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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Why This Sudan Coup Is Different

The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.

Smoke rises Monday over the Sudanese capital of Khartoum

Xinhua via ZUMA
David E. Kiwuwa

This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.

In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.

The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.

A popular uprising may be inevitable

The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?

Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.

But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.

Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.

For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.

Power sharing

The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.

Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.

A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.

Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.

File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020

Mohamed Khidir/Xinhua via ZUMA

Generals in suits

Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.

This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.

Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.

Demands of the revolution

The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.

First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.

Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.

The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.

Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.

Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.

The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.

Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.


David E. Kiwuwa is Associate Professor of International Studies at University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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