June 2009 – Parks and plazas remedy the chaotic buzzing of urban life by providing a relaxed space for city dwellers to take a break from the action on the street and settle into a slower urban vibration. Buenos Aires is home to lavish parks and charming plazas where public life comes alive and fills the city with energetic rhythms.
A few months ago, before the cold air of winter settled in, I remember an afternoon with friends from my student residence when I was particularly appreciative of the wonderful Buenos Aires park network. We spent the afternoon lounging about in Parque Las Heras where crowds of people were sitting on blankets sharing lunch, working on school projects, kicking a ball around, juggling, tight rope walking, enjoying the sun and sharing the traditional South American mate tea. I remember feeling relaxed lying under the sun while looking down upon the road as four buses chugged by and a dozen cars frantically passed by in the other lane. I was in the park and the buses were in the street – two completely different worlds, two completely different vibes.
The mosaic of the park is a world apart from the mosaic of the street. Parks provide a cursory connection to nature and offer a liberating open space that gives people the opportunity to relax and feel comfortable within the typically hectic urban landscape. City space is full of rules and codes of conduct that signal to us the proper ways to act in society. Although these formal and often informal policies allow urban life to flow with ease, they also restrict our ability to live freely upon our urban environment. Parks offer us a space where the rules are loosened, the weight is lifted and the splendor of nature and open space can energize our urban rhythms.
Fútbol is closer to a religion than a sport in Argentina. Fútbol spirit is everywhere in Buenos Aires and can be found in nearly every park. There aren´t many public playing fields available in the dense metropolis and most proper pitches require an entrance fee or charge an hourly rate to keep the fields in good condition. These maintained fields are usually surrounded by tall fences in big parks or fenced in artificial turfs underneath bridges or below elevated highways. My community at the student residence gathers frequently in the evenings to play fútbol in these unique recreational spaces. Chain linked fences flow down from the top of the elevated highways like a stream of water to contain the playing space while bright lights illuminate the pitch. It’s a wonderful transformation of a space that would, in most cases, be relegated to parking or just “dead” space.
Plazas don’t provide the same type of green get away as parks do, but they still allow for an escape from the busy urban landscape. Plazas are meeting points, public transportation hubs, historical sites, lunch time hotspots and most importantly, a place to take a deep breath. The charm of a plaza has less to do with its greenery and more to do with its physical layout. In Buenos Aires, plazas are generally filled with stately monuments, beautiful fountains and are usually surrounded by classic colonial buildings that give the plazas a historical and timeless feel.
I live just one block away from Plaza Congreso which is in front of the National Congress building. Aside from impressive monuments and dignified architecture, the plaza is home to many homeless people, many of whom have constructed small shanty houses out of mattresses and large boxes. Instead of booting the homeless out, the plaza provides a safe place for some of the city’s homeless to sleep at night. It fascinates me that the most stately plaza in the city, the plaza that’s the face of the National Congress, is also a plaza for the homeless. It’s certainly a unique use of formal space and an interesting insight into the community oriented mindset of South America.
Plazas aren’t only places for people to mix and mingle; they’re places where people gather to communicate with the institutions of the city. Plaza Congreso and Plaza de Mayo are both outside the major government structures in Buenos Aires and are the typical stages for the majority of important protests and public gatherings. Plazas are a
s important to civil life as the civic institutions that surround them.
Parks and plazas remind us that it’s important for our cities to maintain a connection with nature and to open space. It would be detrimental to the spirit of a city to allow these wonderful spaces to deteriorate or disappear.
In the U.S, my university campus is embedded directly within the urban landscape of Pittsburgh. The neighborhood has all the classic symptoms of a typical urban university neighborhood with commercial districts tailored to the needs of university students and residential streets where homes are obviously in the care of inexperienced home keepers and negligent landlords. With boxy cement building and the grey skies of winter, my campus can feel dull and bland.
As soon as the weather begins to warm, the campus is re-energized and student life begins to flourish. Students flock to the pleasant green spaces beneath the Cathedral of Learning and along the tree lined benches of student walkways. Just off of campus, Flag Staff Hill and Schenely Park give students a chance to escape to nature and enjoy life away from the action of the city.
I believe the social center of our campus is Schenely Plaza which is a charming plaza next to some of the university’s largest and most important buildings. At the first glimpse of pleasant weather, students rush to the plaza’s main lawn and to the movable chairs and tables that line the walkway of the plaza. It’s common to sit with a book along the tables of Schenely Pla
za and not finish a single page because friends and familiar faces are always passing by to say hi. Parks and plazas provide a stage for civic life to blossom both on campus and for an entire city.
Parks and plazas give us a chance to observe and digest urban life without directly participating in the intense action on the street. They provide a space for us to interact as a society and engage with the institutions of the city. As the demand for healthier cities grows, it will be interesting to see how traditional parks and plazas evolve to create spaces that catalyze new forms of human interaction within our urban playgrounds. For now, parks and plaza are a feature of the Buenos Aires urban environment that I have come to enjoy during my time here.