Free space: Emancipation Park in New Kingston

Emancipation Park, an oasis in the middle of New Kingston, is a rare open public space in Jamaica’s capital

Aerial view of Emancipation Park at dusk. Photograph by Varun BakerDetail of Laura Facey Cooper’s sculptural monument Redemption Song. Photograph by Varun BakerEmancipation Park provided much-needed open space for Kingstonians. Photograph by Varun BakerEnjoying an open-air concert. Photograph by Varun BakerJenna Blackwood designed the landscaping for the park. Photograph by Varun BakerRedemption Song ignited a fierce public debate. Photograph by Varun BakerTaking a stroll. Photograph by Varun BakerThe park is popular with runners and joggers of all levels of fitness. Photograph by Varun Baker

When you walk into Emancipation Park in New Kingston, you get a vibe. It’s not just the feeling of calm that green spaces evoke, or the warm fuzziness at the sight of children playing on the lawn, or the couples hugging up on benches. There is much more happening here, on a subconscious level.

The park makes a statement, a poignant synopsis of the story of the Jamaican people, in a million subtle ways. A one-time dust bowl that sat smack in the middle of New Kingston’s commercial hub, it is now the Jamaican capital’s most beloved public space. An estimated one thousand people pass through on a regular day; on public holidays that number increases tenfold.

But there was controversy every step of the way. From the moment the land, once the property of the exclusive Liguanea Club, was transferred to the National Housing Trust in March 2002, critics questioned its strain on a severely stretched public purse. Three months later, on July 31, one day before Emancipation Day, even the most toughened cynic must have been teary-eyed as one of the most remarkable public parks in the Caribbean was opened. Yet a whole new bacchanal was unleashed, as the plans for the monument that would stand at the ceremonial entrance were unveiled.

Laura Facey Cooper’s Redemption Song ignited a whole new debate about nudity and morality that had the largely Christian population in an uproar. Her design was centred on two figures, a man and a woman cast in bronze, standing on a dome, with water flowing around them. The dome represents life, and the water purity, as it washes away the pain, angst, and struggle of slavery. The couple, naked and full-bodied, gaze heavenwards, having risen and transcended the past. At the top of the dome is a pool from which water overflows, falling to the pavement then vanishing into a cave-like area hidden underground, creating the sound of water in a cavern. In all, it took more than a hundred people — engineers, artisans, and others — to produce Redemption Song.

But the critics cared little about symbolism — they were riveted by the male figure’s penis. It was strikingly large, they complained, for a public monument.

Fortunately, the judges of the contest included the chief curator of Jamaica’s National Gallery, David Boxer, who championed Facey’s sculpture. “Their nudity is part of their potency,” he said. “It is part of the meaning of their emancipation; their rebirth into freedom. They stand there as a symbol of the naked truth of the argument of emancipation; the truth that we are all equals in the eyes of God.”

The architect for Emancipation Park, the man whose ideas and ideals shaped the space, was Kamau Kambui. An ardent Pan-Africanist who changed his name at 21, Kambui was the man for the job of casting the theme of emancipation in stone. In his remarkable design, the ceremonial entrance at the corner of Oxford Road and Knutsford Boulevard depicts the birth channel, with a fountain at the centre of the womb, which represents Jamaicans travelling back to their roots. The central fountain, the focal point of the park, is animated, and can be programmed to music, with jets of water shooting more than five metres into the air. The bricks in the paved areas were made from gravel and sand from the eastern parish of St Thomas, while the stone in the perimeter walls is from Westmoreland.

Kambui chose three royal symbols to represent the Jamaican people’s origins in West Africa: Futumfrafo, a two-headed crocodile, which represents unity in diversity, is used on two plaques at the ceremonial entrance; Wafa Aba, the symbol of strength, is used along the top of the perimeter fence; while at the base there’s the symbol of security, Eban.

Kambui worked with consulting architect Beatriz de Nova, who has twenty years’ experience in developing landscape projects such as parks, airports, malls, and schools in her native Colombia. Her perspective and overview, coming from a city like Bogota, which has more than four thousand parks, was invaluable. “In Bogota, you can find parks of all kinds and sizes,” she explained. “Contemplative parks, parks of active or passive recreation, and sports parks.” De Nova believes strongly in the power of these open spaces and their healing effect on the human spirit. “The city of Bogota has had a transformation in the last few years,” she said, “and the recovery of the public space has become the best indicator of quality of life. And the transformation of the city has diminished its violence considerably.”

Emancipation Park’s greenery and spectacular landscaping is the work of Jenna Blackwood, whose portfolio includes the Hedonism III resort in Runaway Bay, St Ann, and Preston Hall and the Students’ Union at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies. She was pleasantly surprised to be called in at the planning stage, not at the end as an afterthought. “Often in developments of this scale, the landscaper is called in after the design is complete. This time I worked in collaboration with the architect in portraying the concept of emancipation.”

To decorate the area around the park’s tiled multipurpose stage, Blackwood chose the blue mahoe (Jamaica’s national flower), the black olive, poor man’s orchid, the royal palm, lignum vitae (the national tree), and the African tulip tree (otherwise known as the flame of the forest). Scattered (precisely and ingeniously) throughout the park are varieties of palm, bougainvillea, poincianas, and yellow poui trees.

Three months after the park was opened, P.J. Patterson was inaugurated for a third term as prime minister. He took an oath of allegiance — the first time that a prime minister had ever sworn allegiance to the people of Jamaica. And he chose Emancipation Park to do it. Since then, the park has been the venue for many events, from health fairs to the 150th anniversary celebrations of Cuban revolutionary José Martí’s birth. And at least one wedding photoshoot a week.

These days, Jamaicans can’t imagine Kingston without their park, and many hope that more parks will be built throughout the city, especially in inner-city areas, where it’s argued that the positive vibes of Emancipation Park can be recreated. As architect Kambui said, “Emancipation Park reflects the potential that Jamaicans have, and shows that with teamwork, we can achieve anything.”