In Peru, a grassroots organization gives public spaces back to citizens

A parklet developed as an urban intervention by Ocupa tu Calle in Lima, Peru. Photo by: Ocupa tu Calle

LIMA, Peru — One man rests while another reads, both lounging on recycled wood benches in Lima’s populous outer San Juan de Lurigancho district.

The Línea Uno rapid transit train rumbles loudly on its tracks overhead, but the small square of public space near the Los Jardines station is busy nonetheless. “Probetas” — leftover cylindrical pieces of concrete from a local manufacturer — line the small patches of grass. Stacked wood platforms provide a place to rest beneath a wooden canopy. A large chalkboard perched beneath the train track pylon awaits colorful drawings to invigorate the otherwise grey, fume-filled cityscape.

This is one of 17 interventions organized in the past two years by Ocupa tu Calle, a Lima-based grassroots organization born out of COP 20 and affiliated with citizen observatory Lima Cómo Vamos, which promotes the recovery of disused or misused city spaces through localized urban interventions.

But in San Juan de Lurigancho, several probetas have been uprooted from the landscape and strewn across the grounds. Gravel litters the stacked platform benches, and at their base, discarded plastic bags, candy wrappers and cardboard mar the tiny green spaces.

“People are not used to occupying public spaces,” Lucía Nogales, architect and Ocupa tu Calle coordinator, told Devex. “And they are not used to taking care of them. This is what we are trying to change.”

Ocupa tu Calle wants to improve the city for citizens, not just for cars and drivers.

One of their first interventions — installing a mini park with benches outside of a popular grocery store the Miraflores district — was at first a failure for this reason, she said.

“No one was using it,” she explained. “To many people, the city is a hostile place, not somewhere to enjoy or relax, not somewhere for them. They thought they had to pay to sit there.”

It wasn’t until the group installed “Free to sit!” signs, which they now include in all of their interventions, that citizens began enjoying the public space. The grocery store even reported a bump in sales following its opening.

Nogales hopes to use this data to attract other private businesses that may want to engage with Ocupa to Calle, which means “occupy your street,” to transform an unused space. Right now, the group actively reaches out to local governments to gauge interest, as well as accepts ideas from citizens or from architecture students at Catholic University of Peru, which acts as a frequent partner in their efforts.

Recently, in one small neighborhood, the organization partnered with two local NGOs and the local government to transform a parking lot into a park at the request of several citizens.

Those who were illegally charging for parking on the public land were unhappy to see their extra income generator reinvented as a children’s playground. But it started a conversation in the community, Nogales said, and sometimes that’s enough. When Ocupa tu Calle takes on an intervention, people who had previously never given a second thought to public spaces come outside to ask what Ocupa tu Calle is doing, and why.

“Maybe they’re angry at first, but they’re engaged, they are participating,” she added. “Sometimes that little conflict creates the spark in citizen engagement, so overall it’s good.”

Among Lima’s 43 districts, some local governments are especially collaborative. A handful of mayors have stepped up and are supportive of Ocupa’s efforts. Others “don’t give you the time of day,” Nogales said. “I think with time, time, time … this will change.”

Right now, the group is working on creating a toolbox, complete with legal advice for both governments and citizens who wish to spearhead their own public space interventions, along with guidance on how to keep up the spaces once Ocupa steps away from it.  

“Our interventions are not built to last forever,” Nogales said. “The idea is that they demonstrate the impact and generate citizen, government and enterprise engagement, then they take it from there in the second phase.”

The organization also hopes to spearhead new efforts and link citizen movements together with the launch of an online mapping platform, funded by the Avina Foundation, where citizens can identify where they’d like to see an Ocupa tu Calle intervention, or even report if a public space is being used inappropriately.

It’s an exciting time to be part of this citizen-led movement in Lima, Nogales said. There is not yet a clear legal context to defend public spaces that the government may be renting to a private business — and Lima, to her, still feels far from holding the buzz word title of “smart city” — but several citizen groups have mobilized to change this.

Already, several members of Peru’s Congress are working on a law to protect public space, Nogales added, and have been requesting comments from Ocupa tu Calle and other engaged citizens to make sure the law reflects their wishes.

“We don’t want to fight with the government, we want to work together and convince them what is good for the city,” Nogales said. “This movement can be strong,” she said. “Right now it’s cooking, but it will boil soon.”

Over six weeks, Devex and our partners will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.