The Durban Metropolitan Open Space System


A framework for local biodiversity partnerships


Text and photographs Richard Boon

Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany region hotspot.

Source: Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund

Located in the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany biodiversity hotspot (one of just 36 in the world), Durban’s remnant biodiversity is globally unique and important. Unfortunately national and provincial governments lack the capacity and mandate to adequately protect and manage biodiversity, especially at the local level.

An analysis of landcover change in KwaZulu-Natal showed that between 1994 and 2011 the percentage that was in a natural state declined from 73% to 53% at an average rate of 1.2% per annum. Fortunately the rate is slowing, but extrapolated figures suggest that only 45% of the province’s landscape may be natural by 2050. Durban’s statistics are equally dire as 54% of the municipal area was transformed and a further 17% highly degraded by 2012.

Without increased local action, biodiversity values will continue to decline. This article provides a background to the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (D’MOSS), highlights some implementation successes and challenges and suggests how private individuals and civil society organisations can contribute to achieving its aims and help to stem biodiversity loss.

Forests, and other ecosystems, capture carbon and reduce global warming.

Aims, values and design of D’MOSS

D’MOSS was first adopted by the former Durban City Council in 1989. However, it was a non-governmental organisation, the Wildlife Society of South Africa (now WESSA), which began the initiative. Nowadays the D’MOSS layer is prepared by the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department of the eThekwini Municipality and can be viewed on City Maps at the bottom of the Municipality’s website home page.

The aim of D’MOSS is to identify, secure and manage our most important biodiversity. On the flip side, D’MOSS also identifies areas more suitable for development. Protecting our environment is critical to our wellbeing as it provides us with ‘free’ ecosystem services. These include fresh water, flood control, clean air, carbon sequestration, pollination and places to play and learn.

Wetlands provide raw materials for building and crafts.

A World Bank report published in 2017 calculated that the natural and semi-natural systems of the eThekwini Municipal area supply services worth at least R 4.2 billion per annum and the value of these systems is between R 48 and R 62 billion. To replace our ecological or green infrastructure with built infrastructure would be unaffordable, thus we rely on the two systems, natural and built, to support the approximately 3.7 million people living in greater Durban.

Benefits from natural systems are not really free as ecosystems need relatively small ongoing management to function optimally and supply benefits in the long-term. The return on investment argument has been made well in Cape Town where it has been shown by the Nature Conservancy that investing in alien plant control in water catchments is much more cost effective than groundwater extraction or building desalination and water reuse plants. Removing alien plants will also be good for job creation and the world-renowned Cape flora.

The D’MOSS Sherwood grassland is an infrequently visited remnant patch of coastal grassland near the EB Cloete interchange.

Core conservation areas, like the Krantzkloof and Springside Nature Reserves, are the heart of D’MOSS and are linked by corridors, which may be continuous or stepping stones. Connecting open spaces allows for the movement of species, genetic material, energy, water, sediments and nutrients. Links can be local or regional, allowing ecological processes to operate across municipal boundaries.

From 2009 the D’MOSS layer has been based on a systematic conservation assessment, which is considered global best practice. Area selection is based on vegetation types and the presence of rare and threatened species and takes opportunities and costs (or threats) into account to design an efficient configuration of open spaces to achieve conservation targets. State, private and communal (Ingonyama Trust) land is all included in D’MOSS, thus implementation depends on multiple role players.

Dierama pallidum is a Vulnerable hairbell or wandflower that grows only at a few localities between Pietermartizburg and the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

The Ruby-footed Millipede (Doratogonus rubipodus) is considered Endangered and is probably endemic to scarp forests in the eThekwini Municipal area.

Inclusion in broader municipal planning

A key starting point for the Municipality, as the sphere of government responsible for local planning, was to ensure that D’MOSS was included in all municipal spatial plans from the high level Spatial Development Framework to the detailed town planning schemes (now called schemes).

This process began in the early 2000s when D’MOSS was unpopular with some and even referred to as the DEMON by some politicians and senior officials. Happily that mindset seems to have changed and current leadership is generally supportive of D’MOSS and its aims.

The eThekwini Municipal Spatial Development Framework includes the D’MOSS layer.

Source: eThekwini Municipality Development Planning Department

Prior to its inclusion in the schemes, consideration of the D’MOSS layer in development planning and management decisions was based on policy. Many of Durban’s local level schemes were developed as far back as the 1950s when environmental concerns were not considered. This disjuncture between local planning, development ‘rights’ and modern national environmental legislation meant stakeholders were often not aware of potential development restrictions until after purchase or late in development planning and application processes.

Introducing D’MOSS into the schemes as a development control layer changed this and remains a first for South Africa. Since adoption as part of the schemes by Council in December 2010, all applications to develop in or adjacent to the D’MOSS layer receive environmental input.

A positive spin-off for landowners is that potential environmental restrictions are now considered in determining property values and taxes. Inevitably not everybody was happy and the inclusion of D’MOSS in the schemes was opposed by some and ultimately challenged in the High Court as being unconstitutional. Fortunately, the court disagreed and ruled that legislating for the environment through municipal planning (a local government competence) was permissible and did not interfere with national and provincial government competencies.

Working on Fire teams contracted by the Municipality conducting a grassland management burn.

Some implementation successes and challenges

With the process of integrating environmental considerations in planning in hand, the emphasis shifted to implementation, especially in priority areas. Given resources and mandates, I think the Municipality has been quite successful. Some achievements include:

  • building a strong biodiversity impact assessment team
  • having 11 municipal conservation areas proclaimed as nature reserves in terms of national legislation
  • acquiring nearly 600 ha of land for environmental protection
  • establishing the Working for Ecosystems and Fire and Invasive Species Control natural resource management programmes
  • delivering a large-scale revegetation project at Buffelsdraai with biodiversity, social and carbon sequestration benefits
  • natural areas management
  • introducing a local level stewardship programme to work with various partners, especially in traditional authority areas, to deliver biodiversity outcomes

In my view, key areas for future improvement include:

  • developing a protected areas system that better represents the distribution of environmental assets across the metropolitan area
  • deepening relationships with receptive traditional authorities and delivering on-ground outputs (important because about 40% of the municipal area is communal land and is where an even higher percentage of environmental assets are found)
  • strengthening the environmental compliance and enforcement function
  • greater co-ordination of the municipality’s environmental planning and natural resource management functions

View westwards towards Table Mountain of remote communal land in the eThekwini Municipal area. Areas like this support much biodiversity.

So how will you contribute?

Regardless of whether these improvements are achieved, the large municipal area (approximately 250 000 ha), resource constraints and the fact that many environmental assets are privately owned, mean that partnerships are vital to achieving D’MOSS objectives. Civil society is a key partner, so how can we all contribute?

The easiest way is to visit and use natural areas. Better used sites tend to be safest, receive good community support and users may become advocates for biodiversity conservation. In addition to recreational and educational uses, consider becoming a citizen scientist and contributing to important programmes. These include the Custodians of Endangered and Rare Wildflowers (CREW), the South African Bird Atlas Project 2, iNaturalist and the Durban Invasives website. Information in these important repositories is used by the Municipality’s conservation planners to prepare the D’MOSS plan and by scientists in their research.

If you are looking for greater and direct impact, there is no substitute for protecting large, connected ecosystems. Bigger areas are more resilient to threats, support functional ecological processes and species with large area requirements and require less management per unit area. Avoiding loss and degradation is important because restoration (or fixing degraded ecosystems) is expensive and impossible, or practically so, for some ecosystems like grasslands.

Protecting larger conservation tracts is usually the domain of conservation agencies, but in Durban there are some notable sites like the Tanglewood Nature Reserve and the Hawaan Forest that are privately owned.

Another example is the Giba Gorge Environmental Precinct. This approximately 300-ha area of private and municipal land supports magnificent scarp forest and endangered grasslands. It was established as a special rating area in 2009, is jointly funded by landowners and the Municipality and is managed by a not-for-profit company. In my opinion, it is an outstanding and well-used environmental and social asset, which has been achieved at relatively low cost.

The model takes effort to establish and needs a champion, or champions, but, with the right will and resources, it could be replicated elsewhere in Durban. Candidate areas are along the Nkutu River or on the Kloof/Pinetown escarpment between Field’s Hill and the Stockville Valley/N3 toll road.

Winter in the Giba Gorge Environmental Precinct after a management burn on the grassland block in the foreground.

In other parts of Durban civil society helps government maintain conservation areas. Support may be through advocacy, fund raising and on-ground natural resource management. The most successful relationship might be at the Krantzkloof Nature Reserve, but there are many smaller areas that would decline without civil society input.

Without the work of these ‘friends’ groups, these remnant patches would be lost to weeds, bush encroachment and other threats, like a lack of regular ecological burns. While some of these public-private relationships can be challenging to manage, I think the outcomes are almost always better when resources and skills are pooled to work for the same goals.

Remnant patch of KwaZulu-Natal Sandstone Sourveld grassland in full flower in early spring at the New Germany Nature Reserve.

This kind of living may not suit everyone, but it is certainly soft on the environment.

How we develop and manage landscapes outside conservation areas can facilitate species’ movements and mitigate the high level of landscape fragmentation typical of cities. Where high density is not the objective, footprints should be minimised and carefully located to minimise environmental impacts.

Securing properties is important, but fences may eliminate movement by terrestrial animals and even kill wildlife. More sensitive approaches secure immediate living areas, include small and discrete gaps and allow wildlife to traverse the rest of the property. The way we secure properties is an area of environmental management that needs further innovation like the use of microwave beams and CCTV cameras that have been successfully used instead of fences at one upmarket development.

Horrible example of fencing which prevents wildlife movement.

Dumping of garden refuse is one of many threats to open spaces.

Wildlife gardening with indigenous plants and using no or minimal chemicals can be rewarding.

Gardens bordering or near natural areas may be especially important as buffers to open spaces. They can also be the source of dumped refuse material, weeds, excessive stormwater and nutrients and marauding pets.

Plant selection should be based on local, indigenous species. These tend to perform better under local conditions, provide more suitable habitat for native wildlife, contribute to local landscape character, are usually easier to establish and maintain and may develop self-sustaining populations without becoming weedy.

Be careful in where you buy plants and landscape materials and never support the destructive practice of sourcing mature plants and rocks from the wild.

With regard to plant choice, to be fair, some exotic plants can be productive for wildlife and show no signs of becoming weedy. On the contrary, a few native species readily escape cultivation where they become environmental weeds.

That said, many of our invasive plants were introduced to South Africa as garden ornamentals. It’s not just the well known weedy species that we need to control and eradicate as invasion processes are ongoing and other species are cause for concern. Examples include weedy melastomes (in the genera Tibouchina, Melastoma and Hetercocentron), the Ant Tree (Triplaris americana), the Autograph Tree (Clusia rosea) and the Golden Trumpet Tree (Handroanthus chrysotrichus).

Plectranthus heroroensis (Herero Spur-flower) is a species from the northern provinces of South Africa which naturalises readily in Durban; here in the Springside Nature Reserve.

Tibouchina mutabilis is an ornamental tree which is a well established at a few sites in the Hillcrest/Winston Park/West Riding area of Durban.

Closing remarks

The local and provincial figures of habitat loss in one of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots are alarming and will escalate. However, collectively we can contribute in many ways to mitigate this loss and in some cases achieve local gains in protection and management of key environmental features.

Our successes will be amplified if we have an overall sense of our aims and we work together on priorities. I think the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System provides that framework and as partners we can make a significant contribution to our unique biodiversity, human wellbeing and Durban’s sense of place.

The alternative is to accept a much poorer quality of life. As Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”; so how will you contribute?

A group of hikers enjoying a guided walk – the enjoyment of open spaces can contribute to human well-being and an enhanced quality of life.


Boon R., Cockburn J., Douwes E., Govender N., Ground L., Mclean C., Roberts D., Rouget M. & Slotow, R, (2016), Managing a threatened savanna ecosystem (KwaZulu-Natal Sandstone Sourveld) in an urban biodiversity hotspot: Durban, South Africa, Bothalia 46(2), a2112,

Conservation International’s website has information on biodiversity hotspots,

EThekwni Municipality website,

Jewitt D., Goodman P.S., Erasmus B.F.N., O’Connor T.G. & Witkowski E.T.F., (2015), Systematic land-cover change in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: Implications for biodiversity. S Afr J Sci. 111(9/10),

The Nature Conservancy, (2018), The Greater Cape Town Water Fund. Assessing the return on investment for ecological infrastructure restoration. Business Case,

Turpie J., Letley G., Chyrstal R., Corbella S., & Stretch D., (2017), A Spatial Valuation of the Natural and Semi-Natural Open Space Areas in eThekwini Municipality, World Bank, Washington, DC.,

Author photo: Pat McKrill

About the author

Richard Boon is well known not only for his outstanding book Trees of Eastern South Africa – A Complete Guide but also for his environmental work at WESSA in the 90’s and later as part of the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department at eThekwini where he headed up the Biodiversity Planning Branch until end 2018. Richard is a practical botanist with over 20 years’ field experience. He also enjoys photographing plants and other natural subjects. He has now retired and wrote this article for The Leopard’s Echo from his new home in Melbourne, Australia.