Strictly speaking, this discourse should be called ‘sidewalk’ as it’s all about that little 3m piece between the properties and roads in Melville. But I prefer ‘verge’ because this can mean an edge or border, and it carries a double meaning: ‘an extreme limit beyond which something specified will happen’ as in ‘I was on the verge of tears’. This has more movement in it, more implications; and the verges of Melville are definitely extreme limits – they are the limit of residents’ homes, beyond which is the Wild West of the STREET — i.e. no man’s land, the outside world.
I do a lot of walking on verges and streets, and I have done for more than 20 years, being a dog walker and a part-time jogger. I walk at least once a day, usually twice, not just to give my cooped-up dogs some space and sanity, but myself as well. Walking is my meditation, and I usually take the dogs up to the Melville Koppies or to Westdene Dam or to the park at Emmarentia, where there is some grass and rocks and space and sky and even the odd bit of ‘nature’ as we like to call it. But to get to these spaces I have to walk or drive through the streets of the lower part of Melville, and while doing so, I began to notice some recurring themes.
The first and most obvious is that the verges are lined with walls, which serve the dual function of preserving the privacy of the residents inside those walls, and of keeping intruders out. Lower Melville (5th Avenue to 11th) is practically wall-to-wall: the walls of the adjacent, generally small properties join each other to present a united message of ‘fuck off’ and ‘stay out’ to the outside world.
They are crowned with electric fences, barbed wire and spikes to reinforce this message. To lend even more weight to this theme, which in South Africa is unfortunately ubiquitous in the more affluent suburbs, are signs warning of dogs within the properties, many of which are never walked, and signs advertising security companies, which patrol the streets at all hours, creating a 24-hour, if somewhat arbitrary, presence. In lower Melville, security is beefed up by security guards, who live in tiny huts, come winter or summer. These are the only people who live on the verge; for the home owners, verges are areas to be bypassed.
A second theme or issue in that three metres of verge is that of utilities, or services. The residents want electricity, water, gas and contact with the outside world to flow into their Melville homes. The latter service was performed by telephone wires in the past but is now increasingly replaced by wifi. What flows out is sewage, garden waste and rubbish; the refuse is now divided into non and recyclable materials, and a good deal of garden waste goes into the ‘non’ bins. All of the utilities must feed into the homes through, above or below the outside walls, and some, such as water, require meters to determine the cost for users. The seamless flow of power in and shit out takes place as invisibly as possible, but entails an army of less fortunate folk, some employed, some self-employed.
The third theme is that of decor or decoration: some home owners wish for the outside of their home to look presentable, respectable, even admirable. Some grow plants, some erect small kitsch statuettes, some even paint murals on their walls. But, as many owners pass rapidly into their homes with the push of a thumb on a remote that lifts a garage door, most dispense with this arduous task, or afford it cursory attention and budget. This leads to theme four, that of decay, which is allowed to flourish out on the street as, unlike inside the property, it is not faced by residents on an intimate and ongoing basis.
Theme five is that of nature, which originally owned the space where the suburb now squats, and is now relegated to the garden, if there is one, or just outside the wall, where it battles for space on the verge with services and service meters, walls, tarmac, the odd decoration, cars and pedestrians. The trees, bushes, vines and shrubs make up for being slower than the humans who constantly cut, trim and flatten them by constant, measured growth. In doing so they overwhelm, cover, twist, push and distort the paving stones, walls, signs, meters and decorations, and in doing so constantly exert their presence.
There’s a constant battle between the straight lines of paving, walls and streets that nature challenges. The ‘tyranny of the straight line’ is something that artist/architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser bemoaned and rallied against for his whole life. “I dare say that the line that I draw with my feet in order to go to the museum is more important than the lines that one finds on the actual paintings hanging in the museum. And I take endless satisfaction in seeing that this line is never straight, nor, however, is it random. Rather, it is just as it should be. And this holds true in its each and every segment. Beware of the straight line, and of the inebriated line. But especially beware of the straight line. Following the straight line will someday lead the human race to its doom.”
Our brain circuitry, psychologists are finding, comes pre-installed with an emotional attachment to rounded forms, which likely springs from our millenia-old relationship with natural environments. Angular walls and buildings, instead of blending into the environment, stand apart from it by utilising one of the few shapes you never see in nature – a perfect box. Research from Harvard Medical School found that the amygdala, the brain’s fear centre, is significantly more active when people view angular objects. In other words, the straight lines of our homes, streets and verges are making us fearful.
A sub-theme of theme two (services) is that of maintenance, as the services the residents require constantly break down, necessitating crew of repair men from gas companies, electricity companies, wifi companies and water companies. Some of these are metro services, some are private. The scars these companies leave in their wake can be lasting: huge trenches at the side of the road sometimes remain there for months, causing traffic to swerve around them and wait.
Verges are a product of suburbs. Suburbs evolved as cities changed: at first, the affluent traders wanted to live close to the city centre, where the action took place, and the poor lived in the outlying areas. But, as cities expanded, their centres become smelly and dirty, and the rich started moving outwards. With the advent of the car, suburbs truly came into their own: the middle class could now commute to work in the city centre. Now, with Covid and lockdowns and working from home (wfh), there’s practically no need to leave the suburb at all.
Studies are showing that most employees prefer working from home, which means that office space is no longer in demand. They also reveal that suburbs close to the city centre and workplaces, once prized, may experience a drop in real estate value, as proximity is no longer such a drawcard; former office workers can now work from the beach, as long as they have wifi. On the other hand, wfh is a drag if you live in an apartment, but is far more pleasant in a free-standing home, so Melville may not be so drastically affected, as it has few flats, and mostly houses.
According to Hundertwasser, people have three skins: their epidermis, their clothes, and finally their shelter (he later added two additional layers of skin: our social environment of family, friends and nation, and the biosphere and its role in clothing, sheltering and protecting us. He proposed that we should not only shape the appearance of our living spaces on the inside, but on the outside as well. This expression of individualism will then create a diversity that humanises the space for the inhabitants and passers-by, which has a positive effect on the entire community.
Sterile, concrete landscapes and unimaginative buildings cause high levels of stress. Designing buildings, as well as cities to combat this, whether it be beautiful, awe-inspiring architecture, or simply a mindful connection to nature, helps humans to feel more relaxed, happy and engaged.
Like nature itself, people also don’t want to be boxed in and told where to walk or go. One manifestation of this are the so-called ‘desire lines’ that pedestrians choose to walk along, rather than going on the prescribed paths that city planners want them to. This curious phenomena of renegade tracks can be damaging, scarring pristine lawns and destroying undergrowth across the globe. Some view them as evidence of pedestrians’ inability or unwillingness to do what they’re told. Others believe that they reveal the inherent flaws in a city’s design — the places where paths ought to have been built, rather than where they were built. For this reason, desire lines infuriate some landscape architects and enrapture others.
Is the verge supposed to be a thoroughfare? Some sidewalks have paths that allow passage; others have thorn trees and jagged stones, and still others are entirely overgrown. The City’s bylaws specify that this is illegal – not that the average South African gives a toss. “No person may plant or cause to be planted, any tree, shrub or other plant on any road reserve, which obstructs or interferes with pedestrian traffic on such road reserve or allow any such tree, shrub or plant to remain on that road reserve.”