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Artist recognised for revitalising forgotten public space

Through an incredible labour of love, The Wilds in Johannesburg has been transformed from a shunned public space into an indigenous wonderland that attracts thousands of visitors annually

When Killarney resident and artist, James Delaney, wanted to take his dog for walks in his neighbourhood, he naturally thought about visiting his nearest park, The Wilds. What he discovered was a 40-acre indigenous garden on the edge of Johannesburg’s inner city that had a bad reputation and no visitors.

Delaney realised that the nearly 100-year old public space had great potential, but that returning it to its former glory would require a huge amount of work. “The park was overrun with untamed growth, dead wood and weeds, and the pathways were buried under earth.”

Not daunted by the sheer immensity of the task, Delaney enlisted the help of Thulani Nkomo and in 2014 the two men started trimming trees and clearing undergrowth and pathways. Three years down the line, they had organised the removal of 40-plus truck-loads of dead wood from the park, but still no-one came.

“I realised we needed to find a way to get people to come to the park. I got some of my drawings made into metal sculptures. This was the catalyst we needed to create interest. People came to the park to see the art and capture Instagram moments. On Mandela Day in 2017, we placed 67 owls the park’s yellowwood forest,” says Delaney.

The trend of incorporating art into the park has continued and today there are 100 of Delaney’s sculptures in the park, including a life-size giraffe, as well as work by other artists.

Now, not only do thousands of people volunteer in the park, there are sometimes so many visitors on weekends that they struggle to find parking. In addition, City Parks provides two teams to help Delaney and Nkomo in their work. Delaney himself continues to raise funds (which are administered by the Joburg Heritage Foundation) to pay several permanent staff members and complete special projects in the park.

And, Delaney’s efforts have been recognised further afield.

Last year, he received an award from the AfriSam-South African Institution of Architects (SAIA) Sustainable Design Award competition. The awards recognise contributions that bring sustainable innovation to urban and rural living environments through an integrated approach to communities, planning, research, architecture, building practice, natural systems and technology.

Notably, the awards advocate for design projects that are responsive to the social complexities, growth requirements and needs of marginalised communities in South Africa and throughout the African diaspora.

AfriSam, says Delaney’s incredible work in The Wilds prompted the award organisers to add an additional category – Sustainable Leadership – to its existing categories of Sustainable

Design, Research in Sustainability, Sustainable Product/Technology and Sustainable Social Programmes this year.

“Sustainable leadership refers to people who guide complex teams in transforming public spaces or completing sustainable projects, whether in urban or rural settings. In essence, the award recognises the people who move our world forward.”

Project entries should demonstrate how they embody sound sustainable practices that bear the hallmarks of great architectural or social design and innovative thinking in the field of sustainability, to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.

Entries for this year’s AfriSam-SAIA Sustainable Design Award competition close at the end of March. For more information, visit

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