Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa on making better cities

Enrique Peñalosa became mayor of Bogotá, Colombia for a second time last year. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Next week, hundreds of mayors around the world will head to Bogotá, Colombia, for what is billed as the largest gathering of the world’s local leaders: the Congress of United Cities and Local Governments. Their host is Mayor Enrique Peñalosa.

Peñalosa, 62, has had two parallel public careers, one as a politician, and the other as a global exponent of cities and the idea that streets and public spaces should be designed primarily for people rather than cars.

In an earlier term as mayor from 1998 to 2001, Peñalosa led in creation of the city’s TransMilenio bus rapid transit system, featuring bus-only lanes. Private automobiles, which had been crowding onto public sidewalks, were moved off by higher curbs and bollards. Restrictions were placed on use of private vehicles at rush hour. An extensive network of bike paths was inaugurated and several major avenues underwent major renovation to be more pedestrian friendly.

Following his mayoral term, Peñalosa became board chair of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a New York-based nonprofit. For several years, he toured the world as an advocate of BRT systems that were being debated and then installed in such cities as Ahmedabad, Buenos Aires, Guangzhou and Mexico City. (He also served briefly on the board of Citiscope.) After an unsuccessful run at the presidency of Colombia in 2014, he won a second term as Bogota’s mayor in 2015.

We caught up with Peñalosa back in May during a visit to the United Nations in New York. As usual, he had lots to say about what’s right and wrong with cities, especially those in the developing world, and what can be done to make them better. His remarks, edited and condensed for clarity, are below.

On cars and pedestrian safety…

Clearly, we have made cities which we cannot be proud of. It cannot be normal that we, as human beings, grow in fear of getting killed. If we tell a three-year old child today anywhere in the world, “Watch out, a car!” the child will jump in fright, when he or she doesn’t yet know how to speak. They are already afraid of cars, and with good reason.

Tens of thousands of children are killed by cars every year throughout the world. During the Middle Ages, a few children were eaten by wolves in Europe. I am certain that in our time, on any given month, there are more children killed by cars than were killed by wolves all through the Middle Ages. What is shocking is that we think this is normal. For 5,000 years, we designed cities for people without cars. When cars appeared, we should have begun to design totally different cities. We did not. We just made bigger roads.

On building people-friendly streets…

In Colombia, we are conscious of what should be done, but we are far from doing it. I would still say that on 90 percent of the streets in Bogotá, you cannot go from one corner to the other in a wheelchair, because the sidewalks are not right. I like to believe that what makes a difference between an advanced and a backwards city is not that we have highways — as the upper income people tend to think — or even subways. The fact that you have good sidewalks, quality, great sidewalks. This is really the most basic thing of democratic cities.

“ The fact that you have good sidewalks, quality, great sidewalks. This is really the most basic thing of democratic cities. ”

In general, especially in developing countries, people who walk are lower income citizens. They are more vulnerable citizens. There are children and the elderly. A civilized city should, before anything else, protect its most vulnerable citizens.

When I was mayor 18 years ago, we created a network of more than 250 kilometers of bikeways. Then, there were no bikeways in New York or in Paris or in Madrid. At that time, I was almost impeached. Now, there are dozens of young people’s organizations for cyclists. It’s a new consciousness. It’s like new citizenship as they call it.  

On the use of data in city planning…

We know much better now than we did 200 or 100 years ago how much cities will grow. We know much more about demographics. We know much more about how households become smaller. We know much more about the share of institutional buildings in cities. We can make projections. The first thing that Habitat III can do is to promote serious growth projections for cities. If we at least have that, later we can discuss where and how cities should grow.

On the importance of parks…

We could do totally different cities that would be amazing with large parks. New York created Central Park in 1860 when New York was much smaller and much poorer than most developing countries today. Yet, nothing even like Central Park is being done. It’s very difficult to demolish a city to create parks after the city has been built without parks. Moreover, why are homes near Central Park so much more expensive than others? Because there are not enough parks. If a city had enough parks, being near a park should not increase the value.

These kinds of things we could have in the cities of developing countries cities, hundreds of parks. However, not only are we not doing better cities than were done before, but our cities are worse. For example, Bogotá is a little larger than London in population. Every boy in Bogotá plays soccer and more and more girls do, too. London has more than 1,500 public soccer fields. Bogotá has 45. We are not even able to plan such basic things.

On shopping malls…

Developing-country cities, we have some interesting characteristics. For example, we do not have severe winters, so we should be much more outdoor-oriented. We should spend more time in public space and less in shopping marts. A shopping mart may be justified in Toronto or Moscow, but not in the tropics. Not in Bogotá. Not in most developing-country cities.

Bogotá’s temperature is perfect. Yet we have shopping malls springing about like mushrooms. Shopping malls which are clearly without character. They are the same everywhere in the world. The local shops go broke, because they cannot afford to be in the mall.

Malls don’t integrate well with the city. They do not have windows. They are geared to a special social class. You go on Madison Avenue in New York, rich and poor meet as equals. This does not happen in shopping malls.

On fighting inequality in cities…

Cities can be extremely powerful means to create inclusion and all kinds of equality. If we create cities where rich and poor meet as equals in parks and public transport, in public spaces and sidewalks and cultural activities. If rich and poor have great schools and swimming pools and sport facilities. Cities can create quality-of-life equality. At least for children. A great city is not going to have income inequality. But we are making horrible cities, unfortunately, in the developing world.

[Read: Santiago’s Claudio Orrego on fighting urban inequality]

I am obsessed with the idea of happiness. It’s difficult to define and impossible to measure. Yet it’s the only thing that really matters. One of the biggest obstacles to happiness is feeling inferior or excluded. A good city can be very powerful means for this not to happen. After I finished college, I was an extremely poor student in Paris. I lived in a room where I had to share the toilet with 20 other rooms. We did not have a shower. But I never felt poor. I felt extremely happy and thankful, because I had Paris. I had a fantastic city that gave me cultural activities, gave me public transport, gave me beauty, gave me possibilities to walk, gave me joy, gave me an education. A good city can make life better for everybody, for the rich, for the poor, for everybody.

We are not going to have income equality. But, I would say, we can have what I would call democratic equality. Which is that public good will prevail over private interests.

This means, for example, that somebody on a bicycle has the right to the same amount of road space as somebody in a luxury car. Why do we allow street parking? Whoever decided that to have a car gives you the right to park? If all cities were truly equal, we should have much larger sidewalks. We should have protective bicycle lanes in every single street, not as a cute architectural feature, but as a right.

On decentralization and national urban policies…

In some countries, national government is very powerful and cities don’t have much autonomy. For example, Santiago, Chile, is not one municipality, but 39. The one that really runs the city is the national government.

In Colombia, it’s different. The city has a lot of autonomy. Maybe sometimes too much autonomy. Municipalities have total autonomy in land use, for example. This is very wrong. We should have some regional policies, or even national policies, for where a city should grow.

[Read: Reforms hand Colombia mayors and cities more power]

The fact that the municipalities are so strong in Colombia, creates horrible inequalities between municipalities. In one single metropolitan area, poor municipalities attract poor people because the land prices are low. The richer the municipalities are, the more rich people they attract. It’s a vicious circle. This happens everywhere, of course, to some degree. When municipalities are so autonomous, there is no way to compensate for this.

In so many cases, I think you need even more centralization. You need more national policies and regional policies. You cannot let each municipality do whatever they want. You need to do some regional planning for the road network and for the parks and for everything. You need to be able to charge taxes in the rich areas and to invest in the poor areas. 

“ This is going to be like our Central Park …. These will be places where rich and poor, old and young, everybody will meet as equals. ”

The same thing goes for planning. I think before we decide that we need more autonomy or not, we first should decide what kind of cities we want. Then, we decide whether we need more or less autonomy or some regional policies or some national policies or some local policies.

On returning to the mayor’s office…

At first it was very difficult. I had to dedicate 99 percent of my time just to solving the huge problems I found. That was not so much fun. Now, it’s beginning to be a little more fun because it’s not just about solving messes all the time, but about creating a few new things.

For example, Bogotá has a horrible river, which was completely polluted with sewage. Everybody wanted to be as far as possible from the river because it was horrible and smelled. Now we want to turn this river into the heart of the future city with a 60-kilometer green park and walkway along the river. Of course, we are only going to be able to do one or two kilometers of the 60, but we can create the financial and tax instruments and land-policy instruments to get this thing going.

We also want to do a path very high up in the mountains. Not a path for explorers or athletes, but a path for wheelchairs and bicycles. An 80-kilometer path. So that people will be able to see the city below like an ocean. We believe this is going to help people learn more about the beautiful native vegetation that we have in the mountains. We have orchids and ferns. All kinds of native trees and birds and butterflies. I think this will make people fall in love with nature. It will also be very useful for us to be able to put out forest fires, because at this time, when we have a forest fire, we have no way to reach it.

This is going to be like our Central Park. This river park and this mountain, because this is something that will give character to the city. These will be places where rich and poor, old and young, everybody will meet as equals.

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