Gardens, the Inner-city and Informality: what we learnt about Johannesburg

Pic1by Olumuyiwa Adegun and Hector Rojas Careto

The field trips that formed part of the Johannesburg phase of the Johannesburg-Berlin (In)formal City exchange programme were revealing. We visited a 12-storey Johannesburg inner-city building, where a small garden exists on the roof top. The garden is known called ‘Centre of Attraction’ (CoA). As a community enhancement program, the garden was conceived to provide a space where the building’s residents interact and learn about gardening. Products from the garden are intended to in some way meet the residents’ nutritional needs through consumption of the garden produce and boost income through sale. The CoA garden is the 3rd project of this nature owned and promoted by Makulong a Matala, under the umbrella of Johannesburg Housing Company (JHC), and with service provision by Food & Trees for Africa (F&TA). JHC is a municipal agency in charge of publicly-owned residential buildings in the inner city of Johannesburg, while FTA is a popular NGO dealing with environmental and food security issues in South Africa.  

In the course researching the garden, we had a chat with Zakhona the community development facilitator working for JHC (Makulang a Matala) on the garden, and Ewald who is a garden field officer with Food & Trees for Africa. We also interviewed Joanne, who is the food gardens manager at Food & Trees for Africa. We identified that stakeholder (actors) on the garden project fall into four categories. The categories are – the state and its agencies (JHC via Makulang a Matala), the NGO (F&TA), the garden members (tenants), and other users (residents, visitors and buyers)

The CoA garden started in October 2012 as the third garden in a JHC building. Before then, JHC had asked Food & Trees for Africa to help set up the garden on the building’s rooftop. Membership of the gardening group is open to all tenants in the building, and a call for membership took place through a community engagement workshop with the people. After recruiting some members, the majority of whom are children, the garden started. Presently the garden produces fresh vegetables which are purchased by some of the buildings tenants and non-tenants on the street as well. In April 2013, the first annual competition between all the 7 gardens on JHC inner city buildings took place with CoA emerging as ‘garden of the year’. The aim of the competition is to motivate the residents to maintain and improve their gardens.

The inner city rooftop garden (highlighted) and others activities in the space/background.

The inner city rooftop garden (highlighted) and others activities in the space/background.


There are some challenges being experienced on the garden. The tenants’ involvement in the gardening activities is poor. This can be linked to the fact that many tenants don’t live in the building for too long – high turnover in tenancy. When they are around, they work most hours of the day, and therefore do not seem strongly chanced for gardening activities. The rooftop space is not enough as it is not purpose-designed for gardening. In fact engineers have to certify the rooftop space as structurally fit before gardening could take place. Water for irrigation is also a problem during winter. To tackle this, rainwater harvesting system (shown in figure below) was put in place but this is not offering a complete solution to the seemingly perennial problem. Rats and other kinds of rodents are problematic as they do feed on the growing plants. Pilfering on the growing vegetables by some of the tenants is also a concern.

The Centre of Attraction garden.

The Centre of Attraction garden.

Relationship with Informality-formality

The CoA garden resonates with the formal-informal duality in a number of ways. The social space for the gardening project is defined by an informal engagement process between the actors involved and their interests. The physical space where the garden is taking place was originally designed for other uses (primarily for clothe sun-drying through lines). But its conversion falls within the shade of a not-so-formal context. The project itself struggles to be integrated as part of the socio-economic life in the inner city buildings. Getting it as part of what we may refer to as formalised aspects of life in the building is challenging. Achieving this however would contribute in a huge way towards the community’s social capital. Presently, sales of the garden produce are done in an informal way, but the aim is to increase production and the number of gardens in the inner city so that it can fit into the formal market.

The garden’s rainwater harvesting system

The garden’s rainwater harvesting system


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