Atlas of Gold: Landscape Transformation of Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand Range

Department: Landscape Architecture
Research Centre: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities Initiative
Active Dates: January 2015 - August 2016

Title : Atlas of Gold: Landscape Transformation of Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand Range

Project team:
PI: Dorothy Tang
RA: Bryan Woo

Project funder(s): UGC-GRF


The Witwatersrand Gold Rush of 1886 led to the establishment of Johannesburg and set in motion a series of large-scale alterations to the geology, hydrology, and ecology of the region. Gold mining across an 80-km strip traversing the heart of Johannesburg and its neighboring municipalities became a conduit for regional infrastructure and shaped the contested social landscape of the region. With soaring gold prices, the gold mining belt is currently going through another iteration of environmental change as mining companies are now scavenging for remnant gold in historic tailings — or mine dumps. This flurry of gold recovery is reshaping the topography of the city, and releasing potential land for future urban development literally in the center of the city, and removing physical barriers between the rich north and poor south. However, the environmental consequences of unchecked mining for over a century are now coming into effect. Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) — polluted water with high acidic levels and heavy metals — is now threatening to decant at an unprecedented scale, endangering the freshwater resources and ecological viability of two major continental watersheds.

This project moves beyond simplistic descriptions of singular aspects of this complex city and seeks to document the past and current mining landscapes through a series of visual narratives to compose an atlas for the region. The atlas analyzes the ecological, political, and economic forces of the Johannesburg region through “Operative Maps”, “Spatial Narratives”, and “Time Charts”. Information is collected through extensive fieldwork, interviews, and archival research. The intertwined relationship between constructed ground and the natural landscape demonstrated in Johannesburg resists singular perspectives and demands complexity. This work acknowledges the non-linear logics and hypercomplexities of the region and seeks to represent relationships, operations, and change. Ultimately, this project aims to provide an alternative perspective on environmental change in Johannesburg by giving voice to previously invisible actors.


  1. Challenge Reductionist approaches to environmental change by embracing the complex interactions between human interventions and natural processes through visual and mixed media narratives;
  2. Document Johannesburg’s on-going environmental change to provide a coherent record of the physical landscape alterations and the associated political processes;
  3. Contribute to global scholarship regarding the reclamation of post-industrial and mining landscapes through an in-depth case study in the developing world.


Current research results from historical and archival work reveal a specific relationship between the geology of the Witwatersrand Range and the urban development of the urban region.


  • Conference paper: Topographies of Gold: Tailings and Post-Mining Urban Landscapes of Johannesburg 1970-2006. GOLD: the 33rd Annual Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand. 2016 (Forthcoming).
  • Monograph Book: Atlas of Gold (In Progress).

Anticipated Impact

This is particularly relevant now because of the scale and speed of resource extraction that is occurring in the developing world without heeding the painful environmental lessons of other cities. China has now become the largest gold producer in the world, surpassing South Africa and the US. China is also the largest coal mining country in the world with vast coal mines being developed in Shanxi provinces with the largest open-pit coal mines in Inner Mongolia. Grasberg Mine in Indonesia is the largest gold mine in the world by size and output (Latimer 2012), in the meantime, gold mining in African countries such as Ghana and Tanzania are also ramping up with surging gold prices. The story of Johannesburg, documented in “An Atlas of Gold,” is a preview of the environmental aftermath of large scale landscape change and reveals opportunities for reclaiming land, resources, and culture in such contexts. It will be a useful reference for landscape architects, scholars, governmental agencies, mining professionals, or other actors involved with large-scale resource extraction in the developing world.



Enlarge Photo: GOLD_01Enlarge Photo: Atlas of Gold: Landscape Transformation of Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand Range 2Enlarge Photo: Atlas of Gold: Landscape Transformation of Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand Range 3Enlarge Photo: Atlas of Gold: Landscape Transformation of Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand Range 4