Defending public space in Brixton, Johannesburg


 Marie Huchzermeyer contributes a piece on a recent proposal to convert Kingston Frost Park into a water reservoir and tower. 

Residents in Joburg’s centrally located suburb Brixton had a rude awakening in the last week of Oct 2015. A petition began making its rounds. It seeks to halt the incredulous proposal to convert a large part of the community’s heartbeat, Kingston Frost Park, into a water reservoir and tower.

The proposed infrastructure development would stamp out an existing playground and lawn that is intensely used by Brixton’s children, many of them from tenant families living in cramped conditions. It would flatten ancient trees, wipe out a much used walkway, much enjoyed view and the site of a yearly Christmas market that draws people from across Johannesburg.

Brixton already hosts one such water infrastructure. The plan is to double its current capacity. While the elegant Brixton water tower is a much loved landmark, the current reservoir takes up an entire street block. Residents and pedestrians interface only with a massive concrete wall.

When the Brixton Community Forum proposed artwork on the bleak façade of the existing reservoir having had an offer of donated paint, Joburg Water denied permission to acknowledge the sponsoring firm and thus the initiative fell through. The community later sought to make the concrete structure its own by organising a hugely popular chalk-drawing day.

Another such structure in the heart of Brixton? Was this perhaps a bad joke? Having received notification from the Ward Councillor, the Brixton Community Forum sought clarity from Joburg Water, in vain.

City Parks and Zoo has an approved budget for an upgrade to Kinston Frost Park and has been consulting the Community Forum. Its officials on this projects seem to know nothing of the planned infrastructure project.

The Joburg Water e-mail, addressed to various City departments and forwarded to the Community Forum by the ward councillor, stated urgency given the densification envisaged under the Corridor of Freedom strategy. It therefore stated the need to expedite this water infrastructure project.

A high price to pay by a local community. In a matter of two days, over 200 residents had signed the electronic petition. On Sunday 1 November, a further 75 alarmed park users added their signatures and five days later the electronic petition was close to 500.

Attached to the Ward Councillor’s e-mail to the Community Forum was a town planning consultants’ analysis of how best to go about the required speedy land use change for the park to give way to the water infrastructure. Taking heed of their clients’ urgency, the planners propose two options.

One is to first effect a ‘closure’ (by invoking a 1939 Local Government Ordinance) and then to consolidate the properties and rezone from ‘Public Open Space’ to ‘Reservoir’ (by invoking a 1986 Town Planning Ordinance). The other is to skip the park closure procedure and instead consolidate and rezone (under the 1986 Ordinance) from ‘Public Open Space’ to ‘Public Open Space with Reservoir’.

Water reservoir in park-plan

The town planning instruments which the consultants invoke show just how archaic und unreformed the South African town planning framework remains, a topic for a different posting. Invoking the ordinances rather than following consultative planning procedures under the Integrated Development Plan gives the impression that the City’s water services company is desperate for a shortcut. The current drought, and Brixton’s taps running dry on 6 November drive home the message.

In the first week of November, the Brixton Community Forum succeeded in bringing the proposed reservoir location to the attention of the City’s Transformation department, the entity that is driving the Corridors of Freedom. Joburg Water had cited densification under this strategy as the reason for several additional water reservoirs. Indeed, Brixton residents’ contribution at public consultations for the Corridor of Freedom was to insist on improvements of the water pressure before any further densification be considered (the census shows that Brixton’s population more than doubled from 1996 to 2011).

The Strategic Area Framework for the Empire/Perth section of the Corridor of Freedom includes Kingston Frost Park as a key open space in the densification plans for the area. The City’s Transformation Department, equally alarmed at the proposed reservoir placement has agreed to investigate.

However, what are the options? If increased reservoir capacity is needed on the Brixton ridge, perhaps the only alternative to placing this in the park may be to flatten a street block of houses. This would necessitate evictions, expropriations and displacement. The Brixton Community Forum believes the reservoir could be located under the currently disused playground of the recently re-opened Brixton Primary School (most covered reservoirs have grassed tops). Or could the capacity of the existing reservoir be increased? At what point would a creative planner be appointed to look into these options?

For now, the Brixton Community Forum has resolved to draw positive attention to its park and to get ahead of the game: it is inviting all stakeholders and the public to enjoy a picnic in the park with local residents (Saturday 14 November, from 2pm onwards). The theme is how best to conserve water. Apart from stopping the water leaks (a project already underway), perhaps more conscious use of water by the public, including residents with lush gardens with swimming pools in the suburbs to the north of Brixton which rely on Brixton’s water storage capacity, could postpone the necessity for an additional reservoir for a few more decades.

marieMarie Huchzermeyer teaches in the School of Architecture and Planning at Wits University and lives in Brixton.




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