Namibia is a land of wide-open spaces and stunning natural beauty. The inhabitants are used to being close to nature, and visitors are impressed by being able to experience truly wild and unspoiled Africa at very close quarters. Unlike the huge, sprawling, concrete jungles that constitute the capital cities of most countries, where people feel alienated from the countryside, Namibia’s capital has retained this feeling of space and freedom.
Windhoek is situated in a valley surrounded by hills that are fortunately too steep for development. The city is also fortunate to have a town-planning section that is aware of the importance of open spaces and natural areas for the psychological wellbeing of the inhabitants. Whether people have grown up in a city or recently moved there from the country, everyone needs to see and be able to commune with nature. Some prefer the indigenous “natural” areas, others like cultivated gardens. Whatever the case, people need and want to see plants and greenery.
Two important points in the new policy document on open spaces are that the City of Windhoek “recognises its heritage of fragile eco-systems comprising river courses, dams, mountains, hilltops, steep valleys and other natural features and is determined that they be subject to environmental conservation measures and that opportunities be pursued for sensitive recreational development and ecotourism so as to maintain a balance between conservation and recreational open spaces” and that “the City of Windhoek sees the establishment of common goals in the conservation and utilisation of open spaces in the city as critical factors in promoting social upliftment and improving the living conditions of its citizens.”
Unfortunately, along with the good that open areas do for the wellbeing of residents, is the negative aspect that open spaces are vandalised, refuse is dumped there and that they are used as gathering places by undesirable people. Many of the open areas are no longer safe for people to visit. So, whereas in the past public open spaces were viewed as an asset in respect of the properties surrounding them, the municipality is receiving more and more requests to close or fence off open spaces, since they constitute a health hazard and safety risk.
Windhoek has twelve categories of “open spaces”, ranging from car parks, playing fields and formal recreational areas to more natural scenic areas, trails, viewpoints and conservation areas. In addition, trees planted along the streets add to the natural feel of the city. There are already several trails and paths on steep hill-slopes, mountain ridges and along water courses, and new ones are being planned. These are very popular for hikers, dog walkers and joggers, and the policy of the City is to “maintain the natural character” of these areas.
Probably the two best-known and most well-used conservation areas are Avis Dam to the east of the city and Goreangab Dam to the west. Both have received much attention from organisations such as Greenspace and the Goreangab Action Committee. Both are used as areas to walk, ride horses, walk dogs, climb hills, watch birds, fish, or have picnics. Neither area is completely natural, as invasive alien plant species move in as soon as the water levels drop. In order to draw attention to the importance of areas like Avis Dam, and to raise funds for their protection, Greenspace recently held a very successful Fun Day at the dam, with a beer tent, potjiekos competition, raft race and nature discovery hunt to promote environmental awareness amongst the youth.
Despite the numerous dogs that are walked at Windhoek’s dams, a number of bird species can be seen in these spaces, ranging from waterfowl to the more elusive bush species, while kudu and baboons frequent the hills around Avis Dam. Even fish eagles and ospreys are seen on occasion. Another small dam where people can watch birds is van Rhyn Dam in Hochland Rand, near Concordia College.
The only completely natural area within the city is the National Botanical Gardens bordering to the left on Sam Nujoma Avenue as it descends the hill from central Windhoek towards Klein Windhoek. In April, the most striking feature of this garden as one drives past is the splash of orange of the Windhoek aloe, Aloe littoralis, the emblem of the city of Windhoek. The garden is an excellent example of the Highland Savannah vegetation zone in which Windhoek is situated.
Most of the plants in the garden are indigenous to this area, although there are some that have been introduced from other parts of Namibia. The most noticeable of the introductions is the quiver trees, Aloe dichotoma, which can also be seen from the road. Access to the garden is via the National Botanical Research Institute on the hill in Orban Street and at present is restricted to normal working hours. However, the Botanical Society of Namibia is negotiating to open the gardens to the public for guided walks at specific times over weekends.
This article appeared in the 2002 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.