Sifelani Tsiko Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
When I was growing up in Tafara, a high-density suburb on the eastern outskirts of Harare, green spaces were arguably in abundance.
Green spaces — open landscape with trees, grass, shrubs and all kinds of wild berries would give us civic space to enjoy life — whether playing that plastic hand-made “Ghetto” ball, running and chasing each other aimlessly unhindered, learning to cycle, taking a nature run with dogs or just simply engaging with nature.
Occasionally, you would see adults hunting for rabbits and bucks, picking loquat fruits — mazhanje and tsambatsi, which were plentiful — on the fringes of our suburb in a farm popularly known as kwaBhobho.
Wetlands were untouched and people could grow crops and vegetables, pick wild berries and plants.
There were also lots of rocky landscapes with ancient Khoisan rock paintings, which are now under severe threat from reckless defacing by locals.
There was also the Arubhabha Park in New Tafara, which was named after one old man who dedicated his life to creating a nature park in the neighbourhood.
He was not honoured in any big way for his efforts save for the name which still endures up to now.
In the early 80s, we enjoyed being outdoors in most of these treasured spaces where we relaxed and played close to our doorsteps.
Playing in the park and other green spaces was a central part of my urban childhood — the stuff of memories and children’s stories.
These open green spaces had numerous benefits in terms of our health, encouraging physical exercise, eating of wild berries and roots, promoting mental well-being, and providing us with a stress-free space to relax.
They just made our neighbourhood “liveable.” The spaces promoted animal and plant biodiversity and the survival of wetlands, which filtered all the dirt before it entered Lake Chivero where the bulk of our water came from.
Broadly, the open green spaces left us feeling healthier and happier and becoming more active as a result. Enter rapid urbanisation. All this is gone. Construction of houses is everywhere. KwaBhobho is now known as Caledonia. Arubhabha Park is now a pale shadow of its former self.
It’s now tightly squeezed by houses and its survival is not guaranteed.
Parks and most open green spaces are at serious risk of rapid decline and even being sold off and lost to the public forever not only in Tafara or the capital, Harare, but across Zimbabwe.
We are losing these highly-valued and precious places that are vital to our physical and emotional well-being at an alarming rate.
All this is happening in the name of urbanisation.
Property developers in most urban areas in Zimbabwe have been vicious and aggressive in grabbing land for housing development leaving little or nothing for play, sport and recreation.
Wetlands in and around Harare, Chitungwiza and most other towns across the country have been snapped up by property developers.
Surviving parks and green spaces are now facing their greatest dangers for a generation. Councils across the country have slashed budgets for the maintenance of green spaces and recreational parks.
Most local authorities, desperate to reduce their costs and exploit every open green parks for commercial gain have offloaded the land through corrupt deals to the private sector, which is profiteering from land sales for housing developments.
As a result, most of our parks — Africa Unity Square, Harare Gardens and most other municipal caravan parks dotted around the country have become shabbier, uglier, badly maintained and dangerous to people.
Very few have running water fountains. Our landscape and natural landscapes in green spaces are in a sorry state.
Local authorities no longer care about them, not even to mention tree planting and the growing of flowers. Our urban landscape architecture is bad and as a result litter is strewn all over, fountains are being shut down, graffiti is not being removed and lawn is not being maintained.
There is now bare soil and a few shrubs in the parks and green spaces. Anti-social behaviour has crept in most of our parks and open spaces. Cycles of decline have already set in with parks getting nastier and many people now shunning them.
City dwellers now retreat more to their homes and their electronic screens, with terrible effects on their health. Vagrants now relieve themselves openly in the parks. Land for sporting facilities has been grabbed too.
Public green spaces have been sold off for development and lost for ever. This universal land — important for all — from pre-schoolchildren through to retired adults has been lost, affecting the health and well-being of communities.
Parks and open spaces are all crucial to ensuring communities can take part in physical activity, but are now increasingly becoming vulnerable to development.
We need to develop new funding models for public parks and find solutions to save these vital environmental and social assets.
Government is less concerned either as it has outsourced it to local authorities. This abnegation of responsibility is one of the major reasons why parks all over the country are degrading and in a sorry state.
Local authorities have had their budgets cut drastically. Parks and green spaces are at the back seat of everything.
We need to explore new ways to maintain the parks — one option is to hand over management of parks and green spaces to the private sector or trusts with proven interest in nature conservation.
As a country we also need to change the way public green spaces are perceived — not as a drain on spending that requires a considerable funding to maintain — but rather as an asset which can be deployed to achieve intangible benefits to people and society.
Numerous research studies have demonstrated the health benefits of access to green spaces — encouraging physical exercise, promoting mental well-being and providing a stress-free space to relax.
Despite all this, they remain undervalued and underfunded.
Zimbabweans need to change the conversation to recognise the role that parks can play to our wellness and even sustaining our future existence.
Elsewhere in the UK, South Africa, Asia and other parts of the world, councils are working with business and community groups to raise funding from commercial uses and other social events to raise funds for the maintenance of parks.
At the Worldview Monument in Nyanga, the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe partnered with a family trust to maintain the place, ensuring the survival of this resort spot.
Well-resourced family trusts, companies, individuals can be roped in to save our parks and green spaces.
We should not be trashing our heritage in the interest of property development.
Apart from commercialisation, outsourcing and selling off, local authorities could also pass the responsibility to friends’ groups and community associations.
Concerned citizens, family trusts and community associations can play a big role in reviving and transforming parks and green spaces — clearing the fountains of algae, managing the new growth of trees, replanting, cleaning up and installing seats and litter bins.
Voluntary work is a key asset that can help with fundraising efforts and donations of plants and cuttings from private gardens.
For more than three decades most of our urban green spaces have slid into decline becoming unsafe, problem spaces plagued by neglect, vandalism and antisocial behaviour.
Without collective responsibility and action, it will take many years and considerable public investment to restore them.
While there is an urgent need to build new homes, it is vital that all neighbourhoods and particularly children, should be able to enjoy healthy active outdoor recreation within walking distance of home.
We have to make tough choices and remove all temptations for cash-strapped councils to sell parks and green spaces through corrupt deals for short-term gains.
Rising concerns about health, child obesity, access to nature and mental well-being make green infrastructure much more urgent to help us and future generations to enjoy life.
We need to secure places for play, sport, the enjoyment of nature and recreation.