During the early stages of the lockdown my 8-year-old son, N, became very fearful. He feared being burgled. Every night he hid our devices so burglars would not find them. At night he would preface comments about the following day with “If we are still alive tomorrow … “. He was scared to go out and when we were allowed to go out in the mornings between 6.00 and 9.00, it was difficult to get him to come out with me. He was particularly anxious about our dog getting hurt. Shortly before the lockdown, she had walked along a tree-trunk that had fallen over a river bank in Newlands forest. She had fallen off the trunk, dropping onto the deep river-bed below. She was unharmed apart from being very stiff the next day. However, N was devastated by seeing her fall and this had precipitated his fear about her getting hurt.
We live in Observatory and under Lockdown Level 4 one morning he reluctantly accompanied me to Liesbeek River and on the way home, we went onto the Malta Park field for a while. He felt more comfortable at the field than at the river which he found a bit scary, and we started going to the Malta Park field regularly. N befriended the dogs that he saw there every day and he chatted to the owners of the dogs. At the point at which we could go out any time during the day, he asked me every evening if we could go to “the field”. During this time, the schools were closed and as an only child, he was only seeing his parents and spending most of the day on screens, apart from our evening trips to the field. Although the regular frequenters of the field were mainly adults and their dogs, we made friends with a boy and his mother and went on some forest walks with them. I saw N transforming from a fearful, unhappy child to a chatty, confident, upbeat child. Going to the field was not the only factor that contributed to this transformation, but it was a big factor. Even outside of a COVID-19 lockdown context, families can be quite insular and free public spaces that are used for informal activities provide the opportunity for people to meet others from their community that they would not otherwise have met. We have connected with one of our neighbors and at times when I could not take N to the field, he has walked there with our neighbor.
We have seen people playing rugby, taking fitness classes, doing yoga, and engaging in a team game played with a frisbee. In all of these cases, there has been a peaceful co-existence between the people playing sport and the dog owners.
Spaces like these are essential for cohesive and vibrant communities. N had spent his childhood afternoons at the children’s park in Arnold Street, which is an important community space, but he had outgrown it. Community spaces are precious, and we need more of them to meet the needs of a range of people. We must not let them be destroyed in order to feed the insatiable needs of exclusive commercial interests.