Plazas Preciosas

by Hannah Jarman-Miller

This time of year is intertwined with a deep and sudden compulsion to be outside. As the first sunny days of spring begin to bloom, and the world becomes welcoming again, I often find myself drawn out to meandering walks through my neighborhood. As an apartment dweller, I don’t have an outside space to call my own. Instead, I turn to my city to provide me the lush backyard, shady patio, and front porch view that I so long for on this particular kind of spring day.

I’m certainly not alone in this desire. Indeed, there are many of us who walk our streets searching for that certain place that makes us feel comfortable and at home, and its in the spaces that we get the chance to meet our neighbors. We fit ourselves alongside one another, puzzle pieces to populate the perfect park or quiet side street, existing together in the fabric of our city. Our sense of community is driven by what we share together, an ecosystem that grows as we do, and informs our development in turn.

At the end of one such walk I was fortunate enough to find myself in a plaza in Havana, Cuba. Wandering in the last slivers of daylight, searching for a place to rest our feet, my friends and I arrived at Plaza del Cristo, situated at the edge of Old Havana. A quintessential public square, this plaza was vibrant and inviting. It was an open space full of trees, and benches for catching up with a friend, tables for a family picnic, well worn stones that served as the locale for soccer games and children learning to ride bikes. All of this was cozily nestled amongst corner stores and cafes, restaurants and churches, a central hub to the comings and goings of the neighborhood. This space was alive. It was colorful, bustling and vivacious, and most importantly, it was full of people. So remarkable was the organic network of social activity playing out around us, that we quickly became enveloped by the activity of the square.

Sitting beneath a tree, we caught the eye of a group of curious children. They were a diverse play date of neighborhood passersby and wandering members of adjacent family picnics. One brave soul approached us first. A well-chosen envoy, he was charismatic and unabashed. He wanted to know who we were, where we were from, our names and how old we were. The questions were endless, a rapid-fire test of our burgeoning confidence in our Spanish skills, and as the interview rattled on his friends slowly followed suit. Soon we were seated in a circle, joined by children spanning ages from two to eleven years old (I know this exactly, because reporting on age was a topic of much interest to all involved. Those who were too young to tell us themselves were dutifully accounted for by their siblings). We traded the names for animals in English and Spanish, tested each other’s knowledge of the respective languages, and heard about what they were learning in school. Our conversation quickly digressed into an endless string of riddles, which we were, to their delight, quite terrible at answering. Word play in a second language can be tricky, and managing to fool a grown up will always be fun. They would have to remind each other not to answer when they got too excited. These kids shared their afternoon with us in a way that was comfortable, entertaining and educational, and the interaction was entirely brought about by the plaza where we had all decided to spend our time.

Children build their identity through their attachments to places[1]. This plaza, and the conversations they have there, will root the history of these children and inform who they grow to be. In public spaces, small children can learn about social behavior by observing strangers, and in turn can practice how to behave themselves[2]. This plaza was a place where children felt comfortable interacting across age and social groups, allowing them invaluable opportunities to learn from those around them in a safe, communal environment. However, children are too often left out of the urban planning equation. Our public spaces have become largely homogeneous, built to attract only one type of consumer. When we don’t value diversity in our spaces, and don’t build places in which people feel safe and invited, these incredible opportunities for development are lost. Every person needs a space in their city where they feel welcome and at home, the place that waits for them at the end of their walk. Our public spaces are the cornerstones of our communities. It is our responsibility to consider how they will impact those that choose to inhabit them, and it is essential that we create room for every member. This responsibility, and how we might achieve this goal, is just one of many concepts that will be discussed at the 54th International Making Cities Livable Conference in New Mexico, October 2nd-6th. We hope you will consider attending!  

 



[1] Spencer, C. and Wooley, H. (2000) Children and the city: a summary of recent environmental psychology research. Child: Care, Health and Development, 26 (3), pp.181-198.

[2] Holland, C., Clark, A., Katz, J., and Peace, S. (2007) Social Interactions in Urban Public Places. Published by The Policy Press for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Report and summary available from www.jrf.org.uk.