminals peddle drugs, while scrap entrepreneurs store their paraphernalia. I’ve seen it happen in Newtown and many other parks downtown, the recreational aspect of the park disappears.

The general feeling of decay, being unsafe, impacts profoundly on the residents’ freedoms and expected quality of life. This then leads to decreased participation of the residents in the use and maintenance of their park, and as the parks degenerate. They become overrun by elements that may relegate the spaces into crime havens or derelict ghost parks, with lonely squeaking swing seats whenever the wind passes… a tragedy. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Following the lockdown and prohibition on the freedom of citizen movement… the value of public spaces seemed to increase as people tended to miss the outdoors, even if it was just as an expression of their waning freedoms. Picnics, parks, hiking trails were the order of the post hard lockdown season, which was in contrast marked by indoor activities performed in isolation broadcast on social media. We’re social animals, who need to interact, on a physical basis, with each other and as DJ “Sbuddha” recently suggested, interact with nature. It might not be common knowledge that quality public spaces promote social cohesion and contribute to community safety and health, but it is common sense once you think about it. This social cohesion, a usual clarion by politicians is a desire for group cohesiveness in multi nation state, and I wonder all the time as to our role in interacting with and maintaining both physical public spaces and intangible spaces such as the public sphere.

Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo is responsible for ensuring the public spaces in the city are maintained to a standard to meet safety and lifestyle demands. This is a daunting task, acknowledging Johannesburg has more than 2 300 parks and over 20 000 hectares of green, nature experiences for the purposes of recreation, conservation, comfort and good old natural inspiration. Usually surrounded by the concrete jungle, with ever expanding construction of middle class accommodation and retail spaces, the cultivation of Safe, inclusive open public spaces is salient for building a healthy, educated, entertained cosmopolitan outdoors city culture.

In this age of Climate change, the ability to bridge the green divide is also paramount and cannot be just rhetoric, especially in high inequality states such as ours. Social status, proximity to certain institutions and capital should never be a dictator in who gets to enjoy the peace and tranquility provided by green, open spaces in cities and other vicinities. Trees for instance, which we do not have enough off in townships, not only provide shade, and aesthetic value, but are a natural way to offset carbon emissions as a result of human and corporate use of fossil fuels. Parks make the perfect setting for this uniform education, perhaps teach the kids to plant a tree, and if you can convince them, teach them to hug trees. The Park as an inclusive, accessible learning institution can offer insightful information about local biosphere, horticulture, invasive species and social sciences.

There is a nicely tucked away “Extreme Park”, close to where I stay, a cascading wetland with a brook and majestic weeping willows nesting a variety of birds, a bridge, braai facilities, benches, some structural art serving as trellis for creeping plants. Dogs are allowed, though they need to be on a leash. There is a non functioning pond with a dead pigeon close by, looks like it was poisoned by the stagnant water, but I don’t know. I appreciate the space so much. Its my gratitude acknowledging that i don’t have to travel far and wide to meet my needs. The park is not perfect, but I think its safe to say its our park, our family’s and literally thousands other families, residing in mushrooming housing developments, without much yard space and toddler energy that needs burning.

My recent scheduled park visits are a repercussion for allowing my daughter use of my Xbox to play a Skateboarding game I’ve owned since my 20’s. Around Christmas 2021, She hinted at the fact that having a real skateboard would “totally blow her mind”. Her mother and I conspired and got her a skateboard. We’ve been practicing on the paving at home but figured it’s time we found a park we could skate at, and at best, a skate park.

The closest skatepark to us is in Westdene, the closest skatepark to that one is Milpark side. both at least 22 km from us… So we took our boards and started exploring parks… It was Great, my daughter got to see other more experienced skaters (there should definitely be a skating programme on the weekends), that would really be helpful to parents of first generation skaters and extreme sports enthusiasts. There was some professional graffiti which was beautiful, and a source for a beautiful conversation about freedom, art and vandalism. The designated toddler area at the westdene skate park, was once upon a time, beautiful, well thought out, but when we visited, it was completely unsafe,  rundown, with one of the playground tunnels serving as what looked like sleeping quarters for the unaddressed.

Open space is good, refreshing, linked to increased wellness, but the design and maintenance needs to complement the purpose of the park and manicured accordingly and regularly. Parks are only good for cities if people use them, this means understanding the needs of the residents in the area and curating park experiences. At times it becomes difficult to “park”, or even engage in activity or sport at the park when the grass is unkempt, or wet not because of rain falling on the grass, but because of inefficient stormwater drainage. The poor drainage is being largely blamed on litter blocking the drains. The city was for a long time only known for brief afternoon thundershowers, but we’ve been having sporadic monsoon type rains, contributing to both greening parks because of growing foliage, and localised flooding which needs to be addressed as children in almost all communities play around public open, accessible localities, whether they are designated for recreational activity or not. Due to my schedule and budget, I cant travel to the skate parks as often as I’d like. I realised that our little local extreme park, is closer, relatively well taken care of, less anxiety inducing, offering just enough extremity. So I do my bit to clean up after myself and others if the need arises.

I remembered the words of a General manager of Joburg City Parks and Zoo, this a few years ago while  attending the launch of a new Norwood Short road park as a journalist. The message was really dedicated to increasing the engagement of the publics with the parks, which included  “the daily maintenance of public spaces by residents”. I quote  “sometimes it is as simple as ‘not littering’ “. Litter is one of the biggest problems he lamented, many park users especially after weekends and public holidays, show a lack of respect for the natural environment and this is visible in the amount of deliberate litter on the premises. I remembered also, a previous mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba who walks the almost xenophobic line ever so skillfully, initiated a campaign “A re Sebetseng” , interestingly modelled on the Rwanda “Umaganda”, a social engagement monthly cleaning initiative. Impressive but weird, impressive because of cohesion, but weird as everybody should be at least thoughtful enough of their own hygiene to clean up their environment, imagine waking up to go clean up after adults, where is city waste management… weird.

My recent visits to the parks reinforced a lingering question, could the wellbeing of a nation be measured by the conditions of its trees and environment as well as the health of its children. I dont know. For now, the cultivation of such public open spaces, safe and inclusive, can be a means to bridge uniform communication to the younger generation about our shared inheritance, which definitely includes the protection and preservation of the natural environment.

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