Walking dogs has many benefits for man and beast. 

James Delaney, an artist, gave a home to Pablo, a Labrador-Golden Retriever cross, in 2013. His Killarney neighbours warned him about walking the dog in the nearby Wilds, a park along Houghton Drive leading into the inner city areas of Yeoville, Berea, and Hillbrow.

He had been told about a murder in The Wilds, about residents in a neighbouring building who had experienced a home invasion by men who hid in the park, and muggings and cell phone grabbings. And the intersection of Houghton Drive, Newtown Avenue and the M1 was a smash-and-grab hotspot. 

From what he saw from his Killarney flat, The Wilds looked forested and dark. On his first few ventures into the park with Pablo, he walked in for a couple of metres, but gradually became bolder. While the flower beds and trees were dark and neglected, he saw that the paths were clear and the grass was being mown. And there was a fence in place, put up after a volunteer, TJ de Klerk, had lobbied the council. 

City Parks, the municipal department which oversees The Wilds, says the claim that the park was neglected is unwarranted. 

Sunil Geness, a global Director at SAP, the business software company, has lived next to the James and Ethel Gray Park in Melrose for the past 15 years. His daughters would walk their Jack Russell terrier Rosie in the Park, but in 2018 they stopped going to the Park and “drew my attention to the deplorable state of the Park.”

Around 2018 there were a number of murders, multiple stabbings and a lady had her finger bitten in the attempt to steal a ring, says Geness. At one time, there were about 400 homeless people living in the Park and house break-ins were soaring. The Park had become “derelict” and was “unkempt”, says Geness.  

Delaney began his improvement campaign in 2012, and Geness began his in 2019. Their approaches have greatly differed.  Delaney’s approach is a “just do it” one. Geness went in with an analysis and then a phased plan. 

Delaney began with flower bed and branch clearing. Later, he started bringing in friends to clear weeds, and paid Thulani Nkomo out of his own pocket to work on projects. He set up a Facebook page, “Friends of the Wilds” and began to fundraise. 

The “big turning point”, he says, came with the launch of the Owl Forest on Mandela Day in 2017. Delaney installed about 70 sculptures of owls, laser cut from steel in the park’s Yellow Wood Forest. 

After the launch Delaney says the number of volunteers at the The Wilds soared. School and volunteer groups came to help out, joggers returned, yoga and park tours began. Tour guide and athlete Kennedy Welani Tembo takes oldies and others on tours every Tuesday morning. 

Delaney’s sculptures of laser cut steel figures of kudu and giraffes are positioned around the park. He has also helped build stonework benches along the paths. 

Delaney plans to set up a non-profit foundation, but presently uses the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation to administer the Friends of the Wilds funds. He says he advises City Parks about the sources and amounts of all the donations he receives. 

By contrast, Geness’ approach is far more formal. As a start he involved the local residents associations, came up with a detailed analysis of the problems, had aerial photographs taken by a drone of the Park, set up a foundation to fundraise, and engaged with City Parks. 

The first step was to fence off most of the park and improve security. Next was the improvement in visibility around the Park to reduce concealed areas, followed by the removal of carcasses from the river. With financing from the foundation and a good deal from ClearVu, a fence was constructed around the park, and a security guard presence enlarged with support from City Parks. 

There are continuing problems with waste pickers who build shacks in the Park. The Foundation plans to talk to the Waste Pickers Association about alternative accommodation, and City Parks says it is talking to other government agencies about possible solutions. 

Both Delaney and Geness say they have seen the “Broken Windows Theory”, put forward by Harvard politics Professor James Q. Wilson, operate in the park. Wilson used the theory to explain the decay of American inner cities in the early 1980s. The theory is that signs of vandalism, general disorder and neglect, create an environment for further deterioration and serious crime.

“As soon as you allow things to deteriorate, they will deteriorate further. If something is vandalised, we repair immediately,” says Delaney.

City Parks is good at doing the larger tasks like mowing lawns and clearing paths, “but it takes time for them to do the smaller things like repairing the fences and stopping acts of vandalism.”

The turnarounds also show the force of an active citizenry in holding the city accountable. Both City Parks and the citizen volunteers feel they should be given a lot more credit for what they have done. 

Geness says City Parks needs active citizens and leadership. “You need a spark, you need a champion, someone who is committed to benefit the community,” he says. There is also value in citizens being the eyes and ears in a park. In the end “The more the community does the more the council has to accept what is happening,” he says. 

Delaney’s relationship with City Parks has been tricky from the start, although he says he does have champions in the department.  The city probably has problems in fitting James into its bureaucratic mould. He may be given approval for projects from the manager in charge of the park, but the message often gets lost by the time it reaches city employees on the ground, he says.

The City says it welcomes citizen volunteers, but the bureaucracy can be off putting. They give Delaney credit for reviving Friends of the Wilds, donating sculptures and doing  work on his projects, but they say they want a clearer definition of responsibilities and greater accountability. He says he does everything they require, but that it is difficult to ascertain at times what City Parks really wants. 

Citizens and volunteer groups could find themselves with a lot more power over the City with the formation of the Johannesburg Parks Alliance. This will bring together park volunteer groups that already have agreements with City Parks to ensure a more formal relationship with the municipality. 

As Delaney and I exit the park, I see an old, rusty gate, which appears to serve no purpose.  I remark that this is “pretty slap”. 

“Well then, it’s your duty as a park user to let them know,” he replies. 

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist. His articles have appeared on DefenceWeb, Politicsweb, as well as in a number of overseas publications. Jonathan has also worked on Business Day and as a TV and radio reporter and newsreader.