The Wilds is a nature reserve in Houghton, Johannesburg, that over the years had become neglected and overgrown. Nobody dared venture in. Out of curiosity, in 2014, artist James Delaney, who had lived across the road for years, started taking his dog Pablo there for walks. He discovered a forgotten gem.
When James first visited, the park was badly overgrown and unkept. He began to take clippers with him on his walks. After some time, he recruited Thulani Nkomo, and every weekend for three years, they cleared the undergrowth and dead branches. Still, they needed more hands, but the city was proving more of a hindrance than a help. So for Mandela Day in 2017, James called for volunteers. Hundreds of people came with clippers and saws. Since then, many more have donated indigenous plants, equipment and time.
Their work got the attention of Johannesburg City Parks, who now hires a team to weed, mow and plant. James and Thulani’s team has also grown. Today The Wilds is a popular place to escape to from the city. It’s also home to James’ many sculptures of animals inspired by his charcoal drawings.
We asked James about what keeps him committed to this communal haven.
From the start of rejuvenating the park, we built a culture of volunteerism.
– James Delaney
What kept you going back even when it was difficult?
Firstly, seeing nature responding so well to our interventions: flowers blanketing forest floors, watching newly planted aloes in flower and plants taking root in formerly eroded areas.
Secondly, seeing how people love the park: so many comment on social media that it’s their favourite place in the city, a place which restores and heals them. When I walk, I see and hear people experiencing the wonder of nature—how can I not keep on going!
Thirdly, the madness of an artist helps, together with an unwillingness to listen to bureaucrats who try to suffocate positive initiatives with red tape.
How does The Wilds foster a sense of community?
From the start of rejuvenating the park, we built a culture of volunteerism, so over a thousand Joburgers have given their time and energy to fixing the space. By doing so, they have become vested in the space: they are passionate about looking after it, sharing it with others and connecting with other people doing the work. This is very different to the passive engagement at other public spaces which are seen as ‘theirs’, not ‘ours’.
We also have signage around the park which encourages people to take care of the space, and generally they do; even after a busy long weekend, there will only be a few pieces of litter lying around. People somehow understand that there is a different culture here, and they respect it.
A well-used park is a safe park.
– James Delaney
“The madness of an artist helps.”
– James Delaney
What future plans do you have for the park?
The Wilds is divided into two halves, the East and West, divided by a busy road but connected by a pedestrian bridge. Most of our energy has gone into restoring the West Wilds, the more parklike side.
People are discovering the wilder East Wilds now and walking there in greater numbers—it used to be viewed as unsafe, but now the fences have been repaired and there are regular patrols, and Joburg City Parks has been doing a lot of replanting of old flowerbeds. It would be wonderful to see Joburg City Parks and volunteers come together to restore the incredible water features on the East Wilds, to add more seating areas for walking groups and make that side as well-used. A well-used park is a safe park, so by attracting more visitors, it will become safer too.
The Wilds is part of our list of sculpture parks to enjoy around South Africa. Read it here.