What do parks say about the city in which they are found? What do they say about the people who visit?

For as long as there have been cities, there have been spaces sectioned-off as sanctuaries for the public. Town squares, central parks… they are more than just pretty places. They are spaces reserved for nature or human gathering. Moreover, the way a society uses its land expresses the inherent values of their culture. What’s more important to them: business or homes, grassy fields or cemented parking lots? Therefore, by taking a look at the spaces that have been preserved from natural human development, an person can get a glimpse of what really matters to that culture.

Place for Music; Space for Practice

Perhaps one of the oldest uses of urban spaces around the world, public music always seems to make its way into San Jose parks and plazas. It is one of the many healthy signs that these spaces are alive with culture. According to freelance urbanist Vivian Doumpa, there are five stages to public culture revitalization:

  1. Public Space and Quality of Public Space
  2. Public Experience and Perception
  3. Public Art and Perception
  4. Music in Public Space
  5. Regeneration & Revitalization Through Public Art and/or Music

Without going into too much academic detail, Doumpa’s theory highlights several of the integrative elements that must be in place to create a vibrant public space that promotes cultural expression and growth.

What do parks say about the city in which they are found? What do they say about the people who visit?
A street musician plays his homemade guitar with his fellow band members (Plaza de la Cultura)

As a photographer, I was drawn to this particular man because of his instrument. The guitar was obviously not something bought at the music store down on the corner. Whether by choice or necessity, the guitar revealed an element of both simplicity and craftsmanship. Furthermore, it introduced Costa Rica’s values of environmentalism and sustainability to the musical scene.

Place for Art; Space for Expression

Similar to music, sculptures are a form of expression frequently found in the public plazas of San Jose. What makes this medium stand out more than say, graffiti, is that it requires deliberate cooperation between the artist and the government. Sculptures are more or less permanent features. They tell that location’s history. In the case of San Jose, busts and figures of national heroes can be seen from almost every block.

Also known as Plaza Artigas or Plaza de los Artes, this urban landscape in Barrio Chino is home to several works from metal busts of local heroes to more abstract pieces like the red hoops above. In truth, I cannot tell you of whom this bronze figure is, but our self-appointed tour guide (whom we met in a different park along the way) took us back through the area and explained that here sat John Lennon.

Place to Friends; Space to Learn.

Parque España, then, is one of the most “representative” parks of San Jose. The city’s citizens use all their public spaces as places of rest and recreation. While some may curl up on a sculpted bench, pull out a book and take in some sun, others whip out equipment for the favorite sport and blow off steam in another way.

As we are beginning to see, the beneficiaries of San Jose’s public spaces are not limited to a single age group. In the photograph below I was able to capture some local teens practicing their skateboarding skills, but just a few meters off to the right were families having snacks and elderly persons just enjoying the nice day.

What’s more, the historic Edificio Metálico or “metal building” of San Jose is visible in the background of this photograph. Parque Morazán is then just off to the left too, which makes me think that San Jose shares a similar philosophy with another urban city in Costa Rica. Research by University of Costa Rica student Adrián Varela Arquín revealed that Heredia gave “priority to the historic buildings of architectural heritage” in designing its city space. At any rate, there seems to be a centralization in this location of the city’s cultural values.

Place for Play; Space for Admiration

[quote_box_right]The scene has changed a little bit, but there are still activities happening every Saturday! To learn more about weekly yoga and hula-hooping, click here.[/quote_box_right]The close proximity of two parks and at least one historic building made the space between Parque Morazán and Parque España the perfect “Cultural Corridor” for what used to be San Jose’s weekly Enamorarte festival. The project was launched in 2011 by El Ministerio de Cultura y Juventud with hopes of stirring up the public’s love for the parks of downtown, and based on the amount of people we saw during our visit, the program seems to have been successful. Each Saturday from 10am to 5 or 6pm (depending on the season), the place filled with everything from dancers to yoga instructors, stilts to artisans. Sometimes, you may have even be able to see a clown.

Now clowns are expected to be funny. It’s in their job description. Even so, our new friend took on a new friend used the attention he won through bright colors and funny gestures to point toward something very dear to him: the environment. He had no problem with us taking a few pictures of him at first, but soon he suggested that he had something much more excited for us to shoot. That’s when he ran over and started posing with the cork tree on street corner. He obviously loved these ginormous beings with all their goofy bumps.

In fact, he then asked us if we wanted to see “the alien” and points back down the short corridor of other trees. Of course, when a clown asks you if you want to see an alien, the answer is always yes. Therefore we waited and tried to decipher at what exactly he was signaling. Eventually he senses our confusion and hugs the bulbous growth on the next tree over. These towering giants were his friends. Together they made up a posse of some of the rare but beloved attractions in downtown San Jose.

Place for Garbage; Space for Improvement.

As effective as San Jose has been at making their parks and plazas inviting to people of all kinds, the urban culture still lacks a sense of value to maintain their beautiful spaces. At each location we visited, street cleaners were working hard at collecting garbage, cleaning off graffiti and just generally keeping the place in order. Even so, remnants of carelessness still piled-up in corners.

Perhaps with continued care, these urban spaces will attract more admirers such as our environmentalist clown above or Eric, the rugby player from Cartago that runs to the parks of San Jose to practice his game. Their stories and enthusiasm have the power to influence how others use the places too.

As it stands, between the success of the scheduled activities in Parque Morazan and España and the continued efforts to maintain cleanliness, San Jose is making good progress. In fact, the city plans to create five new public parks in the near future.

That all said, don’t just take my word for it. Go check out San Jose’s public spaces yourself!