Book Review: On the Plaza

On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture by Setha M. Low

The construction of public spaces involves politics as much, or even more than, design. This assertion is central to Setha Low's 25-year ethnographic/historical study of two plazas in San José, Costa Rica: Parque Central and Plaza de la Cultura, the former dating back over 200 years and the latter constructed in the 1970s and 80s. The choice of these two plazas highlights their obvious differences in design, demographics, and use, while also allowing the reader to see the similarities in terms of their political construction and renovations over time.

The ordering of Low's book is an interesting one, jumping around in time and in focus, though ultimately giving the reader a broad overview by the end. She starts immediately with "notes from the field," her observations on a number of visits in the 1980s and 90s; this start helps give the book a personal tone that readers wary of academic texts will appreciate. Histories of Latin American, European, and indigenous plazas follow, situating the two Costa Rican plazas within these traditions while disproving a simple attribution of these spaces to one tradition or the other.

After Low establishes the complex intertwining of histories that led to spaces like the Parque Central, she delves into the ethnographical portion of the book. She starts by grounding her work in theories of space, explaining how they inform her approach and giving the reader numerous sources for further information. Her research includes mapping of the two spaces' populations (by gender and age), uses, and movements; in this chapter the differences between the two spaces becomes apparent. What follows is a description of the different means of public protest and their impact on the space itself, and here the similarities become clear, as the local government responds in each case in a manner that serves their interests rather than the public's, or at least no more than a particular subset of the public (middle class, tourists).

The book concludes with conversations and literature on the two spaces, adding more elements to the mix that Low then brings together in her conclusion: that public spaces must be protected, preserved, and fought for. While this conclusion may be fairly obvious to some people, it accomplishes a few things: it situates her site-specific study within a broader context, as the politicization and privatization of public space is happening just about everywhere; it reinforces the importance of these spaces in our daily lives; and it frames the proceeding information in a way that hopefully make the reader more critical of contemporary practices not only abroad but close to home.