New book celebrates Durban’s forests and the need for green spaces in cities

IF you have an interest in the natural history of KwaZulu-Natal and Durban in particular, then you need to read The Durban Forest, the first volume in a series of books planned by the Durban Botanic Gardens Trust.

The series will be entitled UmKhuhlu, the African name for Trichilia dregeana, the Forest Mahogany. This large evergreen tree was once common in the old Durban forest and today lines some of the roads on Berea Ridge. It is included in the red list of South African plants.

Biologist, Mark Mattson, the contributing editor of the 300-page hard cover book, spoke to ESTELLE SINKINS about The Durban Forest and the importance of green spaces in cities.

Why was it important for the Durban Botanic Gardens Trust to publish this book?

The Trust [which was founded in January 1993] supports the work of the Durban Botanic Gardens, which aims to carry out research on the plant world, to create knowledge about plants and to disseminate that knowledge.

Most of the great botanic gardens of the world, like Kew and Missouri, have publication programmes. More specifically, the Trust is currently attempting to advocate for a new botanical discipline that is needed to address the many ways in which plant use has relevance to our most pressing challenges, including climate instability, food security, ecological restoration and social and economic justice.

This is the first of a series of books – what can readers look forward to in the future?

The next venture is a full-length historical and botanical survey of the Strelitzia family. This project is nearing fruition after a decade of research.

How were the contributing authors, Donal McCracken, Richard Boon, Crispin Hemson and Martin Clement, drawn together – and how did you set about bringing their different voices together?

The Durban Botanic Gardens is the City’s oldest and perhaps most-beloved public institution, so it was important that the authors were from Durban.

All the authors are long-standing residents of, and have an interest in and love of Green Durban. They are people from horticulture, botany, history and civil society.

My role was to provide a framework that would accommodate their individual voices and concerns within the book’s overall aspiration as a manifesto for a new botany with the restorative, practical and compassionate focus that the book espouses.

With the ongoing pressure of humanity on the world’s fauna and flora, is it becoming harder for cities and towns to keep green spaces?

Yes – and rapidly increasing urbanisation makes it difficult for city planners to achieve a balance of green spaces. Sadly, during the 20th century, the Durban Botanic Gardens has lost a quarter of its original size to roads, offices, a reservoir, an observatory and to flats and public housing.

You can’t easily retrofit nature to a city, so this book is also a voice for the importance of providing and protecting green spaces in cities for our physical and emotional well-being.

Sadly, little thought has been given to what this discipline might look like, and The Durban Forest is an attempt to flag the importance of this topic.

Aside from the obvious importance that plants have in the environment, why is it important for people to have access to parks and gardens?

Well, the two are different: a park is there to provide relaxation and entertainment. A botanical gardens has an additional educational purpose – to enlighten residents and visitors with knowledge about the world of plants and how we interact with them.

The natural environments preserved in cities will largely shape people’s outdoor experiences, knowledge of natural history and ecological literacy.

Of equal importance, natural areas in cities serve important social, psychological, health and aesthetic functions, and their role in supporting the quality of life needs of urban dwellers will become more important as access to wild nature diminishes.

Do you think enough is being done by those in power?

Public authorities have done a great deal in the past 20 years to take parks to sections of our community who did not enjoy such amenities in the past. They also maintain the existing, established parks.

The challenge with the Durban Botanic Gardens, for instance, is to recognise that not only is it the oldest surviving botanic gardens in Africa, but it is also Durban’s oldest tourist attraction – even preceding the beaches!

The gardens straddle both environment and tourism and with their unique plant collections have the potential to be a major drawcard for the city.

There are a number of botanical disciplines that are relevant to the challenges we face – botany, horticulture and urban forestry among them – and it is well-known that the use of indigenous plants in urban greening, biodiversity protection, food security studies and ecosystem restoration has been overlooked. At a time when we require them most we are neglecting the very disciplines that may most serve us.

Nonetheless, Durban is recognised internationally as a role model in pioneering ecosystem-based solutions that attempt to pre-empt the problems of climate change and growing environmental instability, and we are extremely fortunate that this is the case.

Finally how can we – as ordinary citizens – play a role in ensuring that green spaces continue to be part of the urban environment?

Start by planting an indigenous tree in your garden and growing some of your own food.

Ensure that the alienation of park land is not allowed; advocate street planting and the replacement of street trees which have had to be removed; volunteer to assist in such institutions as the Durban Botanic Gardens; and encourage those of all communities to regularly visit and come to know these jewels of the city.

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