When looking at a destination or location that may have fallen into disrepair due to neglect, many would just see unsurmountable problems – but for a handful of people – they see tremendous opportunities.
Recognising the incredible potential in the most unlikely of places, James Delaney has taken it upon himself to dedicate huge amounts of his time and energy into reviving and rejuvenating some of the most uncared for locations around Johannesburg. This is why Cindy Sheedy Walker of Extraordinary nominated him as a super-lifter. “He has done so much for the local community by developing downtown Johannesburg into the world-class destination it is,” she says. And he certainly hasn’t stopped there – one of his biggest projects has been the rehabilitation of The Wilds.
Who is James Delaney?
James Delaney is a professional artist based in Victoria Yards in Johannesburg, who has always felt a close tie to the tourism industry. Prior to lockdown, he led popular walking tours through downtown Johannesburg with a focus on art history.
Living next door to The Wilds, a nature reserve near the suburb of Houghton, he had heard all about its reputation as a “no-go area” and crime hotspot, but decided to venture in. He had a dog that needed walking – and it was right on his doorstep – how bad could it be?
What he discovered, as he slowly ventured deeper and deeper into its grounds, was a magnificent inner-city park with a rich history, that needed a lot of love, but had a lot of joy to give in return.
“I didn’t have any great plan to begin with – I just started fixing a few things up – sometimes just trimming a tree or moving some plants around,” Next, some volunteers got involved and James started raising funds for gradually bigger and bigger projects. He started installing his own sculptures – and now there are about 100 of his works scattered around the reserve.
That was seven years ago, and now The Wilds has become a hugely popular city attraction, with young and old flocking to the reserve to experience nature in the midst of the big city. “Particularly during COVID, local people have become a lot more aware of nature. They couldn’t travel and most of the parks were closed, but as a nature reserve, The Wilds was able to stay open,” he says.
He says he finds it incredibly heartwarming to see people experience The Wilds – whether it’s a child discovering an owl sculpture in a tree, or an adult being surprised by a newly placed indigenous plant, it gives him a sense of optimism to look back on the gradually compounding improvements that have brought the nature reserve to this point. “People visit for the first time now and assume that it must have always looked like this, because the nature has settled in so well.”
How he has stayed focused
James says he has a motto that he lives by: “Whatever happens, there is a way”. “Every time I hit a wall (and there have been plenty), I think – there must be a way around this – and I carry on.” There was a mountain of red tape and bureaucratic hurdles to overcome, but each time, he’s found a way to carry on. It’s a mindset that applies to all in the tourism industry today – and even his art business which was heavily reliant on international visitors coming to his gallery. Instead of abandoning hope, he’s been proactive in reaching out to former clients around the world and has started selling them sculptures. “That way, they can have a reminder of Africa in their backyard, which will also hopefully bring them back again quickly!”
He drew much of his motivation from Central Park in New York, which many people don’t realise, was derelict back in the 1980s. “People wouldn’t venture into the park, even if they lived right next to it – which was similar to my story. But the citizens of the city started fixing it up, and now it’s this amazing place that people from all over the world visit,” he says.
It’s a shift in mindset, where instead of waiting for others to get the ball rolling, you take the initiative. His work at The Wilds has been a source of inspiration from people from all over the country, from Swellendam to Tshwane, who have been in touch with James asking for advice on rolling out similar improvement projects in their local public parks and reserves.
And his advice is to do it. “The joy it has given me is indescribable – the opportunity to work in nature and fix things up isn’t actually work at all – I recommend it to everybody. It’s good for your mental health to be outdoors and making a contribution to the world.”
Watch our conversation with James Delaney here.