Beginning on September 2, 2013, a team of 13 landscape architecture students took part in an 8-day construction project to build a park for the Ratang Bana Orphanage in Alexandra Township, South Africa. It is a grass roots NGO started by Ingrid, who also suffers from AIDS that currently looks after roughly 350 children. Ratang Bana is located on a parcel of land donated from the local utility company, and is situated within their power line right of way. The NGO started by providing food parcels to affected families in Alexandra, and has been able to expand their community support through the addition of a food garden, recycling center, and classroom space. It was their wish to see their role expanded in the community through the design and construction of a playground. The primary goal of the playground was to encourage healthy childhood development and to give these children the opportunity to experience the simple joys of playing on a playscape customized for their community. Additionally, it strengthened the physical presence of the NGO within the community, and provided a safe environment for the children to congregate in after school. The goals for the students were to engage in project delivery, develop a sense of civic responsibility, and enhance their confidence through project design and construction.
The team used their skills as students in the field of landscape architecture to create the only green space in the entire township. Ultimately, this improved the lives of the local children, as well as the entire Alexandra Township community, who have unfortunately experienced many hardships. With the financial aid of two charitable organizations, the team was able to use the skills we developed in our landscape architecture program to collect and analyze environmental and social data about Alexandra Township and the surrounding areas. The team’s design now serves as a community center for the township, which has brought a renewed sense of joy to the lives of the local children.
Our team of landscape architecture students set ourselves apart from other groups performing similar services by utilizing the unique skills of collecting and analyzing environmental, cultural and social data to make culturally appropriate and environmentally sustainable design decisions prior to traveling to South Africa. We used these skills to gain an understanding of the people and the environment of any place we design in order to bring a deeper sense of ownership and community involvement in the construction and implementation of the Ratang Bana Orphanage Park. Prior to traveling overseas we started the design process by breaking up into three teams to gain an in depth understanding of the childhood developmental needs at different ages. Through this research we formulated our first goals and objectives that identified the different needs of each age group in order to guide the design of the park’s various play elements. Using our research we learned that the toddler age group, age 1-3, is focused on developing their initial physical motor skills through climbing and walking, and their mental creative abilities. We used this knowledge to design a sandbox feature and other play features with slight changes of grade to harness and promote the growth of this earliest developmental group. We then shifted focus to the developmental needs of the 4-7 age range. In this age group children are facing the need to develop their early mental decision making, advanced mental creativity, physical running and climbing strength, as well as early interpersonal skills. Our team utilized this child development knowledge in the design of a creativity space with drawing, weaving, construction, and musical play elements that will serve to challenge and develop the mental capacity and abilities of the 4-7 age group. We also placed serious focus on the physical development of this age group through the design and implementation of group swings, balance courses and climbing nets. Lastly, we placed our focus on the oldest age group served by the Ratang Bana Orphanage, the 7–15 age group, an age range that needed intense physical challenges to develop strength and balancing abilities while promoting the growth of their interpersonal relationships and teamwork skills. We used our design skills to answer our goal of addressing the needs of this age group by designing intense balancing structures, tall climbing structures, and a small soccer playing field to challenge the physical and interpersonal skills of the children in the community. With a vast amount of research we were able to design a park for the Ratang Bana Orphanage that not only creates a beautiful place to enjoy in the trash and dirt riddled township, but a place that offers the youth the proper child developmental growth so they can become the successful people they will grow up to be.
The team that traveled out to Alexandra Township did not stop with age needs studies; we researched the local climate, local native flora, local demographics, and the cultural history of the greater Johannesburg area to make all the proper design decisions. Being that Alexandra Township is half way across the world, we used online based resources and a survey, which was filled out by the head figures of the Ratang Bana Orphanage, in order to gain as in depth of a climate and environmental analysis as possible. We used this information to gain an understanding that there is only one month of heavy rainfall, while most of the year is extremely dry. Learning that the temperatures are extremely hot in the summer months means that they were going to require some form of shade. We utilized this information, as well as the information from web and text based resources regarding the local flora, to design a shaded, centralized observation area, a drought tolerant planting palette, and a vegetated bioswale for rainy season drainage. The cultural and demographic information we obtained through web based resources, and our site survey, allowed us to gain an inside look at the local people we would be designing for in order to make necessary design decisions in color choice, plant selection, element shapes, and material choice. This information played the greatest role in our material choices; as we sourced only local materials for sustainable purposes, ease of repair, and to promote the growth of the local economy.
The process included SKYPE meetings with Ratang Bana representatives while preparing in the United States, and then once in Africa face-to-face meeting were held with the director and staff. Daily project meetings were held, and the families and children served by the NGO participated in on-site design modifications and contributed on a daily basis to the construction of the playscape. The strongest aspect to the Ratang Bana Orphanage Park project was surprisingly not the design itself, but was shown in the true ownership this community took to our accomplishments in every phase of the construction process. Upon stepping foot on the site on the very first day there were already a couple women and two boys waiting to help us with anything we needed. They saw our vision and would do anything to make it become a reality. Each day the group of people that showed up to work in the harsh conditions with us from sun up to sun down grew. By the last day hundreds of kids and adults showed up to take part in the celebration ceremony for what we had built together. We not only harnessed the local community workforce, but we supported the local economy by sourcing all of our materials locally, even reusing many tires that were already present on site. The community has such a strong tie to our project that the ongoing maintenance has been extremely successful. The maintenance is led by a two-man crew working directly with the orphanage to maintain the watering and overall maintenance. They are also aided with a constant influx of community members that visit the site daily to simply make sure the design integrity is still intact. Along with the on site maintenance, a new set of students, along with the professor that led this internship, will be traveling back to the site to perform annual upkeep and survey how the park is serving the community. The Ratang Bana Orphanage Park project has absolutely changed the face of the surrounding community. The community now has a refuge from their harsh lives and dry, hot environment; a place where they can all go to escape to the simple, carefree mindset that exists when every kid can be a kid and play.