Urban public spaces as representations of culture: The plaza in Costa Rica

Low, S. M.

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Low, S. M. (1997). Urban public spaces as representations of culture: The plaza in Costa Rica. Environment and Behavior, 29(1), 3–33. https://doi.org/10.1177/001391659702900101

Cultural Representations , Participant Observation , Plazas , Public Space , Spatial Representations , Spatial Symbolism

This article illustrates how spatial/cultural representations come into being with data collected during a 7-month ethnographic study of two plazas, the Parque Central and the Plaza de la Culture in San José, the capital city of Costa Rica. The comparison of their history, physical and spatial symbolism, user activities and daily behaviors, and news reports and commentaries demonstrates how these cultural representations reflect meanings that change in response to the material conditions and social values of the historical period. Further, the analysis uncovers that moral contradictions in those meanings are expressed first in the traditional plaza setting, and then, are transformed into contradictions across both plazas.

Main finding
This study of two plazas in Costa Rica reveals how the meanings, social values, and physical conditions of plazas all change together over time. That is, even if similar activities are carried out in the same space over time, their underlying meanings can be very different. Transformations in public plazas over time can represent, among other thing, changing political dynamics, of which narratives in media can both reflect and influence.

Description of method used in the article
Observations and interviews associated with two plazas in San José, Costa Rica: Parque Central and Plaza de la Culture. Data collection occurred across three periods in 1986, 1987, and 1993. Field work in each plaza consisted of (a) observations organized by sector, (b) observations organized by activity type, and (c) participant observation. Interviews were also conducted with plaza users, as well as representatives of other groups (e.g., managers, owners, and directors of local institutions), and historians. Historical and media documents are also analyzed.

Of some practical use if combined with other research

Organising categories

Performance/Cultural Expression
Field Observations Interviews
Environmental Psychology
Physical types
Geographic locations