One of the unexpected consequences of COVID has been a growth in urban farming. As more South Africans take up the challenge of growing their own food will Johannesburg’s urban forest will Johannesburg eventually become an urban farm? Or an urban agroforest?

If it is to become a farm, it would be best that it become an agroforest designed using the Principles of Permaculture. This is to ensure that the urban forest is valued and well managed. And that the grassland biome Johannesburg is part of is preserved or rehabilitated where possible. Within this environmental framework it becomes easier to transition to ecologically  sustainable livelihoods. The primary question that I therefore want to address in this article is:

What actions can we undertake to ensure that Johannesburg becomes an earth-conscious urban and peri-urban agroforest?

From my observations, a harmonious future requires that we build on the following five observations:

  1. The Highveld Grassland Biome is the primary natural system that requires conservation and rehabilitation.
  2. The Urban Forest is a microclimate buffer that mitigates climate change and is worth preserving and expanding into all residential areas.
  3. Food security is a growing social need and urban farming is potentially the greatest driver of earth consciousness if indigenous knowledge and permaculture education leads to the implementation of agroforestry where this is feasible and desirable.
  4. Water quality, conservation and access is a major challenge that requires urgent attention.
  5. Land use rights are best served by defining, or re-defining, and protecting the commons.
Johannesburg: Highveld Grassland Biome

City by-laws protect both the natural grasslands and the urban forest. And in that order. For some residents  exotic trees have no place in the future Johannesburg. The Highveld Grassland Biome is under tremendous pressure and needs conservation and rehabilitation. Exotic trees out- compete indigenous species and take water out of the system and are thus no help to the natural biome. 

Interestingly, Johannesburg’s exotic trees are not mentioned by Ernst Wohlitz, in Bring nature back to the city: How to conduct urban nature conservation as a threat to the natural biome. He lists as threats to the Gauteng Rocky Highveld Grassland, “pressure of urban development, mining, industrialization and to some degree agriculture…”

However, the WWF specifies Eucalyptus trees and black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) as particular threats. It also lists the extraction of peat as a threat to the biome.

Both agree that the grassland is also poorly conserved. Due to this, grassland advocates and conservationists require as much support as possible in conserving and rehabilitating the habitats and eco-systems within this biome.

Is there room for trees within the Gauteng grassland biome? Of course. Trees have a significant role to play in many environments, including Johannesburg. However, in this case trees, including indigenous trees, have a supporting rather than primary role in grassland rehabilitation. In all cases endemic trees are preferable. 

The key to successful tree planting is planting the right tree in the right place for the right purpose. Yet, practically, what does this mean? Differences of opinion are inevitable, for human beings always come with an ideological  perspective, with a given set of facts and with a desire to achieve a goal. It seems to me though that to minimize environmental risk, it seems better to value biodiversity over quick and counter-productive monocultural fixes. Or passively watching the urban canopy steadily thinning…

Ethical and ideological frameworks that allow for earth-conscious actions would aid conversation and sharing of knowledge and skills to correct mistakes. For me this has meant making an effort to understand the Indigenous Knowledge Systems of my ancestors.

My change of attitude has been aided by appreciating the construction of a seasonal wetland at Froggie Pond, close to Linksfield. Here a wetland has been built up layer by layer over thirteen years. To raise the level of the embankments, it imitates the wetland itself, gives them shape, while factoring in the water courses along which water is spread throughout the system and sunk into it. When I first saw it, I was taken aback for it looked like scorched earth; the layers of soil emending biochar, with compost pits built into it below the surface is the result of an interplay between fire and earth and water.

Johannesburg: Urban Forest and Climate Mitigation

Johannesburg’s urban forest is a bulwark against rising temperatures. However, some of our urban trees have their own disease challenge in the form of PSHB.

In the Strategic Framework for the Integrated Management of the Invasive Shothole Borer – Fusarium Complex in Urban and Peri-urban Environments Dr. Christie reminds readers that, “Urban forests help provide a healthy environment for people by cooling the environment, blocking harmful ultraviolet rays, reducing air pollution, absorbing and refracting or dissipating noise, and providing green areas and parks, urban and peri-urban green resources improve physical and psychological well-being of citizens and help in reducing a number of conditions including stress, obesity and cardiovascular diseases…Trees sequester CO2, as well as filter some of the airborne pollutants, including fine particulates as well as mitigating storm water flooding.”

Given these facts retaining, maintaining and replacing diseased and dead trees is in the interests of everyone living in this city.

While the scale of the impact of the PSHB, referred to as Invasive Shothole Borer – Fusarium Complex in the document, remains unknown it is clear is that new tree planting is required. And that planting pest free saplings from the infested tree species in buffer zones (of between 1.5-2km apart?) might be worthwhile investing in.

Of the “Big Five Trees” one is a PSHB Reproductive Host (Combretum erythrophyllum) and three are Non-reproductive Hosts (Celtis africana; Searsia lancea; Olea europaea subsp. Africana).  Vachellia karroo remains an uninfested species but is considered invasive in some parts of the grassland biome.

This leaves Spekboom, which is classified as a tree, as the jewel of our potential carbon credit slice of offset agreements…

It is worthwhile remembering that the “Big Five Trees” for carbon sequestration were chosen with international climate change and carbon credit protocols in mind.  The majority of the tree species popularly known as Acacia, and now renamed Vachellia and Senegalia, did not meet Northern Hemisphere specifications for longevity.

In addition, many of the exotics which line our streets are also PSHB infested. Yet not all of them are. Good tree care is now available and can delay the loss of mature trees, both indigenous and exotic.

Nonetheless, the most important point is that the aging urban forest is not a natural system and is thus dependent on human planning, care and maintenance. Increasingly it is becoming the responsibility of officially constituted Residents Associations to make up for the shortfall in local government oversight.

Highveld Grassland Biome
Highveld Grassland Biome
Wildlife at Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve

Johannesburg: Urban Farming or Urban Agroforest?

Simply put, agroforestry refers to incorporating trees on farms. What type of trees get planted and in what ratios, is dependent on what the farmer wants to produce and for whom. Apart from fruit farmers, farmers in general plant trees for the same reason that non-farmers do: as wind breaks, as boundaries, for shade, for soil protection, for fuel, for water purification and control, for beauty… And for fodder in animal husbandry.

In climate change circles agroforestry means farming trees to offset carbon emissions. That is all. Believe it or not. It means planting monocultures of billions of trees with long longevity in order to allow heavy polluters to continue with their air pollution. While simultaneously earning carbon credits as mitigation exchange! While as a concept it works really well, in reality it would exacerbate the challenges we face as a species. It would increase the strain the planet is under.

In Permaculture agroforestry refers to incorporating trees on farms as part of a sustainable design that works with the land, not against it. The first element that requires design is water capture and flow. The following video provides a succinct explanation of why this is so.

In Permaculture, trees are one element within a food guild or community.  They are never planted as monocultures for biodiversity is highly valued as insurance against pests, diseases and changes in weather patterns. Trees are thus selected as part of beneficial companion planting. While fruit and nut trees, mostly exotic, are an obvious choice for fruit farmers and urban dwellers, they too sometimes benefit from being planted with indigenous trees.

Including a biomimicry committee (made up of nature conservationists, permaculturalists, town planners, water and civil engineers, architects, lawyers, indigenous knowledge consultants…) to your Residents’ Associations would ensure that agroforestry is earth-conscious rather than only dollar hungry.  

Incorporating trees in gardens is a great bonus – provided you have the right tree for your purpose. Doing your best to ensure that the trees compliment and support the food types you grow is a potential key to farming success. Ensuring that they simultaneously regenerate the natural habitat, ecosystem and biome is the key to future resilience. Endemic and indigenous grassland trees could support habitat rehabilitation and provide the agricultural sector with natural nitrogen, for Vachellia and Senegalia are nitrogen fixers.

In addition, given an increase in demand for tree products, including medicine, medicinal agroforests also require a space in the urban environment. While harvesting bark and roots for medicinal purposes sometimes weakens and kills trees this need not be the case. Where it happens, it violates traditional healers’ best practice. Self-regulation through registered associations is one way forward.

In relation to firewood, the Strategic Framework recommends tree coppicing. This method might also be useful for trees planted for medicinal harvesting purposes as well as for scions for grafting. And perhaps for air-layering as well.  

In short, to benefit from the feedback loops that Johannesburg offers us, it would be best to adopt forms of agroforestry that enhance biome integrity, biodiversity food security and climate change adaptation that aligns with biome and social realities and aspirations. That internationally, the type of mistakes our early entrepreneurs made are being duplicated, and heavily funded, under the agroforestry label, does not mean that we have to follow them. We have our own indigenous knowledge systems to guide conversations and actions at the national and local levels.  

Johannesburg: “Working for Water”

Johannesburg is dependent on water from the Vaal Dam. According to Leonie Joubert in Invaded: The biological invasion of South Africa, the Vaal River’s catchment area is a 22km² grassland wetland which needs to be cleared of invasive trees and restored to its pristine potential. Without these water conserving systems being strengthened urban farming of water hungry food plants seems unsustainable, particularly in poorer areas.  

The “Working for Water” programme sought to free water captured by alien trees by cutting it them down. One of the benefits of this programme was that rivers that had dried up began to flow again. As far as I know the “Working for Water” programme in Johannesburg has evolved into rehabilitation of riverbanks with suitable indigenous grasses and other plants once the invasive plants have been removed.

Johannesburg: Land Use Rights

Land use oversight seems to have become the responsibility of active and inclusive Residents’ Associations. It would therefore be useful to strengthen the knowledge and skills within civil society regarding the quality of our air, soil and water. And thus, how to work with the earth for a sustainable future.

That grasslands and animals go hand in hand is fortuitous given that the majority of South African value meat as part of their diet. And dairy products. It would be important to know what by-laws are in place to allow for animal husbandry within the urban and peri-urban areas of the city. Knowing the ratio between animals and space and the conditions under which they may be raised would be beneficial. Without knowledge of permaculture, or agroecology, is urban farming that includes life stock feasible? Or is it a potential health and environmental hazard?

Johannesburg: Just Transitions

Johannesburg: Recommendations for an Urban Agroforest


Johannesburg: Highveld Grassland Biome

Conservation of existing grasslands and seasonal wetlands are a priority. They should not be rezoned for development. In other words, whatever livelihoods are sustainably obtainable from their conservation are the ones that should be encouraged, with the necessary infrastructure to make this possible. 

Visits to grassland reserves within the region can also assist in fostering an appreciation for the natural environment Johannesburg was built on.

In addition, rehabilitation projects such as “Working for Water” and the project at Froggie Pond can serve as outdoor classrooms in support of grassland rehabilitation. These can draw youngsters wishing to do community service as well as those in relevant tertiary education programmes.


Johannesburg: Urban Forest and Climate Mitigation

From my perspective, a toxin-laden monoculture agroforestry sector is no benefit at all. A far better solution for heavy polluters would be to shut down at the same time over a period of a week each year. The losses suffered in terms of revenue would be how they earn their ‘carbon credits’. This recommendation is based on earth’s feedback during the first COVID lockdown. I well remember the many videos I watched of people in the east seeing the sky and the sun for the first time in decades. And happy earth creatures coming out of hiding all over the world. And sea creatures delighting in displays of well-being and freedom. A celebration of air purification and its benefits that initial shutdown remains…

If ‘air purification credits’, through voluntary shutdowns, were to be introduced it would give every sector time to redirect their resources into sustainable earth-conscious practices. And indeed, maximum air purification credits could be amassed if the whole world shuts down for an Air Purification Week. My preference would be Oct 9 -Oct 16 2022, the week of Sukkot. If all three Abrahamic faiths shut down business and busyness that would be a huge thumbs up for future generations. If people of all persuasions joined in, what joy it would bring to the Master of the Universe. And to all Its’ creatures…

Another possibility is starting on Earth Day 2022. It is already on the environmental awareness calendar and includes everyone, regardless of religion or any other particular identity.


Johannesburg: Urban Farming or Urban Agroforest?

The greatest challenge with Johannesburg spontaneously transforming itself into an urban farm is that it could easily push out the commitment to planting indigenous trees. For example, current by-laws allow for seven exotic trees per hundred, including exotic fruit trees, to be planted on pavements. Yet driving around the north-eastern suburbs this ratio is not respected. This being the case, there is no reason to believe that the food security impetus won’t exacerbate the move to haphazardness beyond pavement planting. This trend becomes more marked the further away one moves from the wealthier suburbs. What is left of the grasslands may be further degraded, along with the continued loss of the large urban canopy. A possible solution for built up areas is to favour farming of exotics in spaces that cannot be rehabilitated into grassland, in containers and other forms of farming that avoid contact with the ground.


Johannesburg: “Working for Water”

Knowledge of Johannesburg’s watershed is well researched – drawing up an eco-map based on Permaculture principles is thus possible. Such a map would empower communities to design localized water systems that align with such a map. Restoring these ‘lost’ waterscapes would make clean water more readily available to residents.

The current trend of building residences without gutters is misguided, unless runoff is directed to water capture sites. Yet even this requires that waste is collected rather than allowed to block and pollute drainage systems.At present water conservation and harvesting are dependent on individuals with surplus private resources doing their best within an overburdened delivery system. 

In addition to sustainable water design, if we adapt agricultural practices, including our choice of fruits, vegetables and grains to plants that require less water we will add to our water savings. Favouring suitable indigenous heritage plants would help us move in this direction.


Johannesburg: Land Use Rights

In my efforts to get a grip on the ‘wicked problem’ of land use it is to my own ancestral Indigenous Knowledge System that I have turned. In Judaism’s Indigenous Knowledge System, the well-being of residents within a town takes precedence over property rights, be it industrial or personal. Practically this means that residents can force the shutdown or relocation of harmful elements.

Based on Leviticus 25:34, walled cities in Israel had a special status that impacted on urban planning. According to Rabbi Meir Tamari, “Each walled city had an area of 2000 square cubits [1828.8km²] around it; the inner 1000 were called migrash ha’ir – the city common – and were reserved for the animals and social amenities of the citizens. The other 1000… were reserved for their fields and vineyards. The biblical text tells us that the migrash ha’ir cannot be sold, and the Talmud explained that this means that the city common cannot be rezoned… No one generation has the right to dispose of its natural resources simply as it deems fit, without handing over to the future generations the same possibilities it inherited from the past.” These laws potentially limited urban expansion. New cities had to be built to accommodate expansion…

Is this at all useful? I think it might be as a conversation starter on our own local best practice. It might be particularly useful for engaging with South African Indigenous Knowledge Systems with a view to inform sustainable development in earth-conscious ways. For “making the world a better place” requires care for the earth as a primary responsibility. My sense is that if we include local cultures and the indigenous and scientific knowledge held by our people, we would be better placed to get more informed by-in from all earth loving communities for an environmentally heathy city.


Johannesburg: Just Transitions

Based on the need and desire for healthier lifestyles that I have observed over the last few months has cleared some of my confusion regarding the globalizing tendency and the localizing one. I am aware that the conservationist in me wants eco-system integrity by favouring endemic and indigenous flora and fauna. It values the local to the exclusion of the rest. The agriculturist in me is drawn to the exotic. It has no problem planting exotics from distant shores, if they come with the promise of food sovereignty…

This inner conflict is somewhat resolved in my leaning towards an agroforestry that favours indigenous species. These have the potential to rehabilitate degraded land in alignment with the natural habitat, eco-system and biome. They simultaneously provide nutritious food to be consumed locally. Beneficiating surpluses could increase streams of income.  This is particularly important for small producers.

Permaculture is focused on a forest model of sustainable design. It does not label plants as alien or invasive or as weeds. From a biome conservation perspective this is where a tweak to permaculture practice might be valuable. Again indigenous knowledge of biomes, ecosystems and habitats in conversation with the relevant branches of science would be valuable.

By offering a universally applicable appreciation for Indigenous Knowledge systems from across the world, Permaculture provides a space for inclusivity and creative sustainable design. However, whatever design system you apply, remember that keeping toxins out of all ecosystems is the basis of a just transition to a sustaining and nourishing earth.

Preserving natural forests through planting trees and forests remain my passion. Yet earth-consciousness required that I review my assumptions. To do so I have relied on my own ancestral Indigenous Knowledge System – Judaism’s laws of agriculture. I am only just beginning to practice what I learn as I learn it. In sharing this article, my hope is that it might awaken in you the very best of your own ancestral Indigenous Knowledge Systems (even if they are not African) for the good of our city, our country and our planet. The further back you can go, the better…

For those for whom this is not feasible, there is another way – by connecting to your intuitive knowledge. Pay attention to your dreams for who knows what insights they may contain…

I have also benefitted from reading Leonie Joubert’s Invaded: The biological invasion of South Africa. I learnt that nitrogen fixing plants are a disaster for fynbos and renosterveld, deepening my desire to collaborate with people whose knowledge makes my “Working for Trees” aspiration more skillful. In the meantime, distributing food, however and wherever it is currently grown, is the first step towards a more socially equitable future.


Agroforestry vlog provided by Nonhlanhla Radebe, a water solutions designer.

As far as I know, Sadhguru was the first person to suggest an annual global shutdown.

Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein: 5782: Our Search for Meaning

Leonie Joubert: Invaded: The biological invasion of South Africa.

Rabbi Dr David Nossel: The Upside-down Tree of Life

 Meir Tamari: With All Your Possessions: Jewish Ethics and Economic Life

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