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Eternal Urban Design Debate: Should Public Squares Be Green Or Dry?

The Latin world loves its city public spaces, and their evolving aesthetics can often lead to heated arguments that go beyond simple matters of urban planning.

Sunbathing in a Buenos Aires' park
Sunbathing in a Buenos Aires' park
Berto González Montaner

BUENOS AIRES – One day my mother, a botanical science professor and plant lover, became fed up and tiled over the patio, leaving just two pots around the edges.

In those days the only thing my friends and I cared about was playing soccer, sure to drag mud inside every time we came in for a glass of water. I can still hear the sound of the ring on my mother's finger tapping against the kitchen window: Boys.. the plants! She was trying to save what was left of them. We would have preferred she focused her attention on installing a fence around the yard to stop the ball flying onto neighbors' property.

For some architects and urban planners, the city is a big home. And like our own family quarters, but with greater intensity, interests can clash inside. If the streets are like corridors in the house, the public square is the patio. Some people want it all green, and others, covered in tarmac or cemented over.

Plaza Vicente López for example is quite nice, yet the architect Horacio Baliero once said they could perhaps get rid of its trees. The squares of Buenos Aires were designed for moments of contemplation, not literally for use of the grounds or sunbathing, which is a cultural novelty here.

Baliero would say that seeking out the shade in summer was as elementary as seeking the sun in winter: "Obviously you have to plant deciduous trees."

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A park in Buenos Aires — Photo: Chris Goldberg

Likewise the so-called "dry" squares have their own merits. We love to arrive at the ample Piazza Navona in Rome, or the Plaza Mayor in Madrid after walking through narrow streets, not to mention our own Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo. And there are contemporary-style versions of these squares like the Patio Salguero being prepared by the city government, covered alternately by cement and rubber tiles.

Cement is the star material of the Skate Plaza on the Avenida Figueroa Alcorta, though its use there is unrelated to aesthetics. It is the material used to build the tracks skaters love so much. One Saturday I counted some 50 kids - and not just kids - skating and shredding their hearts out. Another group parked a van on the side and took out boards, bars and weights, inaugurating a little open-air gym.

Another "latest-generation" dry square is the Plaza Estado del Vaticano, next to the Colón Theater. The architects Matías Gigli and Rodolfo Nieves turned this underused area into a multi-purpose space that provides underground venues for the theater, extends the Pasaje de los Carruajes and highlights the theater's showpiece quality. Giant LED screens allow people to enjoy theater and operas there in the summer.

Another of the city's recent acquisitions is the Distrito Arcos, built on what used to be railway tracks. Its difference is that it is an open-air mall, destined for prestige shopping. Or would be, depending on the outcome of legal disputes over the project, which has pitted those denouncing the mall as a piece of crass speculation against developers who say they recovered a decaying zone and created a quality urban space some are comparing to New York's High Line.

As can be seen, clashing interests, whatever their intensity, are essentially not unlike those back in our family's old house. But beyond differences over "green" or "dry" spaces, the important question is whether a space is public and accessible to all, or subject to restrictions.

To paraphrase Gustavo Restrepo, the architect who helped transform Medellín: Remember that everything under the sun teaches us something.

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U.S., France, Israel: How Three Model Democracies Are Coming Unglued

France, Israel, United States: these three democracies all face their own distinct problems. But these problems are revealing disturbing cracks in society that pose a real danger to hard-earned progress that won't be easily regained.

Image of a crowd of protestors holding Israeli flags and a woman speaking into a megaphone

Israeli anti-government protesters take to the streets in Tel-Aviv, after Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired Defence Minister Yoav Galant.

Dominique Moïsi

"I'd rather be a Russian than a Democrat," reads the t-shirt of a Republican Party supporter in the U.S.

"We need to bring the French economy to its knees," announces the leader of the French union Confédération Générale du Travail.

"Let's end the power of the Supreme Court filled with leftist and pro-Palestinian Ashkenazis," say Israeli government cabinet ministers pushing extreme judicial reforms

The United States, France, Israel: three countries, three continents, three situations that have nothing to do with each other. But each country appears to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown of what seemed like solid democracies.

How can we explain these political excesses, irrational proclamations, even suicidal tendencies?

The answer seems simple: in the United States, in France, in Israel — far from an exhaustive list — democracy is facing the challenge of society's ever-greater polarization. We can manage the competition of ideas and opposing interests. But how to respond to rage, even hatred, borne of a sense of injustice and humiliation?

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