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Why community parks can improve the health of a neighbourhood : The case of Thornhill Park | FUTURE CAPE TOWN




“our inspiration came from understanding the park as space for the community – a place they can own, feel at home in, take over and take pride in”

Vibrant green public at Thornhill Park, Green Point.How can community parks make for healthier neighbourhoods in all ways? Thornhill Park in Green Point was recently re-opened after a transformation which included the collaboration of the City of Cape Town, Blok, Future Cape Town and the newly formed Friends of Thornhill Park. 

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On the afternoon I visited, Thornhill Park was filled with the sounds of guitar strumming. A neighbourhood musician had taken up a seat on the brand-new timber jungle gym in one shady corner, while local construction workers dozed under the trees on an upper slope. Dog-walkers would start arriving later, but the morning pram rush was over. The crunch of woodchip underfoot alternated with a rustle of late summer grass, although the sprinklers were starting to do their work.

The difference made at Thornhill Park over the last half-year of effort by the Friends of the Park, project sponsors Blok, and the research and engagement partners, Future Cape Town, is considerable. The difference is not just physical, and it goes far beyond a material improvement in the landscaping, the health of the trees, and park facilities. Rather, it is in the fact that the park now sits inside a shared vision.

What does a park mean to a community?

Thornhill Park Study Distance

Jacques van Embden, MD of Blok, explains that the decision to invest in a public park adjacent to his company’s 7onT residential development began with a big-picture question.

“If we really zoom out, what is the purpose of a park such as Thornhill? Quite simply, our inspiration came from understanding the park as space for the community – a place they can own, feel at home in, take over and take pride in. Our investment is intended as a catalyst that creates an asset people can feel proud of, and through which they can define their immediate neighbourhood”, said van Embden.

The challenge at Thornhill was the park’s intimate scale. At only 400m2, Thornhill did not fit easily into the category of an urban park such as the celebrated De Waal Park, with a large and active social roster and significant income streams. As van Embden emphasises, “We understand urban parks well, but creating something smaller, yet highly valued and well used, is a new challenge. At the same time, the rewards are profound, because of the potential people have to connect with immediate neighbours through a community garden”.

Public by day, private by night

Thornhill

This phrase, ‘community garden’, has been a guiding thread from the first, when the highly respected landscape architect, Claire Burgess, saw in Thornhill Park the potential for a communal garden in a rapidly densifying neighbourhood where many residents had only their balconies as outdoor space. This fact suggested the creation of features such as a sociable sitting wall that would also retain soil for a future herb or vegetable garden, giving the park distinct activities for adults and augmenting the children’s play equipment on site.

The topography of the park demanded a unique approach. Despite measuring only 20m by 20m, the park steps down steeply from an upper to lower level. Burgess’s solution was to create two distinct zones that mediate this slope.

“The upper level was to have a more civic character, with benches, wood chip ground treatment and a sitting wall. The bulk of the play equipment would be sited on the lower level, oriented more towards boisterous play, with a grassy slope to run up and roll down. Throughout, my priority was to retain all existing trees, using trained arborists to allow more sunlight and warmth into the park while also improving the health of the existing Tipuana Tipu and other mature trees”, said Burgess.

Building for the users you want

Crafting new plans for Thornhill Park in Green Point.

Above: A local resident views the plans and research reports posted to the wall of the park

Future Cape Town’s research supported the idea that community parks, in 2016, can be much more than play spaces exclusively for young children. Interviews and observations revealed that the park already welcomed a wide range of users, despite the absence of facilities specifically aimed at these groups. A literature review of successful small community parks suggested that a high degree of local control, especially over physical safety, was important if community members were to sacrifice time and resources to maintain and improve the park.

“We wanted to understand what the terms inclusive and equitable meant in a neighbourhood like this. If it (the park) was truly to ‘belong’ to a community, the community voice would need to be heard from the earliest design stages, and how all partners communicated through-out, be it through social media, or site signage, was vital.” says Rashiq Fataar, director of Future Cape Town.

An Open Day was duly held, at which a very substantial turnout of local residents showed up with queries, suggestions and points of view. While the community was not in perfect agreement over the ideal form of their park, the essential raw material – investment and involvement – was evident in abundance. The community attending the open day had the opportunity to react to an initial design prepared by Clare Burgess that acknowledged some abiding technical constraints of the park, and provided a framework for discussion.

Comments were collected, and a lively conversation arose in a new Facebook group dedicated to the park, which would evolve into a Friends of Thornhill Park group. As the discussion gathered pace, Clare Burgess started work on a new design that incorporated as many neighbourhood comments as possible while also leaving space for future improvements managed by the Friends of the Park.

Bringing data and numbers to the table

Thornhill Park Radar

Above: The radar diagram for Thornhill Park illustrating the need for community activation, public-private partnership, and connectivity

“I wanted to include data and quantitative information, in addition to the qualitative elements. If we were hoping to move towards the idea of successful park, we needed measures all parties could understand and engage with.” adds Fataar.

Informing this process was Future Cape Town’s assessment of the Park’s performance across a range of parameters brought together in a radar diagram that provides an instant visual summary of the park’s performance in economic, social and ecological terms. This radar diagram incorporates both qualitative and quantitative factors, thereby offering a benchmark against which future changes in performance can be measured, and the cost-effectiveness of present and future interventions measured. It also acts as a means of engagement with the public, illustrating and educating people around the many factors which can contribute to the performance of a the public space.

A Possibility Framework of potential interventions was created and measured against the radar diagram, with the highest-impact interventions, such as free wifi, being prioritised within Blok’s budget.

The final design was presented for community comment and received the support of most residents, meaning that construction could begin. At the same time, a compliance and engagement process with the City was launched, with the firm and continued support of City Parks. T

his was evident from the Open Day, where David Curran, district manager of Cape Town City Parks, laid out the City’s vision and express the City’s willingness to partner with communities in a bid to use a limited budget for the greatest good. One of the key benefits to emerge from this partnership is community awareness that local residents may apply for their own keys to Thornhill Park, opening up this valuable space for use at night – such as film screenings, birthday parties or simply listening to music.

Where to from here?

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As the finishing touches are put to the park, it remains for Future Cape Town to measure the changes in use brought about by the improvements, particularly with important non-resident users such as domestic workers, gardeners and people working in childcare at home. Learning from the radar diagram will inform future projects of a similar nature.

“We need to test our research and assumptions, even once the park has been delivered. Has the fact of lowering the park fence, and removing the intimidating spikes that once ran along it, actually invited more users into the space, or encouraged long-time users to stay longer? Has adding a second gate made a difference?”

Right now, the future belongs to the Friends of the Park, led by Tiffany Jones, a new resident of Thornhill Road who has been collecting plant donations and keeping Friends members abreast of progress on site, while also preparing for the park’s upcoming launch.

Jones’s mission is simple: I would really love to see the park become self-sustaining in the near future, as the Friends and park users make it their own. We’ve been given a great asset, which we can build and maintain to make something that is public and private at the same time, through the system of keys – this means we can create the spaces we want while still offering an excellent park to the public throughout the day”.

How to join the Friends of Thornhill Park:

Read more about public space:

Credit:

  1. Pictures, Rashiq Fataar and Brett Petzer, Future Cape Town.

 

 

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Brett Petzer

Contributor for Future Cape Town

I’m a tomorrow-city planner, urban journalist and French-English translator, who is damn keen to hear from you at brettpetzer.com