Creating safer spaces through design - eThekwini Municipality’s Bulwer Park Project

Submitted by: Amanda Botes, Wednesday, May 27, 2015

<p>The introduction of an outdoor gym has encouraged people back into Bulwer Park (Image Source: Martin Prange)</p>

The introduction of an outdoor gym has encouraged people back into Bulwer Park (Image Source: Martin Prange)

In 2010, Bulwer Park, a public park in the suburb of Glenwood, Durban, was described by the community as an unused, unsafe and wasted space. Today the park has become a site of vibrancy with people of all ages and cultures using the space throughout the day and into the early evening. Through a number of different design interventions, eThekwini Municipality has been able to change the community’s perception of the park and encourage the community to make use of the space.

Initiating the project

Inundated with proposals to build formal structures on the park eThekwini Municipality’s City Architects and Parks Department initiated a project to redesign the space to make it safer and better used. “As the land is zoned as public open space no formal buildings could be developed on the site and therefore improvements to the public park were investigated,” says Martin Prange of eThekwini Municipality’s City Architects Department. EThekwini Municipality started the project off by hosting a public meeting in the Glenwood community to find out what the public’s thoughts were regarding the redevelopment of the park. A proposal that consisted of a number of phases was ultimately presented and accepted by the community, and work began at the end of 2011, explains Prange.  

Improving passive surveillance

One of the major comments from the community about the park was its safety. The first phase of the project therefore involved a number of relatively small interventions to improve safety in the park and encourage people to use the space. These included removing the alien trees and pruning the crowns of trees, revamping the existing lighting, and refocusing lights to previously dark areas.  “The City does not have the resources to employ a full time security guard within the park and so we focused on the concept of passive surveillance by opening up dark spaces through the removal of trees at strategic places, cutting back of tree foliage, improving lighting, and placing lighting in formerly dark spaces,” explains Prange.  The proposal also realigns the paved routes in the park so that they are more direct and well-lit and therefore safer.

Introducing sporting facilities

Specialised benches, new lighting, bins and water fountains along a new multipurpose track have attracted people to use the space and the space is no longer perceived as unsafe (Image Source: Martin Prange)

Other interventions that were implemented in the first phase of the project included the development of a one kilometre multipurpose running track with accompanying lighting and street furniture, including bins, water fountains, benches and skate board rails. An outdoor gym was also installed next to the running track. “Glenwood is quite a mixed area in terms of demographics and the running track coupled with the outdoor gym has provided the community with an opportunity to interact with each other. The track and gym are particularly busy in the early mornings and late afternoons and we find fewer vagrants in the park due to the increase in activity. We have also found that the park is being used for a variety of different things such as fitness and bootcamp classes, tightrope walkers, skateboarders, dog-walkers, and even bag pipe players have been seen practicing in the park. As the park is now so well used, the park has become safer and we have had no major incidents.” The outdoor gym has been such a success that the City has implemented these in other parks across eThekwini Municipality including the suburbs of KwaMashu, Montclair, Umlazi, Claremont, and Newlands East and West, to name but a few.

Future plans

An artist’s plans of the future interventions for the park (Image source: Martin Prange)

There are a number of future interventions that have been planned for the park, which include the rationalising of parking; identifying existing buildings as economic income generators, such as restaurants; and, the paving of the discontinued portion of Bath Road as an additional event/function space that connects the KwaZulu-Natal Society of Arts (KZNSA) gallery and the KwaZulu-Natal Institute for Architecture (KZNIA offices) to the park.  The next phase in the park upgrade is the development of the old Parks Depot building situated in the park, to include a lease space for a restaurant and public toilets for use by the park users and restaurant patrons. The intention is to have the converted Depot site completed by 2016 and ready to be leased, explains Prange.

 “Additional phases need to be motivated for so that funding can be sourced and secured, which will include rationalisation of the internal park paths, paving of discontinued Bath Road, sub-station refurbishment, rationalisation of on-street parking and sidewalks” explains Prange. “We would like to see the buildings in the park refurbished and leased so that they become income generators for the park and can assist in the maintenance there of.  It is hoped that the NSA Gallery and KZNIA would open the interface of their back boundaries on Bath Road, so as to activate the paved area once it is complete,” adds Prange.

Advice to other municipalities

Prange states that part of the success of this project was attributed to the “in depth involvement and hands on approach of the ward councillor at the time, Warwick Chapman.  Furthermore, the community was included in the project at a very early stage and their thoughts and ideas were taken into consideration when the conceptual design was conceived and so the changes have been well received.

Prange states that for municipalities that have limited funds, small interventions can be made to improve the perceptions and safety of public parks and get communities to use them more actively. “These small interventions and the upkeep of basic maintenance add value to a space and people start to take notice and feel encouraged to use the space more actively”, advises Prange. He also recommends that municipalities think about how income can be generated in the park so that these funds can be channelled towards improvements and maintenance, thereby lessening the burden on city coffer.   

“Vandalism remains one of the biggest challenges a municipality has to face in public spaces, but we have found that with the increase in use so too does passive surveillance and public ownership increase, which seems to decrease the level of vandalism to some degree,” explains Prange. 

Lastly Prange adds, “public spaces, like parks, provide a “green lung” for relaxation, recreation and interaction and should be invested in by cities and towns to build social cohesion in a community.”

To keep updated with sustainability news subscribe to the fortnightly Urban Earth Newsletter.

Amanda Botes