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ExtraVirgin April 2010
Environment Finally, an end to the legacy of separate development, segregation and municipal neglect which left Jo’burg’s townships without green belts. Now they’re getting trees, seesaws and more, writes Leonie Joubert.

It was inspired by a reality TV show, but it’s an extreme makeover with a difference – instead of boob jobs and botox, this one was about getting an entire park greened up and spinning with merry-go-rounds in just 24 hours.

The first was a one hectare plot of scruffy land in Wilgeheuwel, amidst sprawling townhouse complexes, which was transformed into a community hub with trees, grass, flowerbeds, a bridge and water feature, and the odd bit of paving.

“It was just a barren piece of open space with small stream, a bit of wetland and some veld grass,” explains Johannesburg City Parks’ operations executive for environment and infrastructure Patrick Meyer.

It took about five months of planning and some of the cement work had to be done ahead of time, but then the makeover started at 6pm one night, three years ago. By the following evening the park had blossomed out of a place that had previously been a squalled plot plagued by “crime and grime”.

This is part of a broader programme to green up parts of Jo’burg which started four years ago. Using the incentive offered by the approaching World Cup footy, City Parks set about filling in some of the gaps in Jo’burg’s cityscape that needed green belts.

One of the legacies of apartheid is that the northern suburbs of Johannesburg have one of the largest manmade forests in the world, while the city’s southern townships have been left virtually treeless. This is why City Park’s focus has been on township areas, many of which are in Soweto, Orange Farm, Joubert Park, Ivory Park, Eldorado Park, and Orlando West Park, opposite the stadium.

One of the latest extreme makeovers is a two hectare plot in Diepkloof which has been transformed from a neglected, crime-infested illegal dumping site, into a place with soccer field, basketball court, ablution facilities, playground equipment, braai areas, trees, benches and a lawn.

“Township TV is a big screen on which we project educational programming for kids, DSTV, and soccer matches during the World Cup,” says Meyer.

Also part of this initiative is cleaning up of the Kliprivier and Klipspruit, the two main rivers running through the city. Meyer says they’re planning 32 different parks running along the edge of the rivers, joined by walkways.

So far, City Park’s total programme has rolled out 135 different greening projects, including introducing trees into domestic gardens in parts of Soweto.

“This is linked to an education programme where we sent teams out, door to door, to educate people about the benefits of trees so they can assist us with the maintenance of trees and to protect them from vandalism,” Meyer says. And the benefits are measured in more than just increasing biodiversity and improved aesthetics.

“It’s been shown that the property prices of houses in tree-lined streets and near parks are, on average, seven percent higher, and some even 20 percent higher.”

So Jo’burg’s massive manmade forest is spreading south, in leaps and bounds.