What landscape architects and urban designers can learn about public space from Cuba

Landscape architect Sam Valentine takes a look at how the totalitarian state hosts some of the most democratic public spaces.

This article was produced by and originally featured on CommonEdge

It was certainly what I had come for: I was sitting on broad, cobbled steps, watching people interact in the public realm. It was an August afternoon in Cuba, and I had found temporary respite from the harsh sun beneath a haphazard array of trees. My design work as a landscape architect focuses on urban parks, streetscapes, and academic campuses, and I wanted to see how differently the open spaces of Cuba might function. 

Something about the scene immediately reminded me of Kevin Lynch, the great urban planner and theorist best known for his influential 1960 book, The Image of the City. A half-decade before that sun-drenched afternoon, I was just starting to manage projects for the first time, so it seemed like a diversion to be rummaging through the contents of a dead man’s filing cabinet. At the end of his life, Lynch’s various manuscripts, papers, and sketches were bequeathed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they are now housed in an archive. My boss, principal of Richard Burck Associates, was interested in Lynch’s theories of urban perception and how they might overlap with the legacies of landscape design. As a result, I was tasked with flipping through nearly every page of the Lynch archives, taking notes, and filling out a multitude of reproduction-request forms.

One loose photograph in Box #8 stood out. Neither the location nor the photographer is documented, but the significance of the image leaps from the print. Two human forms—perhaps day laborers, college students, or drunks—lie supine in the small island of shade cast by a young tree in an otherwise open lawn. Reading as clearly as a diagram, the image captures landscape inhabitants seeking refuge from the beating sun, and the clarity of this snapshot lodged itself in my mind.

Then, in the summer of 2016, I arrived in Havana, Cuba. Land of Russian missiles and classic American cars. Cold wars and cold shoulders. An embargo of goods and of people, consequently, frozen in time. As an estadounidense entering Cuba for the first time, I became aware of the cultural baggage I was carrying and quickly saw it slough off. From the immigration desk forward, I did not encounter a trace of this forewarned coldness. Cuba was all warmth in its sincerity of smiles and the height of its mercury.

For 10 days I followed the scenic loop I had plotted through the island’s countryside villages, traveling by foot, bus, modern taxi, and, of course, Cuba’s famed almendrones, which were just as muscular, colorful, and bondo-ed together as my guidebook had promised. The trip was by no means long enough, but across the provinces of Matanzas, Villa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Cienfuegos, and La Habana I was able to see urban and rural; beaches, farm fields, and mountains; and streets flanked with a contradiction of modern buildings and famed colonial architecture.

At the time I traveled, U.S. citizens were enjoying a brief window during which we were permitted to conduct self-guided research trips to Cuba, but the preparation of certain bureaucratic paperwork was technically required. Ostensibly, I was in the country to “research, on a full-time basis, unique Cuban approaches to landscape architectural design of parks and public squares.” As I sweat through my new guayabera, this notarized statement I kept on my person was not far from the truth. I spent hours observing the many ways in which Cuba’s streets, squares, and promenades were being used. Around noon one day, I had an embarrassingly late epiphany under the blazing sun.

Urban theorist Jan Gehl, in his first chapter of Life Between Buildings, streamlines all human outdoor activity into three categories: “necessary activities, optional activities, and social activities.” Necessary activities include pedestrians’ requisite commutes to work and school, delivering mail and packages, and point-to-point errands. Optional activities, which include walking or jogging for exercise, “standing around enjoying life, or sitting and sunbathing,” occur only when “weather and place invite” people to perform them. Social activities, which build upon the presence of other people partaking in the necessary and the optional, include “children at play, greetings and conversations, communal activities … [and] the most widespread social activity … simply seeing and hearing other people.”

With a hard Cuban sun overhead, the open spaces sorted out Gehl’s activities like a sieve before my eyes. At midday in the town of Trinidad, visitors lounged together on the edges of Plaza Mayor, participating in a mixture of optional and social activities on a tall curb shaded by a single-story colonial building. Hours later, with the sun a bit to the west, the sliver of shade had disappeared, and the same piece of plaza had become inhospitable. Now the only people to be seen were in the distance, bunched beneath the shady sanctuary of trees.

While Plaza Mayor was tracing a simple diagram of comfort vs. discomfort due to solar exposure, things got even more interesting in the northeast corner. The surface of the plaza turns uphill, reminiscent of Rome’s Spanish Steps, and a half-dozen trees sprawl benevolently over the cobbled terraces, the place I described in my opening sentences. Here, people were hunkered over their phones in something of an organic Venn diagram, drawn where the visible outline of the trees’ shadows overlapped with the invisible radius of a public WiFi hub.

When a person walks along an urban streetscape, there are tacit rules of the road. The orientation may be flipped from Manhattan to Melbourne, but these unwritten—and often unconscious—regulations enable masses of strangers to move in (relatively) smooth currents along streets and sidewalks. As an urbanist, I have been cognizant of them for a decade, and yet there I was, bumping into pedestrians on the sidewalks of Havana, feeling like a fish out of water

Despite my failure to pick up promptly on the local logic of human movement, the habaneros were patient. For a time I was left with a subtle but deep-seated unease, but once I learned my lesson it stuck: extreme sun exposure calls for an improvisation of pedestrian flows. To put it more bluntly, Cuba’s unwritten sidewalk rule is as follows: “always keep to your right … unless the sun is too hot.”

While Gehl makes clear that optional and social activities are dictated by environmental quality, what I saw was extreme heat and glare diverting even the necessary pedestrian travel into the shade, even when it required a pedestrian to take a longer route with extraneous street crossings.

From my childhood in Georgia, I can only fuzzily recall some idiom about “even dogs being smart enough to sit in the shade.” It is not lost on me that all of the observations I am sharing here could be labeled common sense. However, despite the clear influence that the sun has on human comfort, solar-exposure analysis all too often comes as an afterthought to grand pattern-making, architectural expression, and materiality.

In spite of the totalitarian government the world hears so much about, the Cuban public spaces I observed appeared less prescriptive, more flexible, and—unless it was all a complex ruse—far more democratic than the majority of parks and streetscapes in the U.S. There was an informal and imperceptible blending of public ways to semiprivate stoops that, coupled with low-speed, pedestrian-prioritized streets, made for socially active, flexible urban centers.

The design of the public realm should respond not only to people and not only to nature. Broad, flexible, and varied landscapes preserve the ability of pedestrians to informally drift and seek shade (or, as in Boston during the winter, seek sun), and this is critical to the casual lingering of users. The sun all but determines the success of an open space, and when urban planners, architects, and landscape architects ignore its impacts, they do so at their own peril. Like Lynch’s striking photo, the lessons I learned in Cuba have bu rned into my memory and carried into my professional practice: The link between the sun and the humans who depend on it is undeniable and inescapable.

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