South Africa



Joubert Park may seem an unlikely setting for one of Africa’s most progressive green initiatives, but against all expectations, the Greenhouse Project proudly sprawls across the northwest corner of the park. Pick your way through a maze of green: chicken-wire barrel gardens of vegetables that burst through their sidewalls and pour out the top in a form of vertical agriculture; raised brick beds with row after row of spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, onions, potatoes and herbs; aromatic compost piles of straw and organic waste fermenting into richly fertilized soil. Two young boys race through, pushing wheelbarrows. A couple of elderly men rake up straw that has gathered in the pathways. A woman harvests corn that she will bring over to Lapeng for the children’s lunch. She is part of the urban agriculture co-op whose member organizations have plots in the garden. Others come here to learn the skills of vertical agriculture so they can grow food at home on their balconies and rooftops. Every inch of space is in use—growing food and replenishing soil, capturing rainwater and cleansing greywater (recyclable wastewater), developing eco-friendly buildings, conserving energy and recycling waste.

Claiming its space in Joubert Park in 2002, the GreenHouse Project is an ambitious effort to create a holistic approach to environmentally friendly city living. A young woman with intense eyes and a wide grin comes rushing at you, already talking a mile a minute. This is Dorah Lebelo, the impassioned director of the project, and you’ll need to give her all your attention if you want to keep up. Immediately, she launches into an explanation of the deeper purpose of her work. “What we’re doing here at the GreenHouse is about empowering people so they can realize that they’ve already got the knowledge,” she says. “They have once lived like this; they have once grown their own food; they have once built their own houses; they have once fetched their own water; they have once dealt with their own waste.” Dorah knows this personally. She herself moved to Joubert Park in 1997 as a new arrival from Limpopo, South Africa’s northernmost province. She stayed two years during the area’s peak crime period, then moved to a northern suburb only to return to Joubert Park four years later as part of the GreenHouse team.

What Dorah learned living in a rural community she’s now applying to life in the city. “We start from a place of abundance—knowing that we’ve got what we need—and we operate from that,” she says. “We’re not looking to other people to solve our problems; we work to maximize our own potential.”

Evidence of this belief abounds in the imaginative and thrifty re-use of the park’s neglected structures from its apartheid years. The old potting shed was a small, damp rectangular building constructed of brick and asbestos that provided access to three long hothouses. This would become the GreenHouse’s main office—and a demonstration of community engagement and green-building principles. The bulk of the materials that had to be dismantled were set aside for reuse. Rubble from the demolition was used as a porous substrate for the “willow wall,” a living fence designed to purify and release greywater. Old steel radiator pipes were re-welded into light fixtures. Broken pieces of glass were fitted into a mosaic decorating the front steps.

New construction materials were natural, renewable or second-hand. The GreenHouse team invited the community to participate in Learn and Build courses, where they constructed the straw-bale wall that anchors the conference room. They experimented with a dung-finished earth floor, but they ultimately couldn’t get the recipe quite right and settled for pine boards. They made natural paint from various combinations of cottage cheese, builder’s lime and pigment powder.

The office is fitted with water-free compost toilets, rainwater harvesting systems and a solar water heater and stove to cook staff lunches. Dorah directs your attention to what looks like a metallic satellite dish attached to a bicycle. She giggles as she explains how they’ve sent staff members cycling around the neighborhood, selling hot dogs and popcorn cooked on the solar panel of this sun-powered hot-dog stand.