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Pandemic And City Parks: A Reminder That Green Spaces Matter

Argentine landscape historian Sonia Berjman deplores a lack of long-term planning and park maintenance in Buenos Aires.

Months of forced confinement have highlighted the crucial need for leisure spaces and parks
Months of forced confinement have highlighted the crucial need for leisure spaces and parks
Paula Baldo

BUENOS AIRES — Big city parks emerged in the 19th century as a method to sanitize cities. And as the current health crisis reminds us, those urban planners of yesteryear were clearly on to something.

Indeed, months of forced confinement stemming from the global pandemic highlight the crucial need for leisure spaces and parks to breathe cleaner air.

"Two centuries later, we're turning back the clock," says Sonia Berjman, an urban and landscape historian and author of more than 20 books on city planning. "To know a city's level of progress, just look at its public walkways," she adds, citing the Argentine planner Benito Carrasco (once head of the city's parks).

The problem, according to Berjman, is that with the exception of those early efforts at park building, there's been an absence in Buenos Aires of long-term planning and maintenance. As such, the city's green spaces are generally insufficient in number and unequally spread among the different neighborhoods.

"Regardless of the political environment, officials have generally failed to maintain parks as heritage. Nor have they considered their benefits to people's health," she says. "There are fewer actual green spaces than the estimated figures, as polls can be deceptive. And there is more and more "hard" ground, which blocks water absorption."

Her claims are backed by figures from the city government. Buenos Aires has around 6.3 square meters of green space per resident, which is not enough when international standards recommend 10-15 square meters/person. This figure even includes small patches of grass on streets and pavements. The situation is worse when you consider the uneven distribution of greenery across the city.

Buenos Aires has around 6.3 square meters of green space per resident — Photo: Pieter Bouwer

The Argentine capital's principal green spaces, conceived (in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) by Carlos Thays and Benito Carrasco, in the Parisian style, share an integral vision and long-term planning that was abandoned. Berjman believes the city today lacks similar projects, or at least projects of the same quality.

She says that in the Parque 3 de Febrero, a park in the Palermo district, "the trees were planted in 1870. A tree is like a person. You have to feed and care for it. I always give this example: I can knock down the Colón theater and, with great effort, rebuild it. If I destroy the woodland in Palermo, I'd have to sit and wait 100 years with Thays and Carrasco, until the trees grow back."

Our natural space is shrinking.

Berjman also regrets the absence of a reforestation plan. She believes all the city's new parks are just "for decorative effect." The city is planting "patches of lawn instead of groves," she says, with "very high maintenance costs."

Currently living in Uruguay, Berjman regularly visited Argentina before the pandemic. In 2020, her ties to the country (and the world) became virtual. She actively participated in @la_tribu_verde, a landscaping group with live feeds on Instagram.

Every Tuesday for eight months, she hosted Café con Sonia where she interviewed landscaping peers from Latin America. She made a plea in one program that sums up her mission: "Please, we must care for our green spaces, especially the historical ones. Our natural space is shrinking and, as we have seen this past year, we cannot survive without nature."

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How Brazil's Evangelical Surge Threatens Survival Of Native Afro-Brazilian Faith

Followers of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda religion in four traditional communities in the country’s northeast are resisting pressure to convert to evangelical Christianity.

image of Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Agencia Publica
Géssica Amorim

Among a host of images of saints and Afro-Brazilian divinities known as orixás, Abel José, 42, an Umbanda priest, lights some candles, picks up his protective beads and adjusts the straw hat that sits atop his head. He is preparing to treat four people from neighboring villages who have come to his house in search of spiritual help and treatment for health ailments.

The meeting takes place discreetly, in a small room that has been built in the back of the garage of his house. Abel lives in the quilombo of Sítio Bredos, home to 135 families. The community, located in the municipality of Betânia of Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, is one of the municipality’s four remaining communities that have been certified as quilombos, the word used to refer to communities formed in the colonial era by enslaved Africans and/or their descendents.

In these villages there are almost no residents who still follow traditional Afro-Brazilian religions. Abel, Seu Joaquim Firmo and Dona Maura Maria da Silva are the sole remaining followers of Umbanda in the communities in which they live. A wave of evangelical missionary activity has taken hold of Betânia’s quilombos ever since the first evangelical church belonging to the Assembleia de Deus group was built in the quilombo of Bredos around 20 years ago. Since then, other evangelical, pentecostal, and neo-pentecostal churches and congregations have established themselves in the area. Today there are now nine temples spread among the four communities, home to roughly 900 families.

The temples belong to the Assembleia de Deus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the World Church of God's Power, the latter of which has over 6,000 temples spread across Brazil and was founded by the apostle and televangelist Valdemiro Santiago, who became infamous during the pandemic for trying to sell beans that he had blessed as a Covid-19 cure. Assembleia de Deus alone, who are the largest pentecostal denomination in the world, have built five churches in Betânia’s quilombos.

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