The Zoo as a Model for Community Planning

by Maskil on 6 Feb 2009

This is based on notes I jotted down after a visit to the Johannesburg Zoo with my wife and daughter during the December/January school holidays.

Why don’t we plan our communities the way we do our zoos? No, I’m not kidding. Just consider the following:

  • The zoo campus is planned as an integrated whole rather than as a collection of individual structures.
  • The “dwellings” (cages, etc.) are planned around the sometimes unique needs of their inhabitants.
  • While there is emphasis on the private spaces, there is also a great deal of emphasis on the public space.
  • Vehicle traffic stops at the periphery of the campus. Parking is provided at the entrance.
  • The campus does have an extensive road network, but this services internal needs rather than through traffic.
  • A variety of alternative modes of transport is available for internal travel, including human-powered modes such as walking and parent-propelled carts for kids.
  • Tractor-powered “ferries” and golf carts are available, but they are operated by zoo staff and/or are slow enough not to present a danger to small people.
  • The site is designed to be used and appreciated at a walking pace.
  • It is friendly to children, the aged, the disabled and other vulnerable users.
  • It has benches, in abundance. To me, this is one of the hallmarks of a truly civilised environment. (In contrast, shopping malls provide almost none. Presumably they prefer to keep the pace frenetic.)
  • Trees and landscaping are given the emphasis they deserve. I assume that – apart from the environments created for the inhabitants – the more recent plantings are indigenous. (If this isn’t a principle of zoo landscaping, it should be.)
  • It makes use of bodies of water that refresh the landscape, as well as the eye and soul, e.g. drinking fountains, ponds, wetlands, etc.
  • By its nature, it has a much needed emphasis on conservation, ecosystems and making a place for the other creatures with which we share our environment.
  • It lends itself to other cultural and recreational activities. (In the case of the Johannesburg Zoo, a bandstand has been a feature for almost a century. The zoo also includes a mini fun fair and playgrounds for kids, as well as a petting zoo. This allows children (especially inner-city dwellers) to have physical contact with cuddlier animals.
  • It has a culture of keeping the public space neat and clean, and extensive facilities for recycling the waste that always goes hand in hand with our leisure activities.
  • While there is an educational function, it tends to happen in a fun way; as a by-product rather than the main purpose of the visit.
  • It celebrates the idea that there’s more to life than going to the shopping mall!

While these notes obviously don’t apply to every zoo out there, I’m sure most of the principles can be found at work in the best examples.

(This was originally posted on my posterous blog as a quick and dirty “drive-by” blog post. I was impressed by the number of views it received, so I thought it should have a more permanent home here. I’ve expanded the post somewhat.)

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