Everyday Stories, Everyday Landscapes: Exploring ‘Sense of Place’ in Marginalised Urban Neighbourhoods

Everyday Stories, Everyday Landscapes: Exploring ‘Sense of Place’ in Marginalised Urban Neighbourhoods

Résumé en français

Cet article présente des histoires de trois quartiers dela ville de Tshwane, en Afrique du Sud, et donne un aperçu des paysagesquotidiens des communautés marginalisées. Il illustre le fort "sentimentd'appartenance" qui existe dans divers parcs - en tant que lieuxcommunautaires - et souligne que si les espaces ouverts publics sont souventconçus par des paysagistes, c'est dans les réalités vécues et les adaptationsquotidiennes de ces lieux qu'émerge un véritable sens de leur valeur. À l'aidede récits et d'observations issus d'un processus de recherche intensif et deméthodes d'analyse descriptive et de contenu, cet article met en évidence lavaleur des paysages urbains en ce qu'ils apportent des bienfaits à la nature etun sentiment d'appartenance à la communauté pour les résidents locaux,soulignant ainsi l'expérience vécue du "sentiment d'appartenance"dans les parcs urbains contemporains. Les récits font également étatd'expériences négatives qui peuvent nuire à un sentiment d'appartenancepositif. L'intérêt de l'article pour la pratique paysagère est de montrercomment les preuves d'utilisation et les traces sur le paysage, combinées à deshistoires sur le lieu, peuvent être interprétées comme des informations pour lapraxis de conception paysagère dans les paysages du Sud global.

Sharing stories from three neighbourhoods in the City of Tshwane, South Africa, this article gives a glimpse into the everyday landscapes of marginalised communities. It illustrates the strong ‘sense of place’ that exists within various parks – as community places – and highlights that while public open spaces are often designed by landscape designers, it is in the lived realities of those places that a true sense of their value emerges. Using stories and observations from an intensive research process and the methods of content and descriptive analysis, this paper highlights the value of urban landscapes for providing nature benefits, and a sense of community to local residents – thereby highlighting the lived experience of the sense of place in contemporary urban parks. Also noted in the stories, was the occurrence of negative experiences which have the power to detract from a positive sense of place. The value of the article for landscape practice, is an insight into how evidence of use combined with stories about place can be interpreted as design-informants for landscape design praxis in landscapes of the Global South.

Introducing Parks as Everyday Landscapes

In spite of the dire realities associated with public open spaces in marginalised parts of South African cities (Landman, 2015), time spent in parks, as urban nature, reveals a rich layering of individual and community stories of place. The term ‘urban nature’ is used in the present article to describe all publicly accessible, everyday open spaces that have some natural element or component, including urban community parks, tree lined sidewalks, green roofs and urban plazas. Here natural elements refer to components of the urban landscape that are placed into and managed by people, including trees, lawn, plants and non-human animals such as birds.

Figure 1: An urban nature setting in South Africa, constituting nature elements that improve micro-climate and aesthetic quality, both of which are ecosystem services (Author, 2018).

These typologies and elements are also considered to be green infrastructure (GI), which contribute to nature-related benefits in cities (Brom et al., 2023). Kaplan et al (1998) suggest that even being able to view a tree from a distance has some benefit to urban residents, and improves their sense of well-being and affiliation to their local environments. Everyday landscapes and instances of urban nature typically fall under the purview of local governments and landscape architects, and can make significant differences to communities lacking access to large private gardens and nature reserves (Venter et al., 2020), making public open space a scarce, but much needed component of cities.

Landscapes and their ‘sense of place’ are considered to be a combination of the “physical materiality” of a place, and the associated “meanings” that people ascribe to the features and components of the landscape (Wartmann & Purves, 2018: 171). Premised on this, parks are important because of the nature- and culture-related meanings associated with them and their natural components. Spiritual connections between people and nature cannot simply be considered as ‘services’ rendered by nature, but require also a sensitivity to the lived experience of those places (Stålhammar & Pedersen, 2017), including the everyday landscape.

Figure 2: Largely made up of sports fields and parking areas – natural vegetation at the Laudium sports centre is a welcome reprieve, contributing to positive affiliations to the place, amongst local residents (Author, 2019)

However, the everyday landscapes in which marginalised communities live out their lives, are notably of a poor condition (Landman, 2015). This is considered to be a pervasive legacy of the colonial and apartheid histories of the country (Venter et al., 2020), moreover, there has been little change in the last 30 years for the most peripheral areas of SouthAfrican cities (Venter et al., 2020).

Figure 3: Unkempt and littered parks proliferate in South African cities (Author, 2019)

These issues suggest that a positive sense of place might be wholly diminished in degraded urban parks, contributing rather to a sense of non-place or placelessness. And yet, these are the spaces where families meet, friends engage, people make a living and through which commuters pass. Place-stories emerge not just because of what people say about their environments, but also because of what they do in those places. How parks are used speaks to how they are valued. These traces give us insight into existing value and sense of place, and can be extrapolated to design principles for the landscape industry.

Figure 4: Despite their poor condition parks in marginalised communities still have a strong sense of place, evidenced in the ‘golden hour’ of the later evenings, when local residents spend time together in the parks. (Author, 2019).

The recommendations below draw on a three month long period of intensive park observation in the City of Tshwane (CoT), undertaken in 2019, and which constituted over 50 park visits. Additionally a collection of stories associated with various nearby nature places, give a sense of the value that these places have for local communities. Utilising landscape analysis methodologies (Deming & Swaffield, 2011) and qualitative content analysis (Saldaña, 2013), the article highlights the stories and instances of sense of place associated with everyday landscapes, and the relevance thereof for landscape architecture practice. Some of the findings illustrate not only what contributes positively to a park’s sense of place, but also what should be avoided.

Figure 5: Map of the study area, including Danville, Laudium and Atteridgeville as marginalised communities on the western periphery of the City of Tshwane (Author, 2023).

Focusing on three neighbourhoods in the CoT, we look at ways that urban nature is known to the communities and individuals living around local parks, and how this manifests as a communal sense of place. The selected neighbourhoods are on the western periphery of the CoT, and include Laudium, Atteridgeville and Danville. One park was selected from each neighbourhood (see map in Figure 5), but urban nature is described also in relation to the surrounding context. The communities are representative of a number of the cultural and demographic groups within South Africa. The parks that were considered were all provisioned by the local municipality, but not necessarily equipped with a diversity and richness of landscape amenities, likely based on budgetary constraints.

Contributors to ‘Sense of Place’ in the Everyday Landscape

Unique stories emerged from each of the parks. Lehabe Park in Atteridgeville was a result of the community’s initiatives to clean up dumped refuse, and to petition the CoT for a local park. Soetdoring Park in Danville was under threat for housing development, but the local community (including people from all demographic backgrounds) rallied to protest and protect the park. Jacaranda Park in Laudium is the backdrop against which childhood memories were shared. Thus, all three parks are valued by the local residents, for their openness, perceived natural elements, and recreational and social value.

People described their everyday lives in relation to large trees in each of the parks – including weekly family and social gatherings. Large areas of lawn also attracted groups and gatherings of people. Park users described these natural elements as valuable attributes of public open spaces, to which they attach meaning and in relation to which they describe their life-stories. The following excerpts illustrate the meaning the parks and their elements have for park users.

“I come here maybe once a week, on Sunday. We sit under the trees, ja. This one [indicates a tree close by]. Just to relax with my grandchildren”. (Park user 24, Atteridgeville).

I just come here to walk, ja, I spend time with the people here. See, sometimes we come to play cricket here, and to watch. I especially come here with my family” (Park user 21, Laudium).

Community building and connection is supported by the human-nature relationships to parks. Importantly parks and public open spaces were also valued because community members felt that they could escape the stressors of life, and in particular cramped living conditions.

Park users made reference to the healing and “refreshing” quality of urban open spaces, citing both vegetation and fauna, such as birds, as attractors.

“…the parks do something to the mind. They refresh you…” (Park user 30, Danville)

“Just now you will see the birds […] I like that” (Park user 32, Laudium).

As designers, we should seek to foster human-nature interactions for the added value they contribute to public open space – in terms of the solace they provide as perceived urban nature, and their community building potential. Ultimately, this will require increased biodiversity and a focus on designed ecologies. But, with a sensitivity to community experiences and perceptions.

Lesson One: Plants are Good but…

With the increasing desire for and interest in green infrastructure and ecosystem services in cities, landscape architects often seek to promote naturalistic planting and increased biodiversity in urban environments. These are important and necessary endeavours, especially because community members spoke about cultural affiliations to specific plants, such as Aloe and Tulbaghia species. However, it is important to have community buy-in and support when selecting species and developing planting strategies for public open spaces. This argument is premised on the fact that design-decisions may increase or decrease the function, attraction and value of public open spaces if they conflict with community perceptions and desires, thereby diminishing the true access which communities have to public open space.

Figure 6: Local example in the west of the city: of vegetation which received negative feedback in light of safety concerns (Author, 2018).

There were a number of stories which hinted at crime and violence, both gender-based and otherwise, in parks. The overwhelming response was that overgrown, wild and visually obstructive planting would increase safety concerns in parks. Park users also felt that overgrown vegetation would increase unwanted animal-related dangers in their local environments, including snakes. The inclusion of such vegetation is likely to contribute to a fearful perception of the place, and therefore a negative sense of place. In the local community parks, mown lawn and manicured open spaces were a preference amongst park users. However, at the sports stadium venue for the local ‘Park Run’, the route purposefully wound through more naturalistic vegetation, with natural veld grasses and indigenous trees as key features along the route (see Figure 2). Thus, a distinction was drawn by participants between unkempt open spaces, and attractive natural vegetation. However, maintenance was also an important consideration for community members, who indicated that oftentimes maintenance falls to residents, as local government is not able to keep up with the maintenance demands in local community parks.

It is thus recommended that locally indigenous species, which hold value to local communities, should be included in local public space design. However, naturalistic, maintenance-intensive and visually obstructive planting should be avoided. This requires adequate spacing of species, and strategic selection of plants for public open spaces. Secondly, co-design and collaborative processes with community members as primary contributors can create the foundation for education of the local community, and sound decision-making by designers, planners and government officials.

Lesson Two: When All Else Fails, Use a Boulder

The need for robust and low-maintenance parks have an implication for design practice, in that innovative and creative solutions that are not resource intensive must be identified. Here the recommendation is to use natural elements, which are more sustainable and easy to come by than regularly vandalised and stolen steel or concrete furniture. This is based on observations made about play equipment and seating in the parks. Participants in the discussions even showed an interest in innovative ways of reusing old car tyres.

From the observations of parks it was very clear that play-related equipment and facilities were regularly vandalised, stolen or damaged from over-use. Park users also indicated removing play-equipment because of safety concerns(damaged, or unconsidered placement) and fighting amongst children due to a lack of amenities.

Figure 7: Broken, damaged and removed play equipment in Lehabe Park (Author, 2019).

However, in one of the parks there were boulders that were regularly observed to be popular amongst local school children. Additionally, topographical changes in the landscape also supported playful interaction in the park. These landscape elements and features enhanced the play-related value of the local park for children and their families, thus contributing to the meaningful interactions with the park and each other.

Figure 8: Man-made play equipment can be replaced with ‘natural’ materials (Author,2019)

Incorporating ‘natural’ play features such as boulders and topographical manipulation, as opposed to easily removable and breakable man-made elements might be more sustainable in the long term. However, there is a caveat. There were also instances of rocks being used in a negative sense, an example of this is evident in Jacaranda Park, Laudium. The ‘rock beds’ (depicted in Figure 9) were alienating to all fauna except rats, proliferated weeds and detracted visually from the park. In addition, park users told stories of how the rocks were used as weapons in the parks – perpetuating social ills, and detracting from a positive sense of place. Such negligible design decisions can have an impact on lived experiences for local residents.

Figure 9: ‘Rock beds’ are not the solution for articulating space in local community parks (Author, 2019)

 Lesson Three: Design for Activation and Community-building

Ultimately, people in parks attract other people – suggesting that landscapes should feature elements to support socio-cultural interaction. Soetdoring Park, in Danville had a series of single benches under big trees. In almost every visit to the park, the benches were used by a separate user group, including lone park users, courting couples, families, gatherings of friends and a community meeting. It was also around these benches that community members gathered to protest the redevelopment of the park into social housing. The bench in combination with the trees was an important attractor for park users – which is a well-known landscape archetype, and echoes the work of Jan Gehl (2010) – illustrating clearly the value of the bench in the landscape as a community-building mechanism of human-centred design.

Figure 10: ‘The bench’ used as the meeting point for a community meeting about social housing (Author, 2019)
Figure 11: ‘The bench’ used by a group of youth to meet up with friends (Author, 2019)

Unfortunately this ‘single bench phenomenon’ is all too often observed in parks throughout the city. Of course, there should be some solitary benches, for the lone park visitor in search of solitude. However, the recommendation is that benches should, more often, be placed in ‘social’ configurations to support better use, as per the example in Figure 12. Parks are important social and recreational sites, requiring an intentional design approach to activation, as opposed to simply placing typical features and furniture in a park and hoping it will have the desired effect.

Figure 12: A type of bench more conducive to social interaction and engagement. The semi-circular layout of the benches enhances social engagement (Author, 2023)

 In Conclusion

While examples of well-designed public spaces are critical to furthering best practice in the landscape industry, with regards to sense of place, I argue that it is equally important to understand the everyday landscapes of marginalised urban residents.

An intentional consideration of the use of local parks, can give insight into the everyday lives, and therefore everyday needs of community members. Sense of place in the instance of parks, is related to how people perceive, use and talk about their urban nature places. Oftentimes, parks in marginalised communities do not receive the same level of design attention afforded to commercial, private and affluent sites of landscape development. However, they remain valuable to local community members – and do indeed have a sense of place, despite the inequities visited on them historically and currently. A consideration of three such places results in three lessons for landscape architects dealing with such contexts. The lessons pertain to the responsible and sensitive inclusion of vegetation in local community parks, the use of natural materials as innovative solutions, and the need to activate use in parks by the configuration of landscape furniture, and other amenities.

Additionally, there can be both positive and negative meanings attached to places – which materialise because of the physical attributes of those spaces. This requires designers and planners of public open spaces to be able to ‘tune into’ the thoughts and feelings of the local community – to fully understand the local, nuanced perceptions and experiences of local community park users. Landscape architects must become aware of, and take responsibility for the impact that their design decisions have on the everyday lives of park users – both positive and negative, thereby overcoming their own preconceptions, outdated ideas about best-practice and simply negligent design decisions.


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