SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—For many Americans, El Salvador is most closely associated these days with mass migration, grinding poverty, and gang violence. But the grim headlines mask some signs of hope.
El Salvador’s murder rate has decreased three years in a row (though it’s still the most dangerous country in the Western Hemisphere). It has a young, popular new president who promises to stem migration by making El Salvador livable again. And, here in the capital, a mini revival is underway. Once a treacherous ghost town of open sewers, crumbled buildings, and broken streetlights, San Salvador’s colonial downtown is being fixed up, plaza by plaza. Sidewalks have been reclaimed from vendors, garbage collected, a classic theater reopened. Police and dauntingly well-armed soldiers now patrol the streets to show gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 who’s in control.
Crime remains high downtown, but “life is starting to return,” says Eduardo Rodríguez of Glasswing International, a San Salvador–based foundation that works with the city to combat poverty and violence. “People are beginning to realize that something has changed, that you can bring your family here.” That was unthinkable just five years ago.
The next phase of San Salvador’s revitalization is Parque Cuscatlán. This 17-acre park, the only green space in the capital’s traffic-clogged city center, was regal when it was built back in 1939. But by the 21st century, decades of civil war, state terror, corrupt leadership, and gang violence had shredded El Salvador’s social fabric. After a government-brokered gang truce collapsed in 2015, San Salvador became the murder capital of the world. Parque Cuscatlán deteriorated along with the city, turning into a treacherous no man’s land. Teenage boys menaced visitors for pocket change; driving instructors used its empty pathways to teach students; couples went there for, well, privacy.
“There was no grass here, just dirt,” says Glasswing International’s Mayu Ferrufino, the driving force behind Parque Cuscatlán’s rehabilitation. “In winter it flooded. In summer, dust devils spun” across the park.
Parque Cuscatlán is now the centerpiece of a U.S.-backed effort to reclaim San Salvador from crime. After a $21.4 million face-lift funded by the United States Agency for International Development, the Howard Buffett Foundation, and the mayor’s office, Parque Cuscatlán will reopen in mid-August with manicured lawns, a basketball court, yoga classes, and a 300-seat outdoor amphitheater, among other attractions.
There will be paved paths with clear sightlines—a must for people, particularly women, to feel safe. Two rust-colored walkways inspired by New York City’s High Line traverse the park at tree-canopy level. A somber granite wall is engraved with 25,000 names: El Salvador’s civil war dead.
The redesign is the brainchild of Colombian architect Felipe Uribe, whose socially inclusive parks helped transform Medellín from the most dangerous place on Earth, synonymous with global drug trafficking, into the poster child of urban renewal.
The park is “meant for everyone, from all social classes and across the country. But,” he adds, “the primary target is families. Violence and migration have disintegrated the family in El Salvador. … Families together signal that this is a shared space, a community.”
Two dozen police and security cameras will send another signal about Parque Cuscatlán: This is now occupied territory. And since police in El Salvador are a trigger-happy bunch, officers have been trained to treat all park visitors, even teenage boys with baggy shorts, like citizens—not suspects.
Young men may still avoid the park, predicted Jeannette Aguilar, a security expert at Central American University in San Salvador. The university’s polling shows that Salvadoran men ages 18 to 25 fear police only slightly less than gangs.
The presence of women will be a more important measure of the new park’s success, Ferrufino says. Before its rehabilitation, just 30 percent of park users were women—in a country where, thanks to war and migration, women well outnumber men.
A pleasant and secure public park could be transformative for a place like San Salvador, a sprawled tangle of strip malls and highways. When people want to walk in the city, they have to go to the mall. For safety, they jog in groups of 50.
“The city makes you sick,” says Marcelo Lungo, a Salvadoran urban planner.* “It doesn’t allow you to relax. To feel safe, normal.”
Parque Cuscatlán is part of a broader U.S.-backed effort to reduce violence in El Salvador by reclaiming public space. According to a theory known as “crime prevention through environmental design,” thoughtfully designed, safe, and useful parks make neighborhoods safer by giving at-risk youth a place to engage in productive, legal fun and creating order in chaotic communities.
“The goal is to take back public space and use that as an island in difficult places to re-establish state authority,” says Adam Schmidt, a USAID official who oversaw the agency’s violence prevention work in El Salvador until 2018.
Parks can prevent crime, evidence shows. When researchers at Clemson and North Carolina State universities studied the relationship between green space and crime, they found that everything from burglary to murder dropped in green neighborhoods. But parks only deter crime if they are well designed and maintained, and if they appeal to a diverse range of citizens. Left neglected, they instead attract crime.
Parque Cuscatlán is the most ambitious of several dozen similar urban interventions in El Salvador. This small Central American country is peppered with U.S.-funded soccer fields, sports complexes, and revamped, well-lit plazas.
The building spree may be over. In June, the Trump administration cut $370 million in aid to Central America in retaliation for continued migration from the region. The budget cuts don’t endanger Parque Cuscatlán, whose future is now in the hands of a flush board. But, without U.S. seed funding, similarly creative development projects—initiatives that President Nayib Bukele believes will meaningfully improve quality of life and therefore slow migration—are much less likely in the future.
A park can’t heal San Salvador, a city scarred by ferocious violence and government neglect. Thirty-four percent of its residents live in poverty. Twenty-seven percent say they don’t trust their neighbors. But by rebuilding the local community, Parque Cuscatlán can inspire hope—something Salvadorans desperately need if they’re going to stop fleeing home. The park presages a better future, one where families picnic, women walk alone, and police protect people.
“This project isn’t just about necessities,” says architect Felipe Uribe. “It’s about aspirations.”
Correction, Aug. 5, 2019: This piece originally misspelled the name of urban planner Marcelo Lungo.