by Cody Leigh Brooks
I first became aware of Huertas del Cura while sitting in a sparsely populated Vancouver pub in early May. Across from me was Jane McRae, the former director of Sustainable Cities International, and Daniel Ross, who had interned with the program in 2012. Daniel had been sharing his experience as an intern in Los Cabos when he made an offhand remark about a project completed two years earlier in the Mexican city of Colima: “I learned so much from Huertas del Cura.”
Intrigued, I asked for details; a query to which Daniel responded by reaching into his front pocket and pulling out a cell phone.
“Watch this video,” he said as his fingers scrolled over the screen.
I arrived in Colima one month ago. Living alone for the first time in a number of years has afforded me a lot of time to reflect on many aspects of my life: career decisions; my relationship; returning to school; my inability to cook. Learning a new language has been a struggle – working in it even more so. In the past month I have often stood in awe of the endlessly varied strings of syllables I encounter daily, wondering if I will ever be able to decipher them. My social life is great – if only I could converse.
Two weeks ago, I was reminded once again of Huertas del Cura. I had been sitting at my desk staring into the blackness of my computer screen with a feigned look of thoughtful reflection plastered on my face. Mulling in anxiety, the conversation I had had with Daniel and Jane slowly seeped into my consciousness. Daniel’s enthusiasm made me nervous. “The project was a huge success,” he said. To my anxious brain this sounded more like, “the bar is high.” Still, I wanted to know what a successful project looked like, so I loaded the video to watch it once more
Six years ago, Huertas del Cura was a project in complete disarray. Initiated by the municipality some years prior, it had been lost amongst growing stacks of paper and forgotten by an ever-changing list of bureaucrats and government officials. For many living in the neighbouring communities, the park and recreation centre seemed to be yet another item in a lengthy list of broken promises.
One day, an unknown, English-speaking female arrived and started asking questions about the park. Unaware of this stranger’s intentions, the community grew uneasy and rumours quickly spread that gringos were going to buy the space and convert it into a hotel or shopping mall. In the video documenting the Huertas del Cura project, this anxiety is recounted through the words of a soft-spoken older woman: “The gringos are coming and they are going to take away our park,” she says through a half-smile.
The stranger, however, was not the shrewd American businesswoman the community feared, but Emma Cohlmeyer, a recent sociology graduate from the University of Guelph. She had arrived in Colima as part of the Sustainable Cities International Internship Program, the same program Daniel had been discussing during our chat in Vancouver.
As the community learned more about Emma, their anxiety gradually turned to optimism and action. Initially brought together out of a desire to save their park from an imaginary businesswoman, they shifted their focus and fought instead to save their park from the municipal dustbin. In the first few seconds of the video clip, we see the results of this effort: bright colours, inspirational quotes, and variegated children’s handprints covering the concrete walls of an outdoor sports facility. Then, the video’s title card: “In 2010 and 2011 Huertas del Cura in Colima, Mexico, was redesigned through a process of participatory planning.
By many measures the project was a success: the community got their park; Emma was invited to speak at a development conference in Mexico City; the mayor of Colima promoted the project heavily, and encouraged other communities to follow suite. Today, in Colima’s Institute of Planning, tucked away on a bookshelf, rests a manual based on Emma’s experience: “The Participatory Process for the Design of Public Spaces.”
That afternoon, I went to Huertas del Cura to see it for myself. Certainly, I had expected some change, but the structure that I found there scarce resembled the one that I had seen in the video. The vivid colours, inspirational quotes, and children’s handprints had been replaced by peeling paint and graffiti-covered blank spaces. Venturing closer, the smell of burning refuse filled my nostrils, providing a stark contrast to the sounds of children laughing as they kicked a soccer ball across stadium’s cement floor. Earlier that afternoon I had wondered what I might feel should I encounter what seemed then to be such an unlikely scene. Would I feel a sense of perverse delight at the sight of my crumbling competition? I hoped otherwise, but I have always been competitive.
Yet, as I looked over the multicolored decay of Huertas del Cura any feelings of pleasure that may have been were quickly overshadowed by confusion and sadness: the people I had seen in the video were full of optimism and hope. This was their project. What happened?
As I walked home from Huertas del Cura that evening I began thinking about what I want to get out of my time here in Colima. When I first arrived, I had wanted to start a project on which I could place my own mental signature; something that would reach the high bar that I believed had been set for me by Huertas del Cura. Perhaps, I had hoped, such a project might even be impressive enough to get me a decent job somewhere – whatever that might be. But seeing Huertas del Cura had made me curious. What had happened there? In the span of just a few years, the park had gone from a forgotten project, to one that the community seemed to rally behind, to the decay that now exists: why? And how could I prevent the same thing from happening to future projects?
Two weeks later I still don’t know the answer to these questions, though I am starting to become aware of their significance. Perusing the project list at Colima’s Institute of Planning, it is clear that the park occupies a position of unique status in the city; indeed, the manual that came out of Emma’s experience has become accepted as part of the norms and regulations that serve to monitor the organization’s efforts. The problem then is this: what happens if Huertas del Cura does not work? What does that mean for those projects that are yet to come and following in its lead? Are they doomed? There is certainly much that we can learn from Huertas del Cura. For the next five months I am going to do my best to listen.