Johannesburg, South Africa
Competition submission: 2009
Team: GREENinc + NLA + MRA
Client: Johannesburg Development Agency & Johannesburg City Parks

THE SEAM1 ...!
Modern large-scale urban parks are increasingly integral to the sustainable development of cities. They should differ from the large public parks of the past, which were likewise set up from strategic points of view, like Central Park in New York, in that they were regarded as catalysts of urban development, or were there to counter the social ills of the city.

Today’s parks, which might rather be called landscapes, are set up in urban areas, where they represent ‘nature’ and have to serve a wide range of purposes. These parks are fundamental to assuring the competitive attractiveness of cities – that is, as contemporary open space.

The CBD of Johannesburg has little open space and is a densely packed conglomeration of buildings, roads, infrastructure and vehicles.

THE SEAM advocates a purposeful discourse between human activities, city landscape and ecological systems ultimately manifesting in the deliberate celebration of the urban void. The celebration glorifies the interstitial (the space between …), so that the void is invariably romanticised and becomes the ‘seam’ that stitches together disparate elements of the city … creating a desirable environment that allows for the free movement of pedestrians and cyclists through the city and is the catalyst for regeneration of derelict areas.

This approach is necessary in primarily high density urban fabrics like Johannesburg’s CBD, where individual ‘brownfield sites’ are easily identifiable as precious and rare interstitial spaces. In some areas the building density has dissolved as the city decentralized … and it becomes necessary to consolidate again – in areas like New Dornfontein, Bertrems and Judith’s Paarl – where new voids can be created by surrounding buildings programmed for high density housing and mixed use developments.

THE SEAM employs an approach that entails defining void at the CBD scale and proposes that once the voids have been identified they can be reclaimed, remediated and creatively stitched back into the dense urban fabric to be utilized by the citizens of the city as places to recreate, socialize and safely move between districts.

THE SEAM manifests itself as a linear system of parks that begins as a natural ecosystem (Observatory Ridge), and then penetrates the urban fabric to the west along a series of existing and created voids, to culminate at Newtown – a heritage and cultural precinct. At the western end of the ridge, on a site with spectacular views across the city and which has spiritual and cultural (gold was first sought in the quartzite ridges) significance, a new park (Observatory Hill Park), is proposed. This 5ha park will be the first intervention. The park would be a catalyst for high density mixed-use development along its northern edge. The site is also significant as the ridge line is the watershed between river systems that flow either to the north and the Indian Ocean or to the south and the Atlantic Ocean.

THE SEAM steps down Observatory Ridge in an exciting series of exaggerated steps to meet with Ellis Park Precinct. Using Observatory Ridge as natural void, a series of new parks (voids) are proposed that stretch to the east down Bezuidenhout Valley and are central to proposed high density housing.

Ellis Park Precinct is linked to a proposed new major park intervention at Doornfontein Station (Doornfontein Park). This park would be central to high density residential units located south of the railway line (on reclaimed industrial land) and adjacent to the park along its eastern edge. Going further west, the void, created by the railway line, is reclaimed using a landscaped decking structure that connects Doornfontein Park to the Johannesburg Art Museum and Joubert Park. Joubert Park is then linked to the new Gautrain Station and Park Station along Leyds Street which are celebrated as the ‘Gateway to Johannesburg’. Again a void, created by railway lines and associated infrastructure, is reclaimed and designed as a multi-functional urban park precinct, which affords panoramic views to the west and south-west of the CBD. This new precinct is ‘stitched back’ into the old and new urban fabric and becomes the catalyst for mixed use development on adjacent reclaimed brownfield sites – primarily programmed as housing units.

From this elevated position, THE SEAM steps down in a series of smaller, greener parks designed on brownfield sites, to ultimately connect and culminate with the series of squares and open spaces that already exist in Newtown Cultural Precinct.

THE SEAM offers extraordinary opportunities for city residents to have access to open space and networks of paths, squares and parks that could take hours to navigate in their own time. It also offers distinct opportunities that are otherwise impossible in the compressed urban and public spaces of the city, allowing instead significant space for extensive leisure, social, and recreational amenities.

THE SEAM also offers the City of Johannesburg the opportunity to stake new and unique identities, promoting the distinctiveness of local geography and ecology (Observatory Ridge), heritage and culture (Joubert Park/Newtown), sports and recreation (Ellis Park), and a much improved quality of life.

THE SEAM would be fundamental to assuring the increased attractiveness of the city as a place to live, work-in or visit, thereby attracting new residents, businesses and promoting economic development. At the same time it makes a significant contribution to environmental sustainability through its scale and habitat opportunities, specifically along a rehabilitated Observatory Ridge, as well as to urban liveability, health and fitness.

The planning and design of THE SEAM must confront a host of significant challenges, such as multiple competing stakeholders, phase financing, segmentation, inaccessibility and difficult implementation, especially along and over the railway servitude and streets and brownfield sites. Consequently its design must inevitably be strategic, time-based and incremental. Design initiatives cannot simply be wilful, subjective or formal approaches, but need instead to be intelligent and flexible with regard to what is inevitably a complex field of dynamic variables. Five general approaches2 are proposed to ensure the success of design strategy: unification, amplification, incubation, diversification and loosening. Taken together the five guiding strategies steer and form the basis on which THE SEAM takes shape.

Unification … aims to overcome segmentation, while retaining a large-scale sense of landscape, horizon and extension. Breaking down barriers and establishing a seamless network of inter-connectivity will generally help to ensure the creation of a unified large-scale landscape integrated with its urban surroundings.

Amplification … seeks to incorporate and intensify remnants of existing and potential site assets. Rather than imposing something completely new and foreign to a place, amplification looks to render visible and enrich latent site attributes, often re-imagining and repurposing these for new uses and effects (i.e. the Observatory Ridge having geographic, spiritual and historic significance). Amplification also builds on the notion of exploiting existing ‘energies’ (such as at Newtown, Gautrain Park Station and Ellis Park Precinct) on which to build the new landscape.

Incubation … aims to position the new landscape as a growth medium, a propagation field that essentially grows its own complexity and ecology (human and natural) over time. This strategy is not only about paving, trees and habitats (ridge) but also about a larger world of experimentation and effect – including art, community engagement and every day use.

Diversification … is about enriching and diversifying the range of ecosystem plantings, water and habitats across the site (mostly along the ridge but also in reclaimed brownfield sites), as well as supporting a wide range of activities and users. One of the benefits of large-scale landscape interventions is their capacity to absorb and embrace complexity, allowing the co-existence of ‘wild’ landscapes and habitats (ridge) with heritage, leisure, recreational and artistic programs.

Loosening … is a strategy aimed at creating a loose fit, or a flexible arrangement of environments/places that can be generous, forgiving and flexible as needs and desires change over time. This is a complex idea as it does not imply just leaving things empty and undefined but rather involves a precise deployment of physical geometry and design ingredients to create the right sort of settings that are themselves both legible and yielding.

IN CLOSING … THE SEAM strives to become a landmark contemporary urban landscape and defining central destination and cultural resource for the City of Johannesburg … simultaneously unlocking opportunities for regenerating derelict parts of the city. THE SEAM addresses the goals of unity, connectivity, sense of place, ecosystem, culture, identity and inclusion – an urban park system and landscape for all the people who live, work and visits the inner city of Johannesburg. New circulation pathways, tree plantings, gateways, signage and consistent design elements will shape the link as one park. The concept of ‘one long park’ connected to its immediate urban and natural environs at either end, invokes a collective and shared sense of ownership – i.e. this is a park for everyone, essentially galvanising communities that are sometimes separated by income, race and lifestyle.

THE SEAM also addresses the diversity of the different areas of the inner city, the varied user group demands and the definition of future management zones, each with respective goals, landscape character and management regimes. This is an organizational strategy that would help to collate, manage and define what is otherwise a complex set of landscape demands and potentially contentious issues – juxtaposing the Observatory Ridge ecosystem with Park Station Precinct, Johannesburg Art Gallery with Newtown Cultural Precinct or providing space for open air amphitheatre and play areas.

THE SEAM employs an approach that entails defining and utilizing void at the city scale to reclaim, remediate and imaginatively stitch back the new landscape into the existing and proposed urban fabric. It builds upon existing energy, connecting heritage, cultural and sports nodes with natural features to offer a generous and beautiful large-scale public landscape for a broad constituency of public users. It will become a place to recreate, socialize and safely move between areas. As such the park would become a leading-edge model for the design and sustainable management of an inner city park system.

2009 09 11

1 The reference to SEAM is threefold: the seam as a device to stitch the park into the dense urban fabric; the seam that links together disparate elements to achieve a whole and healed environment; and the seam that relates to gold, the very reason that Johannesburg exists!
2 Derived from an article by James Corner in TOPOS 66/2009

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