By Andreas Papallas
Last month, a list of confidence building measures was published as a result of the on-going negotiations between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.
One of the most radical proposals in the list is the creation of a peace park in the UN buffer zone. While little information – or more accurately, no information whatsoever – was published about the thinking behind this proposal, the capacity of ‘peace parks’ to actually contribute to the building of peace is something taken for granted.
‘Park solutions’ are applied like a Band-Aid, not only in areas of current or former intense conflict such as Baghdad or Berlin, but also between poorly connected areas in London and New York. It is high time we question what a ‘peace park’ actually does and critically think about the implications of such proposals within environments of conflict.
As the logic behind the proposal wasn’t conveyed, let’s make an educated guess on a reasonable sequence of thought that leads to proposing a peace park. Public parks are spaces where people socialise and come together. As such, placed between two adversarial communities they will encourage people to interact. Within a neutral environment people will communicate, potentially achieving a higher humanistic understanding of their communities. They will understand that the small things pulling them apart are insignificant and can be overcome.
Being within nature is intrinsic to this process of peace making. The communities will develop a new sense of ownership to the park and slowly redefine their identity. They will play games together, participate in joint activities, and have fun. Through this process the park will become something greater than green space. It will become the people that it has brought together.
Sounds spectacular, doesn’t it? How about borderline utopian? As much as it feels natural to refute every single point in that narrative, including the notion that neutral environments are actually great, there is some evidence to support some aspects of it.
Let’s take the Taksim Gezi Park in Turkey for example, which is known worldwide for the 2013 protests against turning the park into a shopping mall. While this can be interpreted as an act of love for what the park is, as it has become symbolic to the community, it was not entirely a sign of naturalistic affection. The Gezi Park protests were at their core related to social issues ranging from the freedom of the press and the war in Syria to the authoritarianism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In another instance, the Mauerpark (the ‘Wall Park’) in Berlin has indeed become very popular with regular cultural events and a weekly market attended by many young Berliners (originating from east and west alike). Both parks came to hold powerful cultural significance for their respective publics but was this simply because they were parks?
Would a publicly accessible open space have the same result or is successful landscaping a prerequisite for social interaction? What are the particular qualities that made these parks so successful? There are many questions someone should ask and respond to but perhaps the most important is ‘just what is it about a park that makes it so appropriate to reunite a divided city?’
Parks can bring people together, but can also create ‘dead spaces’ leading to further division. Indeed, parks are beautiful to walk in a sunny Spring day, but can be gloomy and dark for the rest of the time. Another related issue is the need for a programme to activate the park. Left alone, it will at its best days attract family picnics and people that seek for a quiet place to read a book. There are not many scenarios I can think of in which these groups of people will turn to each other and suddenly converse in a life-changing reconciliatory manner.
Arguably, no real interaction even takes place in public space, particularly in parks. People don’t talk to strangers – isn’t that what we’re all told by our parents? This isn’t incredibly radical to suggest. Ash Amin from the University of Cambridge advocates that “the city`s public spaces are not natural servants of multicultural engagement” and “seem to fall short of inculcating interethnic understanding”.
Assuming that people who don’t really like each other will casually converse if put together, they still need something to talk about. That would be the programme, event or activity. Usually events under the ‘peace making’ label are music or film related, suggesting that this joint interest will bring people together.
However, using the peace agenda is problematic as it preaches to the converted. Would an extremist want to join a peace event that aims to reconcile? Could you imagine a Neo-Zionist Israeli and a Palestinian jihadist attending a screening of Budrus; the film about the story of unity between Palestinians and Israelis to save a village from the Israeli Separation Barrier?
Or would the upper class residents of the Manhattan Upper East Side venture into the Spanish Harlem for a taste of La Marquetta? All these reconciliatory activities based on either shared narratives or curiosity in finding about the other, fail to attract the more reserved.
Even if these events did attract the people that need to have conflict transformation experience, the park is still not the appropriate environment. Any ‘peace park’ activity such as ‘the outdoor cinema’, ‘the market’ or ‘the concert’ is temporal leaving the space empty for most of the time when nothing is actually happening.
Even if the ‘peace park’ hosted a Tomorrowland in the buffer zone, no matter how great that would be and the amount of people it would bring together, it would just keep the park active for three days. What about the other 362? Since 121 Tomorrowlands per year is not feasible, it is clear that keeping the park active will be a struggle, if possible at all. An inactive corridor in the middle of the town, especially at the fringes between two communities in conflict, is not very beneficial to say the least.
The problems inherent to ‘peace parks’ are much more and extend beyond the scope of such a short article. However, questions were posed about the capacity of a park to instigate peace and facilitate meaningful interactions, and concerns were voiced about how the peace-making activities do not attract the very people that need to reconcile. Parks can be nice indeed and are a vital element of the urban fabric of any city no doubt, however, that doesn’t mean ‘peace parkification’ is the solution to any urban conflict and implanting one at the buffer zone of Nicosia is irrefutably wrong.
Andreas Papallas is currently undertaking the MPhil Architecture and Urban Design course at the University of Cambridge where he co-founded cDRS Thought.