Overnight, a New Park Blooms From an Illegal Dump in Soweto

Luther Williamson, parks director in Johannesburg, plants trees as part of a
Luther Williamson, parks director in Johannesburg, plants trees as part of a "green" campaign. Williamson was inspired by a reality TV show to build a park in 24 hours. (Courtesy Of Johannesburg City Parks)
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By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 2, 2009


This city boasts one of the world's largest urban forests. But the trees blanket the predominantly white northern suburbs, while the mostly black townships in the south -- long neglected under the former apartheid government -- resemble dust bowls.

Luther Williamson, managing director of the city's parks, considers it his mission to undo that imbalance, and he has taken some inspiration from American reality television. A few years ago, while watching "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" -- a program in which a dilapidated house gets a fast upgrade -- his mind wandered. How about building a park at whiplash speed?

"But they do it in seven days," Williamson, 43, said of the show. "And I said, who in the world has built a park in 24 hours?"

Doing so would show that bringing nature to places devoid of it -- "environmental justice," Williamson calls it -- need not take years. It would also be "sexy," he figured, and perhaps attract corporate donations to his perpetually underfunded department.

So last year, after three months of calculating just how many seconds it takes to plant a tree and lay a brick, Williamson directed 200 park workers in an overnight transformation of what had been a five-acre, illegal dumping ground in Soweto.

Today, the "Diepkloof Xtreme Park" is a grassy expanse with fountains, a soccer field, still-spindly trees and a permanent, large-screen television that broadcasts children's educational programs each afternoon and soccer matches on weekends. Before school let out on a recent afternoon, adults picnicked and snoozed in the shade of the park's trees as workers trimmed the grass and emptied trash bins.

The $450,000 project is one of several that have brought his department international awards, not to mention plaudits from neighbors.

"There was nothing. There was just rubbish. There was no place for kids to play," said Dorothy Nkabinda, a Soweto resident who works at the park, keeping its bathrooms clean. "It was a miracle."

Not all of Williamson's projects happen so quickly, but most have the same aim. In another township, his department built a park at a more typical speed on a barren lot that was being used as a battleground by the gangs living on both sides of it. Now it exudes calm. In Soweto, workers are two-thirds of the way toward a goal of planting 200,000 trees by 2010, when South Africa is to host the soccer World Cup. There are also plans for parklands to flank a long stream that runs through Soweto.

The parks have stayed orderly, he insisted, because they deliver hope to people who lacked it under apartheid.

"The skeptics said the screen will be stolen," Williamson said, referring to the televisions at Diepkloof and five other parks. "Not one of those screens or sound systems has ever been stolen, shot at or vandalized. . . . The community have taken ownership, and they're protecting them."

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