Gerald Garner of Joburg Places
I first met Gerald Garner over 8 years ago when I joined him on one of his walking tours of Jozi inner city. Back then I wrote about his
informed, fascinating and passionate account of Joburg – from the early mining days, to its Modernist heyday at the height of the gold boom, to the start of its decline from the 1950s through into the 1990s, and finally the new urban regeneration and comeback of the city.
Gerald’s interest in the inner city has resulted in the refurbishing and redevelopment of many neglected and derelict heritage buildings: from no 1 Fox Street, to Joziburg Lane at no 1 Eloff Street to his current location at the Thunder Walker in Somerset House on Gandhi Square.
Decline in the inner city 2016 to 2019
In 2012 Gerald spoke with optimism about the rise of a regenerated inner city of Joburg. In late 2019, at the end of the tour of Gerald and Charlie’s Secret Places, his tone was no less passionate but certainly less positive. As we had all settled in with delicious snacks and cocktails around the pool in the glam rooftop setting of Hallmark House, he described ways in which the inner city had been neglected in the years from 2016-2019 under Democratic Alliance leadership. And he set out a vision for restoring central Joburg into a vibrant, liveable, desirable, inclusive and equitable residential area, with green lung spaces, street life and trading stalls, pavement eateries specializing in migrant cuisine, and multiple facilities.
Gerald’s vision for Joburg’s seventh re-imagining
This is the basis of his new book Johannesburg 2020 and ahead written during the extraordinary Lockdown conditions of Covid.
Gerald uses the newly launched Jewel City as a case study for his vision of “What Joburg should become” (the title of the first chapter) to transform it into a desirable urban residential area.
Centred on a pedestrianised and landscaped portion of Fox Street, Jewel City provides a walkable precinct in which children can play and everyone from cyclists and runners to skateboarders are welcome. The inclusion of a private school, complete with rooftop sports facilities, means a family can live in the city, children can walk to school and parents can either work from home or go to the office while also doing their grocery and other essential shopping on the way. (p22)
At the core of Gerald’s manifesto is a shift from the middle-class dream of suburban living to one of safe, clean and community inner-city urban living:
Jewel City provides a glimpse of how an entire inner-city can be reimagined and turned into a thriving neighbourhood, providing decent housing, complemented by all the community amenities required to make city living a more attractive option than the isolation of the suburbs.
To turn this vision into a reality on a large scale requires a massive rethinking of urban design, management and administration. And while Garner makes far-reaching suggestions which all make complete sense on paper, one wonders whether there would ever be the political will or the required funding both from private and government sources, to turn vision into reality.
Some specifics of Gerald’s bold vision
Shuttle service from west to east across the city
In addition to suggestions on ways to manage lighting, security, transport, urban farming and public art programmes, Gerald has some further wonderfully brave ideas. One of these is to connect different parts of the city by shuttle. How? “Simply dedicate one of the existing railway lines to an inner city shuttle, looping at 15 minute intervals between Braamfontein, Park Station and Doornfontein.” (p114)
Central promenade along a public space corridor
And taking this adaptive re-use concept further, Gerald puts forward a plan to convert the wasted space of the many defunct railway lines which run west east across Johannesburg into a central promenade functioning as a public space corridor through the inner city.
Imagine nodal parks where space allows and extensive promenades linking such nodes along the edges of the remaining rail corridor – all the way from Braamfontein in the west to Maboneng-Ellis Park in the east. Imagine one could stroll, cycle or skateboard along these tree-lined green spaces.
Moving the Johannesburg Art Gallery from Joubert Park to 44 Main St
And another very interesting suggestion is to relocate the Johannesburg Art Gallery, currently housed in the wonderful Lutyens-designed building with an extensive modern addition in Joubert Park. This municipal institution, building and collection has been badly neglected by the City Council and is in a very poor state with few visitors and much of the collection not on display. Gerald raises the possibility of moving the Gallery to Anglo American’s soon to be vacated offices at 44 Main Street (which is a already a clean, safe and pedestrian- friendly Business Improvement District).
Unrealistic utopian vision? or is it a reachable dream?
“Imagine living in Old Joburg in 2030: your apartment building is across the road from JAG, a few blocks from the Market Theatre and a quick walk to your favourite Ethiopian coffee shop and Turkish shawarma restaurant. The boulevard is lined with fragrant orange trees and is on the informal “Spice Route”, where traders sell any kind of spice imaginable. The local metro police officers keep a watchful eye on the local children who play and roller-skate along the boulevard. The streets buzz with music and conversations in dozens of languages.”