Posted August 6, 2017

PennDesign’s first Sustainable Urban Development Fellow shares

“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature…of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.” –Bill Mollison, 1978

As PennDesign’s first Sustainable Urban Development Fellow, City Planning Masters student Zoe Axelrod traveled to Cape Town, South Africa and Gaborone, Botswana for the months of June and July. She worked with local organizations Dynegy Ltd., the Natural Building Collective, and Pula Sports Development Association (PSDA) to plan, design and construct off-grid public spaces, permaculture systems and sustainable structures. The projects were organized by Guy Williams of Dynegy Ltd. and Sarai Williams of PennDesign.

Zoe writes:

I spent my first three weeks on the outskirts of Cape Town in the township of Delft, where much of the housing stock is self-constructed with subpar materials; a major storm following my first week in Cape Town blew the rooves off several homes. Many residents attempt to upgrade their homes over time, but materials are expensive and difficult to obtain. Dynegy and the Natural Building Collective share the goal of normalizing the use of readily available “waste” materials, including tires, cob (an earth, sand and straw mixture) bottles and cans, as building materials in urban environments. Sustainable building techniques can empower residents to take housing upgrades into their own hands and create safe and productive public spaces.

While in Delft, I assisted with the construction of a training center which, when completed, will provide a space for adult education, meetings, and community organizing. Team members, all Delft residents with little to no prior construction experience, taught me many skills over the course of the three weeks, including how to make cob, build a bottle wall, and form earth bricks. All of the team members I spoke to were confident in their abilities to use these techniques to build their own homes and teach these same skills to other community members.

Gaborone is much less densely populated than Cape Town; whereas the major focus in Cape Town was housing and educating the city’s rapidly growing population, the main focus in Gaborone was on remediating land and activating public spaces. An abundance of vacant land within Gaborone provides an exciting opportunity to apply permaculture principles on a widespread scale, reducing the city’s water and energy usage.

Dynegy and PSDA have several collaborative projects in the conceptual phases, including a hub of food, arts and culture in the Bontleng neighborhood; an outdoor café for a youth job training non-profit; a legacy park in the heart of the Central Business District; and a mountain biking and rock climbing park in an abandoned quarry.

While in Gaborone, I worked with the two organizations to combine all of these projects into one plan, called the Gaborone Vitality Network. This is a cohesive vision for a series of off-grid public space “nodes”, connected by proposed pedestrian and bicycle greenways to schools, shopping, work and natural resources. All of the Gaborone Vitality Network projects follow permaculture principles: harnessing resources found on site, producing zero-net waste, and creating landscapes that become increasingly productive over time. The projects all have social aims as well, including providing youth engagement opportunities and spurring local economic development. For each project, I offered a description, info about site ownership, partners, neighborhood assets and proposed park features. We also made base maps of each site and started to think through design concepts.

This is just a first step. The hope is that the creation of the Gaborone Vitality Network plan will make it easier to present these projects to funders and involve future PennDesign students in the design and construction of public space projects throughout Gaborone.

Sustainable development means learning from and supporting natural systems, benefiting vulnerable populations first, thinking long-term, and turning “waste” into a valuable resource. While it’s easy to isolate problems or see each development project as a stand-alone, the value of these projects is amplified when we understand how social and environmental problems are linked, and think about how these projects can add up to a larger network. Whether one is working in a densely populated township or an abandoned quarry, recognizing and utilizing the human and natural resources already available on site is the first step in reaching a truly sustainable solution.