Megan Hoffman

Design students and a nonprofit theater group created a “park-in-a-cart” to serve the fast-growing city of El Alto, Bolivia.   

One bright July afternoon in El Alto, Bolivia, a playground paraded across a busy intersection.

In the country’s second-largest city—and, at approximately 13,500 feet, the highest major urban settlement in the world—desfiles are a frequent occurrence, even a way of life. On holidays, schoolchildren bearing patriotic red, yellow, and green flood the streets to the tunes of brass bands. Political demonstrations regularly take over the avenues. The renowned Sunday market, which stretches on for miles, can appear to be one long, slow parade.

The mobile park on parade in El Alto this summer. (Megan Hoffman)

But this parade was different. Dodging a stream of minibuses, a few individuals wearing carnivalesque costumes tugged two colorful metal carts—one resembling an astroturf bee, the other an elephant—to the center of a nearby plaza.

Working in the harsh sunlight, they set about disassembling the carts. The shell of the bee became a series of green mounds, while the elephant trunk revealed itself as a slide.

By most urban timelines, El Alto itself is a pop-up construction of sorts. The grid that spreads across the barren

In a matter of minutes a playground was born, and the sounds of children playing rippled across the plaza.

altiplano was a tiny informal settlement, perched above La Paz, in the early 1950s. Following its establishment as an independent municipality in 1985, its population jumped, by 54 percent from 2000 to 2010 alone.

El Alto now has more than 1 million people, approximately 75 percent of whom identify as members of the indigenous Aymara people. (In Bolivia overall, 25 percent of the population is indigenous.) It has even given rise to a bold new architecture, evidence of Bolivia's recent economic boom.

“El Alto is an urban manifestation of spontaneity and innovation,” says Iván Nogales, the founder and director of COMPA Teatro Trono, a grassroots theater company based here since 1989. Nogales is also quick to point out El Alto's challenges. Today, an estimated 45 percent of residents live in poverty; this becomes especially apparent in the city’s outer reaches, where the most recent migrants tend to live.

In this dense city, driven by commerce at all scales, streets, sidewalks, and communal spaces are often transformed into informal markets, where vendors and minibuses compete for real estate. While this competition brings vitality, it requires novel methods of occupying urban space for play.

Scott Shall (left) and Iván Nogales. (Megan Hoffman)

The pop-up playground aims to do just that. Over three summers, the International Design Clinic (IDC), a “guerrilla design” collective, has collaborated with Teatro Trono to design and build a pair of mutable, movable playspaces that will help the organization expand its activism into El Alto’s public space. The areas currently designated for children in El Alto are scant and often ill-maintained.

Headed by Scott Shall, an architecture professor at Lawrence Technological University near Detroit, the IDC works closely with groups already embedded within communities, lending its own design expertise to support what they do well. “We try to contribute to and intersect their work for a strategic moment, but we always have an exit plan,” says Shall. “We aren’t permanent, they are.”

Given that more than a third of El Alto residents are under the age of 14, Teatro Trono's idea of a playground that its artists could move around a city generally lacking such spaces—a “park-in-a-cart”—struck Shall as both simple and high-impact. “The park idea was attractive to us as a social condenser, as a way to bring kids together and get them to establish a deeper relationship with the arts and Teatro Trono.” (The IDC also designed and built a complementary mobile maker space, which Teatro Trono is using to bring metalworking, carpentry, and other skills-based workshops to El Alto youth.)

The IDC's team of American and Bolivian university students—designers, engineers, and anthropologists—began by asking hundreds of local kids to draw their ideas of a park. Three elements were consistent: the color green, trees, and some notion of a slide.

The group then documented how children actually inhabit playspaces—observing, for example, that slides were most often used to climb up the wrong way. “In the end, it was about exaggerated topography,” says Shall, “a concept that worked its way into our park.”

The initial park-in-a-cart prototypes were unwieldy. Over the course of three summers the student teams worked to continuously rebuild and refine, using local welding and construction techniques and low-cost, resistant materials they found, repurposed, and bought, like pipes and toy balls. (This writer pitched in for the last two weeks.)

Design students made the carts out of low-cost materials. (Megan Hoffman)

“Constructing as you design is very different from the process students are accustomed to,” says Tim Nawrocki, a graduate student in landscape architecture at Harvard University. “It takes resourcefulness and plenty of improvisation to design and make simultaneously.” Patricio Vergara, an architecture student at Universidad Católica Boliviana, enjoyed working to turn “a great idea into one that will also function well in the real world.”

The pop-up interventions that were finally launched this summer are colorful, inventive, and fantastical. Sensitive to Teatro Trono’s emphasis on performance, they incorporate and build upon the troupe’s existing costumes.

(Megan Hoffman)

“The park echoes the circus tradition,” says Nogales, “the itinerant shows that would bring entertainment, but also the idea of play as a form of political activity. We want these parks to provoke some form of awakening in the kids who play in them.”

Indeed, in a city where space is claimed more often than designated, the model of movable, pop-up interventions such as this one may present a viable way to increase access to—and demand for—a certain use of public space.

The IDC’s methodology is based on the notion of agile development, borrowed from the language of software, wherein the designer offers a basic “script” to the world and trusts that others will engage with and improve it. Now that the park is out in the world of El Alto and the IDC has completed its work, Teatro Trono is committed to testing and improving upon it.

Toward the end of that July afternoon, the park collapsed its way back into the carts. As one mother convinced her five-year-old to take her last turn down the slide, she asked one of the designers where she could find the playground next. Megan Hoffman, who studied anthropology at Temple University, recalls a grandmother who offered the group a sleeve of crackers to express her gratitude.

“That day,” Hoffman says, “our pop-up playground was a space of joy.”

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