I’ve been in Johannesburg for the past two and a half weeks for the World Cup, perfecting my vuvuzela skills, watching endless hours of soccer and enjoying the fantastic festival atmosphere here.
Living in Cape Town in 2004 when South Africa was announced as the 2010 host, I first became intrigued by how an international event such as the World Cup could help to transform South African cities. And recently I had an opportunity to spend a year (2008-2009) working in Johannesburg with the Rea Vaya BRT project team. So for me, returning to Johannesburg for the World Cup was as much about soccer as it was a chance to see firsthand how the city has been transformed.
Joburg shines these days with a touch of extra color and polish. The participating country flags line the highways, a soccer ball balances atop the Hillbrow Tower, and the trusses of the Nelson Mandela Bridge feature the image of Mandela holding the World Cup trophy.
The city boasts shiny new stadium precincts and efficient public transport, but small changes in the inner city have really caught my attention. Recent public investment is evident in urban upgrades and new parks around town.
New and refurbished public spaces
Near the Chancellor House Rea Vaya BRT station, a former parking lot has been converted into a small plaza complete with benches and trees, sign boards explaining the historic significance of the Diagonal Street neighborhood and a statue honoring anti-Apartheid icon Walter and Albertina Sisulu. The small public space offers a quiet resting area set apart from the crowded sidewalks of a busy shopping district.
Ernest Oppenheimer Park occupies half a city block, one block from the Provincial Government Building and the Library Gardens BRT station on Market Street. A year ago it was an unwelcoming and poorly maintained “park.” It felt like a leftover space, without a distinct identity or purpose that attracted the homeless but few others. The redesigned square now features a colorful modern art screen, public toilets, lighted pathways and semi-circular seating that forms a public amphitheater/performance space. The perimeter fence is somewhat of a visual and physical barrier, but overall the space feels more inviting and functional than it did a year ago. Another small but nicely upgraded public space in town.
Upgraded linear markets
Oppenheimer Park is bounded to the east by Joubert Street, one of several pedestrianized streets functioning as a linear market in central Johannesburg’s Retail Improvement District (RID). Upgrades to the RID were part of a R 23.6 million (~$3 million) investment in the inner city, which included the Oppenheimer Park redesign. A zigzag metal roof, also incorporated into the Oppenheimer Park design, now covers the linear markets and acts as a unifying design element throughout the District. New sidewalk pavers and lighting enhance the walkability and security of the area. The linear markets now feel less haphazard and informal and more part of a distinct retail district.
In Soweto, I discovered the new R 10 million Dhlamini Eco Park opposite the terminal Thokoza Park BRT station. The 4-kilometer linear park along the Klipspruit River is part of a 2010 legacy project to rehabilitate and green the river. Once a barren strip of trash-strewn land, the park now features paved pedestrian pathways, benches, playground equipment, a running trail and a soccer pitch. New trees have been planted in the park as part of the Greening Soweto campaign that saw 200,000 trees planted throughout the Soweto townships.
Enhanced historic precincts
Vilakazi Street, the epicenter of the June 1976 Soweto student uprising against Apartheid, has also received a facelift. The Johannesburg Development Agency recently completed an urban upgrade of the precinct, which includes the Hector Pieterson museum, and former residences of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The project aimed to increase the tourism potential of the historic Orlando West neighborhood by creating a “living museum.” New landscaping, street furniture, public art and signage strive to unify the precinct. The upgrades also include wider sidewalks, sign boards explaining historically significant sites and tour bus parking. Several beautiful tile mosaics have been inlaid into the sidewalks, and a clever sculpture of taxi hand signals (pedestrians use a system of hand signals to flag down a taxi serving their desired destination) greet visitors at the southern entrance to Vilakazi.
Some residents feel the Vilakazi Street interventions are of too small a scale to have any significant local economic impact, but on a recent weekday afternoon, I noticed the street was bustling with World Cup tourists. I think the refurbished Vilakazi Street will continue to attract visitors even after the Cup, and the precinct will become a starting point from which tourists can venture further into Soweto.
These small urban interventions around Joburg are surely less well-publicized than the new Soccer City stadium, Rea Vaya BRT and Gautrain, but they are no less important. The new and refurbished public spaces improve the livability and sustainability of Johannesburg — a 2010 legacy that residents and visitors can enjoy years after the final World Cup whistle.