Nicosia, the capital city of Cyprus, has been divided between the island nation’s Greek and Turkish communities for nearly 50 years. A new public park built along a historic dividing line aims to help reconnect the city and the country.
Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, Eleftheria Square is a broad public plaza and park featuring gardens, playgrounds, fountains, a viewing platform, and the kind of wide-open spaces where strangers can coexist.
Funded primarily by the European Union at a cost of about $45 million, the park exists on two levels. The top level is a former bridge connecting the old city to the new, where vehicular lanes have been removed and the entire space extended out as a pedestrian zone. Below sits a linear park, with sculptural elements and a large hardscape made up of bending and sinuous shapes interspersed with gardens. In total, the public square adds up to five acres of largely pedestrian-only park space.
The park sits at the site of key physical divisions in the city and the country. A buffer zone, called the Green Line, has stretched 100 miles across the island and directly through the city of Nicosia since 1974, cutting off streets and slicing in half the historic walled city that was once Nicosia’s center. The new park is located just south of this buffer zone, along the earlier dividing line of the defensive walls and moats built around the city center in the Middle Ages.
The design of Eleftheria Square seeks to reframe this historic space of division—and to provoke new thinking about the contemporary dividing line nearby, according to Christos Passas, an architect at Zaha Hadid Architects who led the design.
“The idea here was to look at the separation that existed between the two communities, a sort of forced separation, and to think about how the form of the urban fabric has become a reflection of the political situation,” says Passas, who was born in Cyprus before the tensions that drew the Green Line. “In our playful, idealistic moments, we thought maybe the moat, which was a space where people would fight and maybe die, can become a space of peace.”
The project came about through a pan-European design competition launched in 2005. “Cyprus is coming to the point where they are rethinking the organization of public spaces and the ways public civic activity can take place,” Passas says.
After several delays in construction, the budget ballooned to at least $45 million. The former bridge opened to the public in 2018, and the park space below on the dry moat was inaugurated in December. The park is now fully open to the public.
Some critics see a missed opportunity. Socrates Stratis, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Cyprus, calls the park a “Potemkin corridor,” arguing in an email to Fast Company that “the change involves utterly photogenic, sculptural yet sterile structures.”
The park, Stratis says, “offers a branding image for real estate investment in the area. I would expect something more than that.”
Down on the former dry moat, Stratis says there’s room for improvement. Stratis says it is too busy, and without the kind of gathering spaces or even protest grounds other public spaces offer. “To my regret, the ground of the moat is utterly fragmented by all sorts of lavish structures that leave no room for democratic practices yet look nice from Google Earth,” he says.
He says the successful parts of the project square are those where car space has been turned over to pedestrians, a product of citizen participation in the planning process. “The citizens have helped the project to avoid partially the pitfall of the dominance of the private car,” Stratis says.
The park is just one element of a long-sought citywide plan for a ring of parks around the old city walls, a project that would involve two interventions in the still-divided Green Line buffer. Stratis calls this a good first step, but that the full vision is far from being realized.
Passas says the park can’t single-handedly undo the divisions that have plagued the country for decades, but he’s hopeful that it can be a visible starting point. “It makes a symbolic statement about what the reunification of the island could be,” he says.