Portable parks promote community in El Salvador

By Ashley Williams

September 16, 2019

What is the size of two parking spots, can seat a group of friends and has the power to prevent crime and violence? 

Parklets — known locally as Cuscatlánitos after the San Salvador park Cuscatlán — are vibrant public spaces that provide communities a meeting point. Though they are simple, these small parks are poised to make a powerful impact on strengthening vulnerable communities in El Salvador. 

In their most basic form, they are slightly raised platforms with three low walls, but each one can be customized to meet the needs of the community. Some become classrooms, some are places for entrepreneurs to sell their goods and others become places to make art.

These new public spaces are supported by the USAID-funded Crime and Violence Prevention Project, which improves the ability of communities, municipalities and national institutions to prevent violent crime. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world and has seen an uptick in reported robberies, assaults, rapes and missing persons cases in recent years.

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A group of kids turn a parklet into their own art studio. Photo by Gerson Lara.

The new parklets will live in the Tutunichapa, Atonal, La Asuncion and Santa Fe/La Paz communities, which surround Cuscatlán Park in the historic center of San Salvador. The parklets are part of a larger effort to make community members feel safe in and around their communities.

TOTEM, a New Yorkbased urban development and design firm, designed the parklets as a system of interconnected spaces between Cuscatlán Park and surrounding communities by creating hyper-local and modular public spaces to foster community cohesion through entrepreneurship and participatory place making.

TOTEM Principal J. Manuel Mansylla says that while some of these communities are stigmatized and alienated, they are entrepreneurial and can thrive with the right support and platform, such as these parklets.

“During the dry season, when the demand to spend time outdoors increases, parklets may temporarily replace a few parking spots with neighborhood gathering places perfect for eating, reading, working, meeting a friend or taking a rest,” he says. In San Salvador we added a new twist by using them as platforms to promote community members’ creative talents and ideas.” 

TOTEM inaugurated the new public spaces with a pop-up market, called Festitlán, in the parking lot of the Cuscatlán Market. The design firm coordinated with local NGOs and government to develop this urban festival, which promoted the idea of building a city of “beautiful things” and showcased ways the city could be transformed through safe, dynamic public spaces. 

Activities included workshops on urban gardening, dance and music shows by local artists, a participative mural, a community culinary market and more. For community members, these parks provide a renewed energy and a much-needed safe space to hang out. 

Thank you very much for taking us into account to be part of the Cuscatlánitos, said 19-year-old Nubia Velasco, from La Asunción, while enjoying her new Cuscatlanito. “We think it is a very cool way to spend time outside our homes, doing activities like these, celebrating and having fun.

Click through the slideshow below to see more photos of the Cuscatlánitos.

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