Monday, November 28, 2005

Does Jo'burg have a visionary?

The 100-year-old oak tree in Greenhill Road
I've spent a lot of time in New York. When visiting Manhattan, it is impossible not to be impressed by Central Park. The incredible vision required to set aside a park of this scale on an island desperate for space has to be admired.

In Johannesburg, our "Central Park" is perhaps the trees that shade our city. Six million trees make Johannesburg the largest man-made urban forest in the world.

I've gathered the following quotes from the rather excellent Johannesburg website from an article detailing the history of Johannesburg's trees.

Before gold was discovered in the area in 1886, there were several farmers on the Witwatersrand. These early farmers brought seeds from the Cape and planted acorn, oak and walnut trees. The Bezuidenhout family, among the first white settlers in the area, built their farmhouse in 1863 on the farm Doornfontein. They planted fruit trees in Judith's Paarl and Cyrildene, east of the city centre, but they no longer exist.

On the other side of town was the farm Braamfontein, owned by the Geldenhuys family. Louw Geldenhuys built his farmhouse against the Melville Koppies ridge, and his wife, Emmarentia, planted an oak tree and five palm trees in front of the house. These trees still exist, as does the house, gracing the suburb in an old-world splendour.

When the suburb of Emmarentia was laid out in 1937 the town planners wanted to cut down the oak tree as it was in the path of the road being laid out. But Emmarentia put her foot down - the oak was to stay. The tree is now on the pavement, the road kinking around it slightly.

By 1904 a parks department had been established, and by that time the city had four major parks: Joubert Park (17.5 acres), End Street Park in Doornfontein (4.5 acres), Oval Park in Parktown (3.5 acres) and Jeppe Park (2.5 acres).

By 1934 the number of parks had increased to 67, and there was an active tree-planting policy by the council, with 8 000 trees being planted each year.

Over a million trees were planted in the present-day Zoo Lake and the Johannesburg Zoo areas, in what was called Sachsenwald (later Anglicised to Saxonwold and now a suburb of Johannesburg), an area of 1 300 acres. They were blue and red gum trees, quick-growing and ideal for use as mine props. Oaks, pines and wattles were also planted. Picnic spots with benches were created in the forest, and it became a favourite picnic and riding area for Randlords and their families in nearby Parktown.

Remnants of the forest can still be seen in the zoo and in the parkland around Zoo Lake. Suburbs in the area reflect this history in their names: Forest Town, Parkview and Parktown.

Tree entrepreneur William Nelson, according to Smith, had nurseries in Turffontein, where "by 1896 he grew some 30 million trees, shrubs and plants for general distribution". His business was known as Nelsonia Nurseries. He apparently planted "66 miles (106km) of trees along the streets of the newly established suburb of Kensington". The task took six months to complete. She says it's believed to be the first time street trees were planted in South Africa on such a large scale.

Read the full article, together with the one detailing the census performed to arrive at the figure of six million.

Now you might be wondering where this is heading - what's the question?

Well I believe Johannesburg's heritage is under threat. Recently a billboard company cut down 68 trees to allow better sighting of their advertisements. This made the news and the resultant cost borne by the city to replace the trees (R700 for a sapling - the original mature trees would have been worth over R9000).

This weekend I drove to the World of Golf - a fantastic golf practice facility for driving, putting, chipping and putting, etc. The road linking Woodmead Drive with the K101 leads to the World of Golf entrance. It was an avenue lined on both sides for over a kilometer with tall pine trees - probably each about 15 to 20 meters high. Pine trees are a disputed asset in South Africa. They are thirsty aliens in a dry land. But these lined an otherwise dry unoccupied area and survive on Johannesburg's abundant summer rains. They are now almost all gone to make way for an office development - Woodmead North. The office development is on land situated behind where the pines lined the road. The trees would have provided a feature to its entrance.

This is a happening that it being repeated through Johannesburg as urban densification takes place. Densification is in fact a strategy promoted by Johannesburg's local government to deal with the new Sandton CBD's effect on transport systems and access by poorer communities. Take a drive through possibly South Africa's richest suburb, Sandhurst. It is made up of estates that border the Sandton CBD. It is a magnificent area and populated by beautiful trees. A key landmark is the estate bordering Sandton Drive - a veritable forest. It is now being developed by Investec with high density housing. The rest of Sandhurst is rapidly being subdivided as landowners scramble to make the most of a buoyant property market.

This destruction of beauty is not unique to Johannesburg. I often run on the mountain in Cape Town and all along the borders of Newlands Forest, suburbs are creeping ever higher - most notably on the eastern boundary shared with Kirstenbosch. New houses cling to the slopes at heights that take a good half an hour to reach on foot.

South Africa's cities need some visionaries who put a foot down against the destruction of natural beauty. Frankly, they need a few people like the William Nelson mentioned above.


kyknoord said...

It's sad that short-term gain has become the driving force behind most endeavours. The attitude seems to be, "Why should I do anything for my descendents, what have they ever done for me?"

It is the question said...


But even if the thinking doesn't extend to the descendants, you'd think people would think that a large tree cannot simply be replaced - it will be gone for a generation. That means that we suffer the barren concrete landscape.