What does one get when you have a large-but-unloved piece of open land, next to a school with a proactive principal, a community that cares and partners with vision? A beautiful transformation that is already unfolding into one that holds the potential to enrich the lives of all of these people, and more…

Adjacent to the buildings of Orleansvale Primary School in Chicago, Paarl East, lies a tract of land that has become overgrown with alien vegetation and has also become an unofficial dumping site that invites undesirable activities. Learners and local residents have been at risk from the unsafe terrain and also, occasionally, from those that seek to hide there amongst the trees and trenches.

Introducing Elmo Cairncross, the Principal at Orleansvale Primary School, who works tirelessly on finding different ways to nurture and protect the children in his care. Last year, as part of the greater Chicago Development Initiative, Cairncross approached Ranyaka to help him find ways not only to clean up the land and make it safe but also to transform this ‘negative’ environment into a positive space, rich in functionality, performance and enjoyment.

Creating an outdoor experience

Working with its green technology partner, African Data Technologies (ADTech) and supported by multiple funders and donors, including Nedbank’s Proud of my Town programme and BUCO, Ranyaka recently developed a plan to utilise on-site materials and natural elements as the infrastructure to recreate this area into an array of outdoor spaces where learning, recreation, food production and even therapeutic interventions can take place.

The vision is an exciting one: Feel-good spaces will be designated for play, and outdoor classrooms for teaching on hot summer days. Food gardens will allow children to learn about growing their own nutritious fresh produce whilst boosting food security in the neighbourhood. Experiential routes meandering through the various sections of the transformed space will invite participation and encourage a deeper appreciation of nature.

Landscape architect, Roché de Villiers explains: “The main goal of the outdoor school property is to establish a living, active and productive space that will motivate school children, teachers as well as residents from both within and outside the community to dream big. We believe that this will have a positive impact on individuals as well as the future generations of Chicago.”

What will this “living, active and productive space” look like?

At the heart of the design are learning environments that can meet the purpose of instruction while cultivating a community of engaged learners. By creating ‘informal classrooms’ in an outdoor environment, the school wants to stimulate different learning styles and methods, allowing for greater flexibility than the traditional format of classroom teaching. For example, existing large rocks and boulders will be strategically placed for learners either to sit on or else use as surfaces around which to gather.

There will be various learning areas, linked by pathways lined with rocks, and within each area, there will be this freedom to move, to think or talk things out with others without being ‘confined’ to a desk. Learners will be encouraged to be part of creating these spaces, adding colour, meaning and a tangible sense of ownership, through activities such as planting flowers and painting inspiring words onto the rocks and stones along the pathways.

Speaking of ownership, several local community members have already begun work on a vegetable garden, which initially will grow beans and spinach, and later will include a wider variety of plants, such as berries. This agricultural element will not only provide another multi-faceted learning tool for the learners but also yet further sources of industry and income to the local community.

Creative spaces

One of the simplest, yet most ambitious, elements of the overall design is the inclusion of a small outdoor amphitheatre. The amphitheatre idea came out of several workshops from local residents who explained that, in Chicago, for various reasons, including lack of resources, there is no single sport that ties the people in the community together. However, when one simply walks through the streets, one notices that there is a strong culture of both music and dance.

So, with the input of the design team and local workforce, it was decided that the some of the piles of rocks could be used as the base for the platform. With a brick wall to retain it, the ‘stage’ will be filled in with the rocks and smoothed off with a layer of concrete. For a community that has no real home for the performing arts, this space will not only provide the school with its own gathering space, but also offer a very real platform for local bands and artists – a place for performers to have a chance to shine before a bigger audience rather than just those on their street corner.

Joining forces

Joining forces

But ‘dreaming big’ can so often fall flat when one’s dreams cost more than one’s means, and when a community does not work together. Fortunately, this is where the combination of ADTech’s approach of making the most of what one has, and Ranyaka’s cultivation of community activation and collaboration, come to the fore.

Within just a few weeks, one can see how much positive change can happen when like minds come together. SNAC (Safe Node Area Committee) chairperson, Michael Jacobs and his dedicated team, have provided invaluable help in both sourcing and managing local unemployed members of the community. Together they have helped to clean up the area by removing deeply-buried rubbish, moving rubble and soil, and creating mulch from the organic waste gathered to feed the gardens and landscaping.

Most of the alien trees have been felled, with some of the wood being reserved for later design elements (such as benches) and the rest having been donated to local community as firewood. Surplus rocks and soil have been used to fill in the dangerous and undesirable ditches at the perimeter of the area.

Overcoming challenges

The project, though only in its early stages, has had one or two setbacks. The lack of secure perimeter fencing has meant that some of the raw materials (cut wood from trees felled on the site) were stolen before they could be repurposed. But this kind of incident has not only served to highlight the urgency of the need to reclaim this space for good. It has also brought about even more positive support from the community.

For example, a local security company, ABC Security, stepped forward to assist in setting up security as a response to the issue of people breaking in by donating hardware, including cameras and beams. National building supplies company, BUCO, is sponsoring gardening equipment as well as a large number of water tanks to harvest rainwater from the roof of the school building which, again, will irrigate the growth of both the vegetable garden and surrounding landscaping.

A beacon of hope

From these first few months of discussions, design and development, it is clear that dreaming big is not just ‘wishful thinking’. Residents of Chicago already see the school as a beacon of hope, and the campus itself as a place of safety[1] for more than just those attending school. Let’s hope that this new vision for a vacant space ignites even more dreams and shines a light on what one can achieve through teamwork and tenacity.

The bigger picture

The Chicago Development initiative is a multi-programme, holistic intervention to bring about positive transformation in a neighbourhood that, on the one hand, is plagued by gangsterism, crime and substance abuse – and on the other, has in its midst passionate community members who are ready to lead the charge in making a difference. Ranyaka serves as the ‘backroom’, guiding and assisting local implementing agents to drive the process on the ground.

It has been incredibly exciting to see multiple funders and donors come on board. Nederburg is one of the primary funders of the over-arching Chicago Development Initiative, with Nedbank also supporting the initiative through its Proud of my Town programme. (Paarl is one of 13 communities nationally where Ranyaka is implementing the PoMT initiative.) An exciting new development is the fact that national building supplies company, BUCO, has also come on board and is supporting both the garden project as well as several other rapid repair programmes being planned for the greater Chicago area and Stellenbosch.

The image above by Ilse Olivier was taken earlier this year BEFORE Covid-19 and the national lockdown when community members and local stakeholders joined in a Design Solutions Workshop for Chicago as part of the greater Chicago Development Initiative.

[1] Dalene Labuschagne from Khula Development Group. www.valdevie.co.za/orleansvale-primary-roof-unveiling/

For more information or to get involved, contact Amy Levendal at amy@ranyaka.co.za or 084 431 7691.

Paarl is one of nine towns that is part of Nedbank’s Proud of my Town initiative.