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American Society of Landscape Architects


April 2007 Issue

A Desire for Change
A park for science, music, and open-air movies revitalizes a degraded area of Medellín, Colombia.

By Jimena Martignoni

A Desire for Change Photo Courtesy of Carlos Tobon

El Parque de los Deseos (Park of Desires) in Medellín, Colombia, cannot be described as a typical park, because what makes it successful are not just the space and the activities it provides during the day but what it offers at night. Born out of the desire to extend the indoor activities of Medellín’s planetarium to the outdoors, this park offers educational activities and, in addition, a place to enjoy the city’s warm nights.

Like wishing upon a star, the park reflects a deeper hope that it can help spark change in one of the most degraded areas of the city and, until recently, one of the most dangerous. A decision by the city’s current administration to make this neighborhood the site of a new cultural district may help. The park’s nightlife is not based on its proximity to trendy clubs and restaurants or on an unusual lighting plan; instead, what draws people together when it gets dark is a free outdoor movie theater open four nights a week.

In 2000, Medellín’s municipal government and Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), the city’s strongest public–private partnership, created the EPM Foundation to manage social programs that are part of a larger and more ambitious urban renovation plan. After building Barefoot Park (see "Barefoot in the Park," Landscape Architecture, January) in the heart of the city, the foundation followed up by planning a variety of new public spaces aimed at changing social behavior throughout the city. El Parque de los Deseos is the first of those projects to be finished, and the city’s residents are already actively enjoying it.

This project began in 2003 with modest objectives: to renovate the planetarium building and add some interactive exhibits. But when EPM contacted architect Felipe Uribe de Bedout, whose office had also designed Barefoot Park, he proposed an outdoor exhibition space that would help to revitalize this neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. "When thinking about a planetarium’s activities, such as sky watching, I had in mind our ancestral pre-Columbian cultures and, on the other hand, how those kinds of activities are brought to the outside [by planetariums] in many countries today," explains Uribe. "Then the idea for a park seemed just right."

What was motivating for EPM and Medellín’s mayor about this proposal was not just the innovative idea to bring some of the planetarium’s activities outdoors but also the possibility of transforming an area that historically has been neglected. Although surrounded by the Botanical Gardens and part of the University of Antioquia’s campus, this area had seriously deteriorated in the days when drug trafficking brought conflict every day to Medellín. EPM decided to buy another neglected piece of land behind the planetarium, doubling the one and a half acres available for the original project.

After doing more specific research, EPM chose projects such as the Outdoor Science and Art Walk at the SciTech Hands On Museum in Aurora, Illinois; the Clore Garden of Science in Israel; and the Science Playground at the New York Hall of Science as examples of the science park concept and used them to introduce this idea to Medellín’s citizens.

For the park layout, Uribe worked to meet three requirements by creating, first, a place where people could lie down and watch the sky, enhancing his idea of the "sky as landscape"; second, a public plaza for special events; and third, an activity that could attract diverse groups to help erode some of Medellín’s social-class boundaries.

The first two objectives were met by creating a central plaza to hold the planetarium’s outdoor exhibits and to stage open-air concerts and other public events—one of the few spaces in Medellín available for such activities. The designer met the last requirement by proposing free open-air movies.

What Uribe de Bedout didn’t want to build was "the typical half-pie-shaped amphitheater." Instead, he wanted to offer "a more flexible space that would allow other types of uses."

The existing topography of the site was irregular. The central space, which the park would occupy, sloped downhill, west to east, between two sidewalks, with an elevation change of almost 10 feet. Instead of remodeling or flattening the entire site, Uribe decided to incorporate the existing grading into the new design. The resulting space is a large esplanade with subtle inclines. Paved or grassy ramps edging the plaza and leading into the space have a 24 percent slope, which kids like to roll down. The central plaza itself varies in slope from 9 to 10 percent.

The fact that the city’s Botanical Gardens and part of the University of Antioquia campus surround the Park of Desires was part of the designer’s rationale for building a central hard surface, turning the whole area into an urban-looking space. Rows of pero de agua or mountain apple trees (Eugenia malaccensis) line the east and west sides of the new park, and a double row of flor de reina or Queen’s crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia speciosa) frames a sandy area on the northeast portion of the new park. These trees are still small and filling in, but right across the street the large trees planted at the university supply a green visual frame for people inside the park.

A sandy area provides an innovative playground, with elements of different heights for kids to climb, and a hands-on outdoor exhibit called Voces a distancia or Distant Voices. Two shells, or acoustic parabolic dishes, face each other, 80 feet apart; when a visitor speaks or whispers into one of the dishes, the voice travels clearly to a person standing in front of the opposite dish.

Seven more interactive devices are placed in other spots throughout the park, demonstrating different scientific phenomena and the behavior of sun, water, and wind. These exhibits were designed and built as sculptural pieces by four different universities in the region and a group of local artists invited by EPM.

Another important feature of this park is its distinctive urban furniture. All made of wood, a number of custom-designed elements help to generate diverse outdoor experiences for visitors. For instance, a linear pergola edges the sandy area, underneath which tables and L-shaped benches are fixed to the ground, all becoming one structure; here, people sit and rest, or parents watch their kids playing. In the same area, a semi-roofed sun chair, also built as one piece, provides the ideal place for lying down and reading. On the east side of the central plaza is a group of 10 ergonomically designed rotating cots. People sunbathe and relax on them during the daytime; at night adults and children lie on them to stargaze or watch movies.

The southwest portion of the site, adjacent to the planetarium, is a grassy strip that slopes down toward a shallow pool parallel to the building’s west facade and framed on both sides by a row of sancona or Colombian foxtail palms (Syagrus sancona). At the bottom of the slope by the pool, a row of tables and benches fixed to the pavement provides another place for people to sit and relax. At the top, on the level of the higher sidewalk, two rows of benches stand back-to-back, with some facing the grassy downhill slope and some facing the street. Here, the connection with the urban surroundings is much stronger than in the rest of the park, which is more inward looking.

This pool is L-shaped, with the shorter side embracing the north facade of the planetarium and facing the plaza, becoming a main focal point. Flanked by a set of water jets, this water feature is the park’s most crowded area during the day, when kids play and run around the jets or cross barefoot over a series of planklike stepping-stones in one corner of the pool.

The Casa de la Musica (House of Music) was specially designed for the Park of Desires and faces the planetarium across the central plaza. Also funded by the EPM Foundation, this is a school for learning all kinds of musical instruments, especially for players in various city children’s orchestras and young musicians who can’t afford other programs. In exchange for the free classes and practice space, these orchestras perform open-air concerts throughout the city; the number of performances depends on the number of hours students and other musicians use the school.

All these features and furnishings, plus the planetarium’s outdoor exhibits, make this a place where culture and leisure come together, attracting kids and young people to this previously neglected part of the city. Inside the park itself, furnished spaces attract the most people during the day; at night, the attention shifts to the central plaza, where the free movies take place. Projected from the House of Music’s building onto a big screen that was designed as part of the renovated planetarium’s main facade, the films draw people here when the sun sets. People start arriving before the movies begin and take their places on the ground and on the rotating cots; some lie down and watch the stars, as the designers envisioned, while some sit and wait.

The settlement on the slopes of the mountains that surround the city makes for one of the most picturesque views from Medellín, especially at night, when the sight of thousands of distant lights framing the dark sky is exhilarating from within the park.

"Enjoying an urban space at night is unbelievable here in Medellín," says a local resident at the park. "Until a decade ago people could not even leave their houses to go for a walk here without having their lives threatened."

For landscape architects and urban designers, this project could be a remarkable lesson in how a park can help achieve social change.

Jimena Martignoni is an independent landscape architect and researcher in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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