Johannesburg City Park Environmental Education & Research Centre
Johannesburg, South Africa
Completed 2009

Approach: from landscape to 'learnscape'

From the outset of the project we decided that despite the financial constraints and the absence of a clear brief, it was our responsibility to approach the project in an environmentally sensitive manner. Our aim was to create an inviting, environmentally responsive landscape, for showcasing indigenous vegetation and providing opportunities for gathering and learning.

The existing formal garden (with its abundance of exotic trees and planting) at the entrance to the complex, posed a paradoxical design challenge. In theory an environmental education centre should showcase the best of what the local natural environment has to offer and not exotic vegetation. To keep true to the ideals of an environmental education centre, we decided to juxtapose the exotic landscape of the past with the indigenous landscape of the development. The transition or threshold between these two ideologies would be physically represented by a low dividing wall.


The threshold or division between the new indigenous landscape and the existing entrance landscape was constructed with baskets made from weld mesh panels wired together on site, thus in a sense, 'bracketing' or 'book-ending' the new garden. As this wall played a significant role in our approach to the landscape design, the material used to fill the baskets had to be considered carefully. We decided to fill the baskets with recycled material such as empty glass bottles and compressed tin cans, as the concept of re-using and recycling plays an important part in environmental education. After much research and discussions with companies such as Collect-a-can, these ideas were discarded due to the potential safety and hygiene problems of these objects. We felt that this garden was to be public environment primarily for the use of children and we could not risk them injuring themselves on broken bottles or the rusted edges of tin cans. The long term visual presentation of these objects was also questioned and we realised that we had to come up with an alternative solution.

As we were already re-using the paving material on site, we decided to carry this idea through to the weld mesh baskets, by filling them with reclaimed building material. Concrete and terracotta objects were hand selected from various reclamation yards on the West Rand. Only the section of the wall framing the pond courtyard were filled with reclaimed material, as we simply could not afford to use this material in all the baskets. The remainder of the baskets were filled with dump-rock, from a nearby quarry. The Buddleja saligna hedge planting provides a sense of enclosure to the pond courtyard and it also strengthens the idea of 'threshold' by creating a visual screen between the new landscape and the existing entrance landscape.

Pond courtyard

The idea of constructing a decorative pond or water feature at an environmental education centre did not sit well with the design team, as we felt that it would not convey a message of water and energy conservation. The client was hell bent on the introduction of water and due to their persistence we responded by designing an interactive water feature that could be used for environmental education. The over sized taps that control the volume of the water supplied to the water inlet nozzles, resemble the physical reduction of water availability, as the users increase in number and volume requirement. We tried to reduce its negative environmental impact, by using bio-filtration and placing the external pump on a timer switch set to run during the hours that the garden is open to the public. For the purpose of bio-filtration, Juncus effesus and Cyperus prolifer planted in containers, were placed on a bed of crusher stone in the deeper section of the pond.

As the quantity of stock-piled paving bricks on site was insufficient to construct all the new paving areas, it was decided not to import additional pavers, but to cover the area with a layer of permeable sandstone gravel. Clay stock bricks were used to construct the pond and the water inlet pipes were placed inside reclaimed terracotta pipes. The frog sides of the bricks were left exposed to add texture and to express the true nature of the material.

Lawn quad

The 'threshold' wall, existing maintenance shed and the proposed multi-purpose building, created a rectangular space that we envisioned as a gathering or relaxation area for visitors and school groups. Unfortunately the existing hedge planting cut diagonally through this space and could not be incorporated into any functionally successful design. As the hedge planting consisted of predominantly exotic species and was in a poor condition, we suggested that it be removed. The client argued that this element was an important tool for training their staff as well as to educate visitors on the identification of exotic plants. After much deliberation, it was agreed that hedge planting would be removed and that a new hedge garden with the same species would be planted elsewhere on site. A serpentine pathway, constructed from the salvaged pavers, leads visitors from the pond courtyard to the staircase at the main entrance. Disabled access is provided with a ramp leading from the existing maintenance shed. The magnificent existing oak tree was framed with sandstone boulders and serves as seating for an outdoor classroom.

Sensory garden

The sensory garden that creates the northern boundary of the lawn quad is divided into 5 areas representing the different senses. A winding pathway leads visitors from one end to the other and the theme of each section is announced by a mosaic vignette cast into the surface of the pathway. Plant species with sensory characteristics were carefully chosen for each of the 5 areas.

Choosing plant species to represent the sense of hearing, proved difficult as it would take many years to establish trees and shrubs with leaves that 'rustle' in the wind or with seeds that would make a sound when released from the plant. For this reason we chose plant species that are known to attract birds and insects, thereby bringing the sounds of 'buzzing' and bird song into the garden. A section of the pathway was replaced by sandstone gravel that would 'crunch' when visitors walk over it.

GreenInc © 2017