Along the banks of the Almendares River is Parque Almendares, also known as Bpsque de La Haband (Havana’s Forest). This is the only urban forest in the city and is a recreational area for Habaneros that includes activities such as children’s playground, pony rides, mini-golf, boating and open-air snack bar. Also located here is Anfiteatro Almendares, the only amphitheater in Cuba designed for string-operated puppets where both children and adults can enjoy puppet shows, concerts, magic acts, etc.
Cool Days, Hot Nights: Parque Metropolitano
by Conner Gorry
On a hot summer night a little riverside amphitheater thrums with a thousand voices, the sweaty, cathartic chorus reaching deep into the surrounding woods. While young punks and pretty debutantes perch in giant jacarandas for a bird’s eye view of the onstage party, Cuba’s future IM their friends about what they’re missing. And what they’re missing is historic.
On this and similar incandescent Havana evenings, Cuban musicians have resuscitated one of the giants of 20th-century urbanism in a series of raucous outdoor concerts in enchanting venues like the Parque Almendares Amphitheater and the Jardines de la Tropical.
Today, both are part of Havana’s Gran Parque Metropolitano, a 700-hectare park currently undergoing an ambitious restoration plan that includes retrofitting and reforesting, environmental protection, neighborhood revitalization, and cultural activities like these concerts. Parque Metropolitano–one of the world’s greatest but least known urban parks–was the dream project of French landscape architect and city planner Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier, best known for the Eiffel Tower’s Champs-de-Mars gardens and the Parc de la Ciutadella in Barcelona.
Forestier worked in Havana from 1925 to 1930 with a distinguished group of French and local planners, pulling elements from both Frederick Law Olmstead’s City Beautiful Movement and designs by Cuban architects, notably Pedro Martínez Inclán. Such crosspollination allowed Forestier to develop plans that modernized Havana’s urban explosion, while simultaneously ensuring an autochthonous, authentically Cuban feel (a synergy echoed by the musicians lighting up the park’s stages). Anyone who has visited Havana knows Forestier’s work, including the University of Havana’s grand Escalinata, the Paseo del Prado, and Parque Central. Further determined to “green” the city while it grew, Forestier drew up a plan for what he called the Gran Parque Nacional.
Ultimately Forestier’s dream of a series of linked parks and plazas creating a green corridor from the sea to the city’s farthest reaches, incorporating large swaths of the Río Almendares watershed, went unrealized. That is, except for one: the Bosque de la Habana, a propagated urban jungle on the banks of the Río Almendares. Once looming large as a place for thieves and assorted ne’er-do-wells, illicit trysts, and ritualism, today the Bosque is a lush hot spot for model shoots and wedding photos; families on a Sunday stroll among the giant trees and wall of green is also a common sight.
This is largely thanks to the Parque Metropolitano restoration project. Comprised of the Parque Almendares, its Bosque, the Jardines de la Tropical, and other green areas within the watershed, the project aims to revive parts of Forestier’s designs while preserving and re-invigorating “Havana’s lung.” This is not public relations environmentalism, but mandatory, if the city is to thrive–and survive–in this century says Yociel Marrero, Vice Director of Research & Development for the revitalization project.
What at first smacks of hyperbole by a self-described “urban human” prone to panic attacks in the countryside, Marrero’s assessment makes sense: if this part of Havana develops unchecked, overrunning the few remaining green spaces, it will have a domino effect on the city as a whole. The trees are critical because they produce sorely needed oxygen. The river too, is integral to Havana’s survival, because it feeds the aqueducts that provide our drinking water. Lastly, this urban park is unusual in that it encompasses neighborhoods that have grown up within it. Indeed, funky guitar riffs and redolent lyrics drift up and into the surrounding houses on concert nights at the amphitheater and the Jardines.
And this was Forestier’s intent all along, to foment the “fusion of nature, architecture and city,” in magnificent natural spaces at the service of Habaneros and their lifestyles. This is why plans for the Gran Parque Metropolitano, (initiated in 1962, shelved until 1989, interrupted a few years later due to economic crisis, but definitively revived in 1995); necessitate close community participation at every stage. Which wasn’t easy: neighborhoods falling within the park are some of Havana’s toughest, like El Fanguito and Pogolotti.
“From day one we sought help from these communities in project planning and implementation. We had to, it’s their backyard we’re talking about,” says Marrero. “Today, these people are the most fervent protectors and defenders of the project.” But it’s a process, explains Marrero, involving a change in culture, customs, and habits.
The Bosque de la Habana, for instance, has been a sacred Santería site since shortly after Forestier planted the trees. For decades, adherents have headed there to deposit eggs, plastic bags stuffed with sacrifices, and other offerings at the base of the great trees, as well as to perform more elaborate rituals. Take a quick dip into the Bosque and you’ll see (and smell) the proof in offerings of all types peppering the paths, plus candles arranged in mysterious circles and motley cloths tied around trees trunks in honor of different saints. Rather than ban the historic-religious practice in the name of beautification, park planners, in collaboration with the community, forged a solution: certain designated trees now have signs saying ‘please lay offerings here.’
The strategy of involving the community to find local solutions is working, especially in the Río Almendares clean-up effort and reforestation of the Bosque de la Habana – which a few years ago looked more like the Savannah de la Habana, quips Marrero. “The future of the project depends on us. We need to develop the park for the benefit of the city and ourselves,” emphasizes Marrero, channeling Forestier.
Musicians from the park’s concert series are also channeling Forestier. Contemporary and archetypically Cuban as they rock audiences with songs of exile and blackouts, revolution and sexy mulattas, they’re realizing Forestier’s dream of a modern Havana pumping with urban art. So successful were the initial concerts in the series, they’re slated to become a fixture on the city’s cultural calendar.
You may not need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, just a cement bench at the Almendares amphitheater or a space on the Jardines dance floor.