Johannesburg is #2 on The 2014 GOOD City Index.
It’s to Joburg’s advantage that, distracted by Cape Town, people don’t seem to pay as much attention to it as they should. The city gives those who give it the time of day a chance to step in and own a small pocket of something—an idea, a space, a view, or a solution. Not that there aren’t many systemic problems in Joburg: crime, poverty, dubious political spending, and a lack of infrastructure and proper sanitation, just to name a few. But the city is good at finding new, sometimes unorthodox, ways to fix itself, like freeing owls to hunt rats in the townships and starting a youth photography skills development program named “Iwasshot in Joburg :).” In 2014, the African National Congress (ANC), the political party once headed by Nelson Mandela, saw slipping numbers in the provincial elections, as the influence of younger, forward-looking voters—whose political alliances aren't as heavily influenced by past promises of post-apartheid South Africa—began to set in. More and more, urban regeneration projects signaled this shifting spirit, such as bike lanes in Soweto, a multi-use development in the once-rundown area of Newtown, and the Joburg Art Fair, which became a truly citywide celebration.
Hub for progress
A pocket of innovation called Braamfontein sits on the doorsteps of the CBD, at the foot of the Nelson Mandela Bridge. Home to events like this year’s Social Media Week, British Counsel Connect ZA, Puma Social Club, and the Johannesburg Dance Umbrella, Braamfontein is the perfect illustration of a racially integrated South Africa. A breeding ground of creativity and innovation packed full of galleries, artist spaces, bars, and startups focused on making meaningful connections with the man on the street, Braam (as the cool kids say) is a testament to Joburg’s vision for future.
After a 10-percentage-point drop in the provincial elections this year, the ANC party has been hard at work to prove to the city that it can be trusted. In an effort to reach out to Joburg, the mayor opened the Inner City Metro Park in September, seeking to provide residents with a safe green and community-oriented space with an outdoor gym, next-generation play equipment, five-a-side sports grounds, an amphitheater area, and the first mobile Wi-Fi library.
Thirteen years after a grand urban plan was approved for Newtown to become the city's principal cultural hub (and then promptly stalled in the midst of the recession), September saw the finish of one of the first major phases of the project, the Newtown Junction. Boasting restaurants, a cinema, and various retail stores that you can access by simply walking off the street (a rarity in car-filled Joburg), the Junction is a mixed-use space that includes prime office space, a gym, and a fine art gallery promoting the development of local artists. Developers worked closely with the South African Heritage Resources Agency to preserve and incorporate a lot of the area’s heritage structures into the Junction.
After the public outcry that followed rats eating three of fingers and parts of the nose of a one-month-old baby in Alexandra, the city implemented a radical solution: barn owls. In September, owl boxes were placed around schools in Alexandria and Marlboro with the intent of ridding townships of rat infestations. Only a few minor hiccups ensued: Some superstitious local residents thought the owls were evil, and thus rejected the plan, while the NSPCA responded to several incidents of these misinformed residents attacking owls. Despite this, the plan moves forward—a positive example of city government trying a creative solution to mitigate a quality of life issue.
This October, a 5-kilometer bicycle track and sidewalk went up in Orlando, Soweto, giving township residents a safe route to visit 12 schools, two clinics, a police station, several churches, and the famous World Cup soccer stadium. It is one stage of a four-part initiative, a first for the city, to create 120 kilometers of safe cycling lanes that will connect many corners of the city, including Orange Farm, Ivory Park, and Soweto, the city’s largest township. The Bicycle Empowerment Network and Freedom Ride organization have also established the first Bicycle Empowerment Centre in Soweto. The groups trained mechanics from the area and helped them open their own, fully functional bicycle workshop in Orlando, which offers sales of secondhand bicycles and spares, as well as repairs and community training.
The tightly-packed, informal housing areas known as townships on the outskirts and the most inner parts of the city have limited green space. To change this, citizens are now trying to provide access to some of the surrounding greener areas, such as Northern Farm Nature Reserve, or reclaiming underutilized spaces in the inner city for young people to use as sports facilities. Organizations such as the Diepsloot Mountain Biking Academy (DMA) are giving children the opportunity to better themselves and their lives through workshops, weekend training, and free access to equipment.
Dlala Nje (“just play” in Zulu) is a space that encourages children from three of Joburg’s most insular, impoverished, and misunderstood areas—Hillbrow, Berea and the West African immigrant community of Yeoville—to come together. A games-and-culture emporium at the bottom of Johannesburg’s most famous building, Ponte Tower, provides a platform for development and empowerment and aims to change negative perceptions about this part of the inner city. The project has grown to include recycling initiatives, charity drives, free Internet for school projects, and several different cultural programs, all partially funded through the center’s walking tours, which provide locals and the vast immigrant communities a chance to interact and integrate with one another’s culture.
With summer temperatures averaging around 30 degrees Celsius and not a beach in sight, it’s no surprise that Joburg’s residents like to frequent the many public pools around the city. But it is Maboneng’s newest bar, Poolside—which opened at the start of South Africa’s summer in October—that’s got most people talking. The bar, situated in the Museum of African Design (MOAD), is the latest project in an urban development effort that is already home to rooftop restaurants, bars, night markets, even an outdoor cinema.
Sylvia E K McKeown is possibly the least fashionable fashion and lifestyle writer in Johannesburg. Her choice to call the world’s largest urban forest, "home," may have something to do with its 900 rare and second-hand bookshops but it’s mostly due to $0.12 dumplings in New Chinatown. You are most likely to spot her shopping for wax print fabrics in the inner city or reading comics at her favorite all-day breakfast spot, Croft & Co.