I followed the recent storm on social media regarding the man in Tshwane who planted a vegetable garden first in a park and then on a pavement (read about it here) — public open spaces in official speak — and like many people was conflicted: I admired his initiative and entrepreneurial spirit, especially in addressing food security in his local community, but at the same time, I knew that this went against the law.
Like Tshwane, Joburg has an Open Spaces By-law that governs what can and cannot happen in a public open space: parks, road reserves (pavements), and all the other small pieces of land controlled by government.
This by-law prevents anyone from digging in or planting in a public open space and is intended to keep public parks open to everyone to enjoy the outdoors and stop anyone from digging up the pavement in front of your house (though companies can apply to install services like fibre, but this is controlled). It ensures that no one can take over your local park and do whatever they want in it — public spaces are for the public, not just a single private interest.
However, we do need to acknowledge that there are plenty of open pieces of land across Joburg that are not parks and are not pavements in front of a home where the owner takes great pride in planting and maintaining their pavement. I know I drive past so many pieces of land that I think could be made useful for the local community — if not as a park then as a small plot for growing vegetables, fruit, or flowers. I’ve seen cases of communities in Joburg adopting a public space (which the city does allow) to beautify through planting indigenous trees and flowers, which no doubt creates a sense of pride for community members.
In many parts of Europe, there is a strong tradition of allocating allotments on public land — small parcels that are leased to local community members who don’t have their own gardens but want to have a small food garden. Surplus produce is usually shared amongst the community or sold at a local market.
These forms of urban agriculture can be an excellent solution to the problem of food security — a problem made worse under the current pandemic. Child malnutrition is a serious issue that impacts children’s health and learning. Hospitals and clinics across Gauteng have been reporting increases in child malnutrition during the pandemic, and we know that when schools were closed the Department of Education had to be taken to court to provide the free meals that so many learners depend on.
I would like to see all the small pieces of land that aren’t being used as parks or protected biodiversity spaces (usually wetland areas), made available to local community members or urban agriculture entrepreneurs so that we can support small, local businesses, and increase pride in our neighbourhoods. This can lead to a thriving urban agriculture industry, which can both drive job creation and initiatives to provide food to schools, old age homes, soup kitchens, shelters, and other organisations which need this support.
As for homeowners: you should be allowed to plant a food garden on the pavement in front of your home as long as you don’t obstruct pedestrian walkways.
While I certainly support the TMPD in upholding the rule of law, we need to look at an enabling framework of policy and legislation that sees a free and fair process for people to access these unused parcels of public land, and make them productive. We must do everything we can to encourage this entrepreneurial spirit in our country, especially where it can help to increase security through more eyes on the street, drive local industry, tackle hunger and food security, and create jobs. DM/MC