“Rhodes Park is a prime example of the plight of public spaces and of crime in Johannesburg. “
Public parks should be accessible to all citizens, but what is to be done when these spaces become unsafe? Kira Kemper reflects on these issues in the light of the tragic events at Rhodes Park, Johannesburg.
Rhodes Park; a medium-sized park found on the suburban fringes of Johannesburg city. It boasts a scummy lake with some ducks and geese, and an attempt at landscaping including stepping-stones and a few water features, the real attraction being its basic sports facilities.
This old colonial-style park, that has remained the same for a hundred odd years, stands as a ruin to its former glory. The derelict restaurant still stands together with a couple of heavy stone gazebos. These structures – according to news reports and police – have become places to hide, sleep and deal drugs.
While on first appearance, the park is just poorly maintained and run-down, the reality of the space is far more disturbing than some overlooked maintenance. In October 2015, it was the site of a horrific crime where a group of twelve men attacked two couples that were taking an evening stroll after a picnic lunch. The vicious attack left the two male victims dead – they were tied up and thrown into the lake, one woman who was gang-raped and another who managed to escaped. This tragedy sadly, was not completely unexpected in a city with high crime-levels when compared to most major cities in the developing world. This tragedy sadly, was not completely unexpected as Rhodes Park, and many other parks in Johannesburg, have become known for opportunistic crime.
Rhodes Park is a prime example of the plight of public spaces and of crime in Johannesburg. As the city rapidly expands due to urbanisation, our parks and public spaces remain the same, forced to accommodate larger numbers of people, increasing the need for more regular maintenance and security. But is this violent incident indicative of the nature of our society or do our public spaces, as they are today, encourage a sense of lawlessness?
If the latter is true this would imply that public spaces can be re-designed to be safer and contribute to reduce the sense of public disrespect for the space to the point of lawlessness and anarchy. Under which conditions or How can the public gain respect for and care for a space like this? And, what are the options available to government, communities and individuals to actually act to improve these spaces?
The first step would be to start with the basics i.e. understanding who uses the park, how they use it and how can it be improved, for them. By doing this, decision-makers can start thinking about people-centered design principles such as placemaking. Rhodes Park, for example, is predominantly used by soccer enthusiasts who take advantage of the park’s fields, other frequenters include local residents and people who travel from Yeoville, a neighbouring suburb 5 kilometers away, for a green picnic spot. These visitors have to negotiate with the resident drug dealers and homeless people who have taken up residence in derelict structures.
‘Placemaking’ as an idea, involves the inclusion of the community in people oriented and focussed design. This collaborative effort means that the aims of any kind of design will always prioritise sociability, comfort/ safety, uses/ activities, and access over perhaps more rigid design principles that would favour uniformity, architectural design or a modern aesthetic.
In South Africa, t The VPUU (Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading) project has reduced crime in Khayelitsha, a township in Cape Town, dramatically through a staging of extensive research and engagement, followed by urban redesign and placemaking concepts. It must be possible for parks in Johannesburg to apply a similar principle or to replicate the approach of VPUU which has started to be rolled out in other parts of Cape Town. While some could argue that placemaking and urban design has limitations in enhancing safety in high-crime environments, the physical environmental factors that do contribute to crime or insecurity should be removed at Rhodes Park if the broader future of the park is to be rethought.
In Johannesburg, the newly upgraded Alec Gorschel Park situated in the densely populated and notoriously crime-ridden inner-city residential neighbourhood of Hillbrow, Johannesburg, is the Johannesburg Development Agency’s (JDA) newest project. The park, which will be opened during the first quarter of 2016, boasts a clear people-centred design including a security presence, as well as sports facilities such as two astroturf soccer fields, full sized basketball and netball courts, a skateboard park, and a fully equipped outdoor gym. The paved walkway even provides solar powered lighting. This project is part of the JDA’s Hillbrow Tower Precinct public environment upgrade which seeks to create more green spaces in the inner city, thereby making the city more livable. This park will become a vital case-study for the city hopefully providing evidence of the effectiveness of placemaking strategies for other parks in the city, like Rhodes Park.
Tony De Munnik, the chairperson of the I Love Kensington Association (founded in 2010 as a community-based ratepayers association aimed at improving the suburb and voicing the rights of the community to council level), believes that the Joburg City Parks latest substantial budget cuts are partly to blame for the park’s decline. De Munnik is critical of the park’s open access and is in favour of a private/ public partnership model for Rhodes Park. De Munnik said in a recent interview, “I believe that public spaces need to be controlled to some extent. We need to be able to monitor access to create some kind of constant visible presence- this is the only way to reduce opportunistic crime.”
In the meantime, while the I Love Kensington Association wait for the government intervene, they have, in their limited capacity, organized community walks through Rhodes Park, free martial arts classes and walking or jogging clubs. These kinds of community-based interventions encourage the community to use the park regularly and create a sense of community and camaraderie.
While community placemaking ideas can be effective, Rhodes Park itself remains a dangerous place in desperate need of intervention – both real, built, infrastructural intervention and a physical security presence. The volume of people seeking green spaces in our city is continually growing as the city is; we cannot afford to ignore the impact of run-down, derelict spaces on the psyche of the public. The future of the park may rest in the ability of groups to come together and mobilise in order to create what could be a safer and more vibrant park in Johannesburg.
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- Johannesburg City Parks Open Space Master Plan
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- Feature Image: The Citizen (originally Joburg East Express)
- Image Credit: Grahame Hall
- Memorial for the Rhodes Park attack vhttp://wp.me/p2wmug-6XGictims: The Citizen
- Rhodes Park gazebo: Joburg East Express
- Harare urban park in Khayelitsha: Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize
- I love Kensington Spring fair: Jean Collen