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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