Johannesburg City Parks: Maintaining green spaces for generations to come

Tradition dictates that South Africa’s major cities continue to grow, with an annual migration of people in search of work. That puts a premium on green spaces in large urban areas, with Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo (JCPZ) responsible for the management of this important commodity in the nation’s largest city.

JCPZ oversees in excess of 2,000 parks, including Johannesburg Zoo, serving all local communities. It is a merged entity as from January 2013, and is registered as a non-profit company under the South African Companies Act, No 71 of 2008 as amended.

The official website describes JCPZ’s remit as thus: “JCPZ is mandated by the City of Johannesburg to manage the City’s cemeteries, parks and designated public open spaces as well as to ensure that its environmental conservation function is carried out, which includes the maintenance of all street and park trees within the City’s borders, the Zoo with the preservation and management of biodiversity through direct conservation action, education, research and recreation.

“The organisation has a growing portfolio in excess of 20,000 hectares of green open spaces and 3.2 million trees (public spaces). Currently, the Zoo has 326 species consisting of 2,096 specimens housed within a 55 hectare area. The collection consist of 20 Amphibia (Frogs), 5 Arachnida (Spiders), 128 Aves (Birds), 47 Reptilia (Reptiles), 25 Osteichthyes (Pisces- Fish) and 101 Mammalia (Mammals).

“The company operates with an operational budget of R 692.8million, a capital development budget of R102.2 million and a staff complement of 1,563 permanent employees.”

JCPZ’s vision is to operate “a green, clean, conserved and active world-class, African city”. Its mission is “to develop, maintain and conserve public open spaces, cemeteries and animal life for present and future generations”.

Of course the Zoo is very much one of the centrepiece attractions managed by JCPZ, located in the northern suburbs of the city.

The Zoo was founded in 1904, when land was donated to the public for recreational use by the firm of the late Hermann Eckstein.

Eckstein played his part in the development of the new mining town of Johannesburg and arranged for 3 million trees to be planted in an area which he christened Sachsenwald, now the suburb of Saxonwold.

The Zoo has evolved significantly since then of course and public perceptions also changed, with the 1960s in particular a period of change, as visitors wanted to see animals in larger, more natural enclosures. This was the start of the zoo’s long-term plans to grow and improve the facility for both the animals and the visitors. These changes saw the upgrading and creation of old and new enclosures, the development of education and environmental programmes, and the zoo becoming part of local and international breeding programmes.

To work on such levels, the Zoo operates in accordance with international standards, maintaining a high level of animal welfare, nutrition and ethical conduct to ensure the physical and psychological well-being of all its animals.

Joburg Zoo is open to the public 364 days a year, including Christmas, New Years and Easter holidays.

JCPZ’s role is far reaching across the city.

In June it was announced that the refurbished Ekhaya Park in Hillbrow had been unveiled by the Member of the Mayoral Committee (MMC) for Community Development in the City of Joburg (CoJ), Cllr Nonhlanla Sifumba, as part of the city’s World Environment Week celebrations.

In a press statement, JCPZ announced that the R1.4 million refurbishment included the installation of a full size, synthetic soccer field; a new ablution block; park furniture embedded with a chess board and table tennis; themed playgrounds for toddlers; landscaped lawns and murals.  The local subcontractors involved in both projects created jobs for 6-months, with a total number of 13 SMME’s, 16 EPWP and 12 beneficiaries being empowered from the local community during construction the process.

The fully enclosed newly developed park is a welcome sight, for residents living in the towering high-rise apartments adjacent to the new park.

The luxury of sprawling open spaces to enable communities to connect with nature, and to bring residents together, are non-existent due to low-cost inner city densification in Hillbrow and its surrounding areas. It is therefore critical that the spread of urban degeneration is averted in the parks in the inner city.

Developing safe parks is also a complex issue that must be thought through from the design phase, together with community involvement; supporting maintenance programmes and regular recreation activities.

“Park safety is of paramount importance for City Parks and the Zoo, who are responsible for the maintenance of the facility, however it requires the need for communities to become closely involved in the parks’ everyday use and protection, to ensure that these spaces are sustained,” stated Sifumba.

Sifumba commended the Ekhaya Neighbourhood Improvement District for establishing a forum with business, Bad Boyz Security, local schools, SAPS, JCPZ and the community to reclaim the park, which was beset with problems of grime, petty crime, vandalism and substance abusers, and acknowledged their outstanding contribution by presenting the forum with an award for exceptional service to the community.

The same month witnessed the introduction of two large Baobab-shaped tree structures within the Madagascar section of the Johannesburg Zoo, home to Ring-Tailed Lemurs. The structures were paid for by Hollard’s Corporate Social Investment.

Managing so many green spaces and such a large volume of land is an operational challenge on a vast scale and one which is constantly looking to make the best use of technology.

Last November the news broke that JCPZ had acquired two drones to monitor parks and nature reserves remotely.

Alan Buff, the head of the JCPZ Green Academy responsible for training and innovation, indicated that the deployment of drones would save a lot of time, manpower and money.

“There are many uses for these drones in our department,” he said. “For instance, if we are doing animal counts in the reserves and notice some animals missing, we can send up the drone to find them instead of sending out teams on foot to look for them.

“Also if there is a sick animal, we can get the drone close by and get a vet to do a basic assessment of what medical assistance is required.”

Whilst animal health is one benefit, the drones can also be used to identify maintenance issues, particularly in remote areas, as Buff explained:

“We can send up a drone to survey the roofs of our buildings to see what maintenance is needed,” Buff said.

Other uses for the drones are to conduct tree surveys, to monitor safety and poaching in parks, to check fences around parks and cemeteries, to monitor invasive alien vegetation and, in case of fires, to view the extent of the blaze.

“This will eliminate the need to send in teams who would have to walk to get into certain areas and which can take days,” said Buff.

Previously the department would have needed to hire a helicopter at great expense to do these things, so the drones should quickly offer a return.

Another important aspect of JCPZ’s remit is to engage with the public, to promote education and a healthier lifestyle.

In June JCPZ announced details of a new campaign called ‘Welcome Outside’.

Jenny Moodley, spokesperson of Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo, said: “The aim is to invite Joburg’s residents into environmental open spaces. These areas have been developed and maintained for everyone’s enjoyment.”

JCPZ continues to innovate and engage as it looks to preserve Johannesburg’s green spaces not only for the present generation but those to follow.