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Design Opportunities at the Edge of Society (South Africa)

With an inspired mind, opportunities for improved design present themselves at every turn. Problems show themselves as challenges for demonstration.

In this way, it’s almost as if our world’s most frustrating social and environmental issues become the best canvasses on which to patiently prove the effectiveness of our ideas. Patiently: because the temptation is to become overwhelmed and disillusioned in the face of ample evidence that the world doesn’t value ‘fringe’ ideas. Even if it takes time, it is far better to measure a quality response and choose the most challenging spots to start with. Why? Because this is where the impact becomes most obvious in its contrast with the norm, and thus, where the influence spreads the fastest.

In this light, it is with great pleasure that I present to you a project in the Mitchell’s Plain area just outside of Cape Town, South Africa, called the Lentegeur Spring Project (see a 4mb Powerpoint project proposal). The Lentegeur Hospital is a ‘Psychiatric Hospital’ situated in one of the most poverty stricken and crime affected areas of South Africa. Renowned for its gangsterism, the area breeds socio-emotional cycles of the worst kind. You either luck out, or you’re struck out. The story is a common one, not unique to any particular people or place. This human bi-product is to society what waste is to any badly designed system. While treated as external to the system, it never is external to the system, but rather a symptom thereof and very much a part of its downfall.

A sick society casually labels their mentally ill and packs them away, out of sight and out of mind. In the process it denies that they exist and essentially rids the system of the valuable feedback this symptom provides. When we stand back and observe ways in which this waste can be mitigated or even used as an element of our system, this is when we start to win the battle. If you can convert a place that society fears and ignores into a beautiful, productive place that heals and sets examples, you will dig very deeply into the minds of those who eventually observe it in action. The conclusion will be a powerful catalyst for change.

The first phase of the Lentegeur Spring Project is a permaculture design exercise which aims to provide the mainframe design on which this project will be allowed to organically grow. While on-going funding will be vital (and is obviously within the aims of those involved in the project) an informed, quality mainframe design is pivotal at this point. Food & Trees for Africa are the managing partners of the project, through which various other stakeholders are currently being engaged. Those interested in getting involved or finding out more information on the Lentegeur Spring Project are encouraged to email info(at) There will no doubt be many, many opportunities to get involved and for experience to be gained on these degraded 18 hectares.

In my imagination, one way in which a major tipping point can be met, is when the mentally ill start to appear more normal than those who consider themselves separate from the illness in their society. The dropping of that ironic coin could be what is needed to drive people to be part of the solution.


  1. I was very moved when I read the article. I am a Mental Health Registered Nurse and am a strong believer in the therapeutic effect that Permaculture offers holistically to those with mental illness.
    I am involved with
    Mackay Community Gardens Inc.

  2. Wow! So nice to see this article, you have really captured the essence of what we are trying to do. Recently as part of the project we had a collective planting session where we planted over 1000 shrubs to celebrate Mandela Day. We also spent a lot of time talking about what we are doing and the meaning underlying it. I really understood the value of the project when one of the long-term residents at the hospital turned to me and said: “i have never felt this important in my whole life!”

    For a short TEDx talk on the project, please have a look at:

    John – Project Manager of the Lentegeur Spring Project

  3. It was a pleasure John. I look forward to meeting you perhaps when I visit Cape Town next. I will get your details from Jeunesse when I do.

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