Sunday afternoon, the day after Christmas, I saw Antigua's Parque Central in full-force. Hundreds of people were there in the hour before sunset, listening to music, eating food from vendors, and in general seeing and being seen (see a snippet of the crowd listening to a Spanish version of "Jingle Bells", http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8X7hry4dOtA). This was the Latin American square I had heard about and had not before seen. I returned a few times and the park was always busy (see a video of the park at night, with only Christmas lights for illumination, filled with conversation, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4dMBcBmlU-I).
What made Parque Central so active? Certainly, Guatemalan society must be predisposed to public socializing. The square also has a number of fine design and programming elements that support its use as a communal living room.
William Whyte, in his observations of public spaces, proposed that a number of elements must be present for them to be successful. These include water, food, seating, and what he called "triangulation", or some sort of attraction that can create a bond between strangers. The Parque Central has these elements.
On Sunday afternoon the entire western edge of the park grounds was lined with food vendors. At other times, there were at least ice cream vendors. These latter would contribute to the aural environment of the square through their bells (see video of the park as seen from the cathedral porch, with the ambient sound of the vendors, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iu3u_GW4ClY).
The seating in and around the square is abundant and, in one particular instance, ingenious. The Palacio del Ayuntamiento (city hall), at the east end of the north side of the square, is raised above the park and has a covered arcade in front of it. Both features are exploited for seating.
Within the arcade and against the wall of the building is an almost continuous stone bench. It provides a covered and shaded resting spot from which to watch the activities in the square. To reach the arcade from the street, there are a few steps. Unshaded, but closer to the action in the square, the stairs are also used for seating (see the last two photos).
The triangulation is a bit harder to measure and is, in part, cultural. What may pique one person's interest may be different from another's. On Sunday, in addition to the band and food, there were horse rides available and an itinerant clown. There is also the beauty and the activity of the cathedral, to the east of the park, city hall, and the attraction of the businesses on the north and west sides.
While this spot has been a public place since the founding of Antigua in the 16th century, until the 20th it had been a hardscape. Only in the last century did it acquire vegetation, the most recent incarnation of the park having been executed in the 1990s. The presence of trees for shade, at a minimum, makes the Parque Central a more welcoming place for recreation than it would have been without them.
Whatever its past, the Parque Central is now, though design, commercial use, and cultural attitude towards public recreation, a very successful place. Maybe we can emulate it to create good public places in the United States.
Some of the background information on the park I found in the following two publications: "Antigua Guatemala: The city and Its Heritage", by Elizabeth Bell, and "Antigua: Su Historia, Monumentos, Personajes, Sucedidos y Leyendas", by Rafael Alvarez Polanco.