How might it be possible to integrate popular communications with science communication in novel and productive ways, and in explicit service of a social justice and development agenda? In the context of the huge inequality and social suffering in South Africa, science cannot be treated as an abstract feature of society but should instead be demonstrated as relevant to multiple aspects of everyday life and opportunities for improving its conditions. While there is merit in deepening understandings about how science is engaged with and understood by ordinary citizens (the 'public understanding of science' framework (Bucchi and Trench, 2014; Metcalfe and Riedlinger, 2019), in the face of the multiple challenges most ordinary South Africans face in their lives, they are likely to support and care about science that has to do with issues that they perceive as directly affecting their wellbeing. As such, issues-driven research, rooted in social and political context, is still much-needed, so as to move from "'deficit' to 'dialogue'" by bringing relevant, issues-driven science into "greater proximity to the public" through a "democratised relationship" (Weingart et al., 2020: 4). Such an approach is crucial if we are to find ways to bridge science innovation with public opinion and policy and rise to meet the massive challenges that will shape research and lived experience in South Africa, Africa and the global south in the 21st century. These challenges can be grouped into three broad categories: climate change, quality of life, and equity. To illustrate these challenges, as well as some of the communicative opportunities they present, I explore one key example of a new form of science-driven ecological urban regeneration in South Africa's economic hub and biggest city, Johannesburg. The Upper Jukskei Rejuvenation project is working to detoxify and re-green Johannesburg's only perennial river, which springs from underneath the city and which is extremely toxic, affecting communities and environments on the banks all the way through to where it meets the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. The activists driving this project have had to innovate in creating strategies that creatively and boldly integrate scientific data collection, public art, public relations and community engagement. This case study offers some reference points for considering how natural sciences knowledge and scientific innovation is included in media coverage, and how popular communications about urban sustainability can serve as creative science education tools.