Into The Wilds
It started seven years ago with Pablo, a tan Labrador puppy. His human owner, artist James Delaney, had recently moved into Killarney – an area in Johannesburg dominated by flats.
Delaney was in a quandary: the closest open park to walk Pablo was The Wilds. The 16-hectare park, which covers the ridges of Parktown, Killarney and Houghton, was once a green haven for the surrounding communities. The expansive lawn was home to family picnics on a Sunday and after-school banana splits at the very top of the koppie overlooking Roedean school.
The park also held significant ecological value with indigenous and even endemic bugs, creatures, trees, grasses and plants. One could safely amble to the top of the koppie near the Munro Drive viewpoint on the east side of The Wilds and brush up against the centuries-old yellowwood trees and red-hot poker aloes. It was also an active conservancy, with a greenhouse to grow and nurture local flora.
But something went terribly wrong and for almost three decades, The Wilds was a no-go
area with a reputation for being crime-ridden, overgrown and generally hazardous due to poor maintenance. Instead of waiting for the authorities to overhaul and reclaim the park, Delaney took the initiative to bring it back to life and to make it a community asset.
“We tend to hold the belief that the authorities or those in power must do something. We don’t believe we can take action because of rules and regulations, or apathy. Yes, there is a lot of red tape, but the trick is to do it anyway and to form partnerships along the way. No one should fear starting anything in their local area,” says Delaney.
Active citizenship rather than community buy-in
When it comes to transforming public spaces, the go-to model is extensive community engagement and public participation. While this is useful in some respects, the consultative processes are laborious and seemingly interminable.
“I find that it’s passionate people who make the change and continue the momentum. I think the best model is active citizenship and a strong culture of volunteerism,” says Delaney.
Once Delaney had cleared the walking paths (the removal of weeds and invasive species is a continuous process), painted the benches, installed colourful sculptures of animals, including giraffes, owls, and monkeys, other people started to volunteer their time and resources.
Now, there are regular guided walks (including a morning session for seniors), exercise classes and yoga events. The so-called “Blossom Bridge” is a place that knitters and crocheters have decorated with yarn flowers. Craft lovers have found a community in The Wilds, gathering to walk together and knit and crochet various items to place on old tree stumps and on the lawn. In addition, people have donated seeds and plants to the once empty nursery and offer to pull the ubiquitous weeds growing in the park’s nooks and crannies.
The Friends of The Wilds Facebook Group provides a platform for knowledge-sharing.
“I am not a landscaper or a biodiversity expert, so when I need to know something, such as the name of an indigenous species, I ask the community. If we need to get someone to volunteer their time to map out the section of the park, we ask our community. The Rosebank Scouts group and other schoolchildren helped revitalise the compost heap. We always find someone to help us,” says Delaney.
Remarkably, over R100 000 was raised through crowdfunding to restore the east side of The Wilds, which still needs a lot of work.