Parks in North American cities could really take a lesson from this one in Recife, Brazil.
For the past month, I’ve been staying in Recife, a city of 4 million on the northeastern coast of Brazil that also happens to be one of my favourite places in the world. Despite being a beach city, with a spectacular 5-mile stretch of sand and turquoise water along its edge, Recife lacks the laidback vibe of most beach cities. Instead, it’s a rough and gritty sort of place, full of industry and, unfortunately, much violence and poverty.
The presence of violence here has influenced the landscape. Many people live in apartment buildings with 24-hour guards. There are military police at major intersections. Car traffic has increased dramatically in recent years, due to growing prosperity, cheap credit, and a desire to avoid walking on the street.
Walking is dangerous for a number of reasons. During the day, you’re at risk of getting hit by cars and motorcycles who expect pedestrians to get out of the way, or falling into any number of giant gaping holes in the sidewalks that are narrow and poorly maintained. Few people walk after 9 p.m. for fear of being robbed by kids wielding guns, knives, or broken glass.
The result is a middle and upper class society that finds alternative places to socialize and exercise safely, rather than using the streets as social spaces. The beach and shopping malls are popular destinations, as well as a few select parks.
Since I’m here with my young children, who need to get out of the apartment and run around on a daily basis, I’ve been delighted to discover Jaqueira Park, or Parque da Jaqueira, as it’s called in Portuguese. Inaugurated in 1985, the park is a famous landmark in Recife’s north end and draws crowds of nature-seeking Brazilians, particularly on weekends and holidays.
The park is a fantastic example of a multi-use space that has been carefully designed to accommodate as many different functions as possible, for people of all ages and abilities.
Jaqueira, which is named after the jackfruit tree, is huge by Brazilian standards. It covers 7 hectares in the middle of the densely packed city and offers a shady, green oasis in the sweltering tropical heat. Every time I take the kids to play there, I discover more features that make this park truly impressive.
For those seeking play, there are separate, complete playgrounds for toddlers, small children, older children, and those with special needs. What amuses me most is the lack of plastic equipment and spongy rubber ground coverings; these playgrounds are the type that would strike fear into many a North American parent’s heart, but I’m happy to let my kids explore. All equipment is either made of wood or metal. There are precariously high slides, monkey bars, swings, and even a couple zip lines.
A large chunk of the park is dedicated to a BMX track, where kids and adults alike can either rent or bring their own bikes to race along the dirt track.
For exercise, there is a 1-kilometre paved track that winds through the park, with lane markers for runners and walkers and the option of steep concrete hills and steps for those who want the extra challenge. Distance is marked in 100-metre increments. There are separate tracks for roller skates, strollers, and bicycles.
There are two outdoor workout stations – one with the usual machines and weights you’d find in a gym, and the other with ingenious homemade weights made of rebar stuck into poured concrete.
Breakdancers congregate in the centre of the park, where there’s a large stage and always a willing audience. Nearby you can watch teenagers practicing parkour and impressive gymnastics moves.
Then there’s the food – vendors everywhere selling the sort of treats you’d eat at a fair. Since Jaqueira is famous for its fruit trees, there are fruit vendors located at the entrance, where you can buy a heaping plate of chopped, chilled fresh fruit for 6 reais ($2 USD). Pineapple, papaya, mango, oranges, bananas – you name it, they’ve got it.
It’s wonderful to see such a vibrant, verdant, and safe space in the midst of this dense urban area, and I sincerely hope that Recife will use Jaqueira Park as a model to revitalize other parks within its city core.