Mar 25, 2019
by Eric Chavez, MA

Public Spaces Brief: Phase V

I landed at the Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport in El Salvador on the same flight from SFO as ECOPA’s Founding Director, Adele Negro, on Monday morning (March 11, 2019). I had forgotten how exhausting a red-eye can be! Nevertheless, ecstatic to be in the country again for the first time since my fieldwork in 2015 as a first-year graduate student, I was ready to roll up my sleeves again and hit the ground running.

Alighting our plane, Adele introduced me to Rogelio Magaña, a graduate student in his last semester of the Civil Engineering master’s program at the public University of El Salvador (UES) who happened to sit next to Adele on the flight. Coincidentally, he had helped draw up plans for the wharf of Puerto (Pto.) Parada, one of the communities we were on our way to work with in the Lower Lempa region of the Department of Usulután.

His project had fallen through the cracks during the shuffle in municipal administrations after its biggest champion termed out of office. Given Rogelio’s intention to start an engineering firm upon graduating along with three of his classmates, he was eager to learn more about ECOPA’s Public Spaces initiative, including the design and planning projects we were in town to present and the potential for future collaboration.


My first introduction to the Public Spaces initiative was four years ago, when I was fortunate enough to be selected for Middlebury Institute's ninth Team El Salvador to conduct fieldwork in support of a grassroots organization called the Mangrove Association (Mangle). Of the three projects that student fellows were in country to support, I was assigned to the team tasked with building onto the prior year’s report on the potential of public space design to promote viable socioeconomic development regionally.

Gathering the common denominators we found in their wide-reaching 2014 report, our research team selected one of the five small rural communities they used as case studies to conduct a deeper dive. We selected our host community of Ciudad (Cd.) Romero after evaluating it as having the most potential to bring a pilot program to fruition. We then selected Pto. Parada as an example of how such a pilot program could be replicated and adapted in other promising communities.

Later that same year, the findings from our 2015 report informed a paper co-authored by Adele, Max Rohm (of the University of Buenos Aires) and Dr. Rachel Berney (of the University of Washington - Seattle), which was presented at the 9th International Conference of the International Forum on Urbanism the following year in Buenos Aires.

Our report also helped to inform a community design and development studio, which investigated conceptual design and policy solutions for both communities with Dr. Berney's students in the autumn of 2016, for which Adele served as both adviser and client. Unfortunately, the students were not permitted to travel to El Salvador to see the physical spaces for themselves due to escalating rates of violence at the time. Now that ECOPA has scaled into a nonprofit and the violence has subsided, this 2019 visit represents the Public Spaces initiative's fifth phase and the very first under the official auspices of ECOPA.


It was also at the airport that I finally had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Berney in person, as well as her former graduate student, now independent consultant, Cheryl Klotz, who worked on Pto. Parada in the studio. Cheryl served as the lead editor on the studio book, Design for Resilience, which highlights the students' work (copies of which were warmly received by our partners). She also co-wrote a paper with fellow graduate students on Regenerative and Sustainable Community Economic Development for Pto. Parada in Dr. Joaquín Herranz Jr.’s course with the Evans School of Public Policy.

That afternoon, Dr. Berney and Cheryl presented a bird's eye view of the results of the studio to our partners, Mangle and its sister organization, the Cincahuite Association (cincahuite is the Nahuat [or Nawat] word for the white mangrove species). Relying on Adele as interpreter, as we'd continue doing throughout our entire trip, they explained to community leaders the small-, intermediate- and large-scale principles (42 in total) that informed the work each group of students created for both Cd. Romero and Pto. Parada, highlighting connections between them and their applicable designs.

Ciudad (Cd.) Romero

On Tuesday (March 12), we also presented the studio's applicable design and planning ideas to the leadership of Cd. Romero, represented by a member of their local governance body (the Community Development Association [ADESCO]), and members of its various committees. After a round of introductions from everyone present and a summary by Adele of the context and history leading up to the design and development studio, Cheryl identified the principles that guided Cd.Romero's designs - underscoring the macro-concepts:

  1. Building Capacity
  2. Cultivating Resilience
  3. Knowing Your Community
  4. Sizing Efforts Appropriately
  5. Supporting Community Health
  6. Systems Thinking

Dr. Berney and Cheryl went on to explain how those principles applied to each design:

  • Medicinal Garden
  • FIFA Regulation Soccer Field
  • Children's Park
  • Multi-Use Stage
  • Youth Center
  • Farmers' Market area

Although we seemed to struggle to convey the concepts behind their designs as effectively as we would've liked, they all seemed to be enthusiastic about the design and planning projects themselves, which they recognized were in response to the needs they had been identifying over the previous four phases of our work. They really took ownership of their designs once they began modifying them to suit their needs even more.

One woman, for example, suggested adding a path around the park for exercise encouraged by physicians from the health clinic across the street. We made sure to convey to them that they were in fact the experts here, and that the design and planning proposals were merely suggestions based on their recorded feedback.

On Thursday morning (March 14), we held an additional meeting to engage more informally in an exchange with key local leaders. We learned more about their desire for schools of agriculture and music, as well as for vocational training for local mechanics who could support their community by repairing and maintaining vehicles for more reliable transportation to/from larger markets in cities like Jiquilisco and Usulután, where they could sell their produce.

We also learned about some of the most prevalent challenges and opportunities the attendees felt their community faced, like picacheros and coyotes (local, independent, pick-up truck operators who deliver people and/or goods to/from more remote communities not serviced by public transportation), not to mention how their existing annual tax is collected and the viability of increasing it to a monthly tax in support of further community improvements.

Puerto (Pto.) Parada

Wednesday's (March 13) presentation to the fishing communities and cooperatives of Pto. Parada, represented by members of Cincahuite and local ADESCO leaders, went very smoothly. They really seemed to understand and feel energized by the underlying principles and even more so when they saw how each design corresponded to a subset of those principles. They expressed appreciation for how closely the Studio Design class seemed to have heeded what they, as a community of fishers, primarily needed and how they could achieve some of their larger ideas with smaller steps.

For example, one design suggested beginning with a small galpón (a storehouse/shed on stilts above the islets of water that form at high-tide) to securely store motors, tools and refrigerated fish - like the one I photographed above. The design is then to gradually add square footage to include a sink and an area to clean/prepare the fish for market. Eventually, it could accommodate a comedor (a sit-down diner or canteen) that could generate enough profits to further fund additional design implementations.

The other three designs Dr. Berney and Cheryl presented included:

  • Facilities for Clean Fishing Operations
  • Right-Size Ecotourism
  • Creating Economic and Social Networks

Change of Pace

We reserved our weekend for outings that gave us a bit of a break from an intensive week and its intense heat but which could still inform our work. On Saturday (March 16), we toured a farm under contract with the Ministry of Agriculture to grow the H-59 hybrid variety of corn. Their seeds are distributed to small-scale farmers all over the country, a contract that was wrested from Monsanto some years ago to great acclaim.

Later, we toured Puerto El Triunfo, another fishing community with a thriving local tourism business, to glean ideas for the small-scale ecotourism enterprise desired by Pto. Parada. Finally, we drove up the Tecapa volcano to the town of Alegría, known for its handicrafts, artisanal chocolate and the nearby Laguna de Alegría: an emerald green, sulfuric, crater lake rumored to have medicinal powers and a siren who lures men to their deaths.

On Sunday (March 17), we lathered up on sunscreen and headed out in a small motorboat on the Lempa River towards the Bay of Jiquilisco to tour some of the canals of mangrove forests that ECOPA works to help protect with Mangle, Cincahuite and key organizations like EcoViva. These forests provide natural resources imperative to local economies that depend on them, but whose stewardship is also critical to the health of the ecosystem.

Later that afternoon, we also visited Isla Montecristo, a small ecotourist destination. After a siesta-inducing lunch of freshly-caught red snapper and snook washed down with fresh coconut water straight from the fruit, we informally interviewed one of the island’s ADESCO members for insights on the struggles such communities face and what lessons might prove relevant to aspiring ecotourist destinations like Pto. Parada.

Looking Ahead

Many of the meetings throughout our sojourn were intended to help spur the decision-making needed at the local level, primarily to outline the next steps in the implementation of the design and planning projects that came out of Dr. Berney’s studio. In addition, Adele arranged several interviews to support Dr. Berney’s first-hand research on the comparative effects of gang violence on communal well-being and public space use. A third component of our meetings focused on preparing the next phases of ECOPA's other two initiatives: our Clean Fishing Consultancy and the Farmer-to-Farmer Exchange.

We met with the leadership of a vibrant community named after a Jesuit priest, Amando López, one of six who were martyred in El Salvador’s civil war. As we toured their public spaces, we learned more about how its culture of shared responsibility for its communal spaces is a pivotal part of its success. Taking into account some of their biggest challenges, we also reflected on ways to replicate that culture in Cd. Romero.

We later met with Dr. Wilberto Rivas, director of the one-of-a-kind renal clinic in Cd. Romero, to present the studio design and planning proposals and discuss how we might partner with them in developing one of the proposals, a medicinal garden, as a proof of concept for investors interested in funding the implementation of more of the projects. Dr. Rivas was very enthusiastic and plans to share the designs with his supervisor, the regional clinics director, as well as with local stakeholders and potential partners at a large convening already planned for late-April.

On our last day in Cd. Romero (March 18), we had an extensive wrap-up meeting with Mangle's board of directors, to summarize our activities on the ground and look ahead to follow-up actions and shared commitments, including the formal signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) later this year. We also indicated our intention to sign an MOU with Mangle’s sister organization, Cincahuite - a logical next step after working so closely with them over the past six years. We are also considering different methods of sharing information to ensure our findings are readily accessible and can be leveraged by all.

This includes disseminating ECOPA's research and reports more widely within the communities we work as well as to other key stakeholders. An example of such includes a potential collaboration with Radio Mangle, a local youth-led radio station based at Mangle's offices in Cd. Romero, to conduct interviews with each visiting/working delegation. Given the importance of the radio station's role in the region, such interviews would connect more easily with those unable to read while also giving the young producers substantive material to work with and further promoting their broadcasts to an international audience.

San Salvador

Immediately after checking into our hotel in the capital city, we met with Rodrigo Bolaños, an inspiring businessman and former president of the collegiate outfitter company, League, who is now devoting his considerable entrepreneurial skills to achieving his personal goal of creating 100k new jobs in El Salvador over the next five years. He shared some incredibly valuable context and advice about wealth creation in the kinds of rural communities we work with, which we plan to seriously consider as our work progresses.

The day before I flew back home from El Salvador, we presented the design and planning proposals from Dr. Berney’s studio as well as our observations from the Lower Lempa to staff and faculty of the Architecture and Territorial Development department at the private Central American University (la UCA), the country's premier Jesuit university. They shared their own areas of research focus and offered suggestions regarding possible collaborations with ECOPA.

Particularly compelling was the interest expressed by Andrew Cummings, director of the Territorial Development master's program, to explore la UCA's desire to internationalize its campus and develop a program with us that could bring graduate students from abroad to gain solid development experience side-by-side with their own students.

Next Steps

It was important for ECOPA to convey in all of our presentations and meetings that a lot of work would be required on all our parts in order for the design and planning projects to be implemented in a relevant and empowering future manner:

  • For their part, the communities and their representative associations will have to select the design(s) they consider most needed and most feasible. They will then have to put together a list of materials, supplies and resources required to create that design, from which a detailed estimate of the costs involved would be drawn up. At that point, ECOPA could join these communities in a search for funding.
  • On ECOPA’s part, the next steps are significant as well. Given that only last month we published our official website and a seven-minute video introducing our work, it’s only now that we have the tools necessary to launch a large-scale fundraising campaign. Once we can secure funding for staff, office space, materials, etc., we'll be able to focus our full attention on our partners and the next phase of the Public Spaces initiative.

We've managed to get this far with the unflagging skills and commitment of volunteers. Imagine what could be accomplished with a staff! In fact, we're happy to share that our first fundraising event has already been scheduled for the 8th of May in Oakland at the Piedmont Piano Company! Stay tuned-in to our blog to learn more.

The potential for growth from this delegation and fieldwork is substantial. To echo the hopes expressed by our Salvadoran partners on behalf of ECOPA, "we seek investors willing to fund our work so that we can continue to effect positive transformation among the communities we support - and beyond."

Photo Credits (1) Main Street, (2) Soccer Fields: Josh Feinberg; (3) Small Galpón, (4) Mangrove Tour, (5) La UCA Presentation: Eric Chávez; and (6) 5th Public Spaces Delegation: Adele Negro.