RIO DE JANEIRO – Past sidewalks heaped with trash, old tires have been transformed into steps leading down to a site that once was a dumping ground for anything from broken washing machines to deceased dogs but now is a secret garden.
The leafy green sanctuary known as Sitie Park is cherished by people living in Vidigal, a shantytown on the hills of Rio de Janeiro. As the sun sets, palm trees silhouette against pink skies high over the ocean while the chirps of a tropical bird contrast with the roar of speeding motorcycles and minibuses on the narrow streets above.
The transformation began several years ago when resident Mauro Quintanilha grew weary of the stench from the dump. He started cleaning out the tons of trash. Then, he planted sugar cane and other crops.
"Once you plant something, they don't throw things into it," said Pedro Henrique de Cristo, an architect who later joined the project. "It becomes alive."
The creation of the 2-acre (0.81-hectare) public green space, in part to help prevent landslides in the slum, was recognized in April with a prize from the U.S.-based Design Corps' Social Economic Environmental Design network, a global competition that handed out six awards around the world this year.
Despite efforts that have reduced crime in some of Rio's favelas, slum dwellers are haunted by numerous problems. Even in Vidigal, where ocean-view boutique hotels and restaurants have sprouted, many people lack basic services such as sewage and garbage collection.
But they find a respite in the park, where rows of old tires form a crescent-shaped amphitheater and old bicycle wheels serve as railings on the path running by lime-green bushes. Children dash down the stairs after school for a few hours before dark falls and they head home.
Residents also come to collect sugar cane and other produce, which is free. The project, including salaries for nine staff members, is supported by donations from private companies.
Mariana Pereira, a hostel receptionist, stopped by recently to pick bertalha, a spinach-like vegetable that she said would "go perfectly in a white sauce."
"There are many people who don't have enough money to buy these," she said. "We also learn from the project. Now I take care of plants. You look at this space and say, 'Wow, it can be beautiful.'"
Adriana Gomez Licon on Twitter: http://twitter.com/agomezlicon