Peñalosa @ World Urban Forum

In Vancouver’s, Charles Montgomery reports from the World Urban Forum on The Mayor Who Wowed the World Urban ForumEnrique Peñalosa, fomer mayor of Bogota, Columbia who helped transform Bogota from a city famous for murder and cocaine, to a city famous for its bike paths and bus system.

Enrique Peñalosa presided over the transition of a city that the world–and many residents–had given up on. Bogota had lost itself in slums, chaos, violence, and traffic. During his three-year term, Penalosa brought in initiatives that would seem impossible in most cities, even here in the wealthy north. He built more than a hundred nurseries for children. He built 50 new public schools and increased enrolment by 34 percent. He built a network of libraries. He created a highly-efficient, “bus highway” transit system. He built or reconstructed hundreds of kilometers of sidewalks, more than 300 kilometres of bicycle paths, pedestrian streets, and more than 1,200 parks.

He did it all, in part, by declaring a war on private cars.

Peñalosa explained the philosophy behind this war–and Bogota’s transformation–earlier Thursday during a plenary lecture at the World Urban Forum. He began with a sobering reminder to the mayors of developing world cities:

“If you base progress on per capita income, then the developing world will not catch up with rich countries for the next three or four hundred years. The difference between our incomes is growing all the time. So we can’t define our progress in terms of income, because that will guarantee our failure. We need to find another measure of success.”

The measure he came up with was shockingly simple. Happiness.

“And what are our needs for happiness?” he asked. “We need to walk, just as birds need to fly. We need to be around other people. We need beauty. We need contact with nature. And most of all, we need not to be excluded. We need to feel some sort of equality.”

Before you dismiss Peñalosa as some hemp-hatted revolutionary, remember that this is a guy who titled his first book Capitalism: The Best Option.

The problem in Bogota was that most people didn’t have access to the public space that is supposed to make such happy things happen. The wealthy had turned city sidewalks into parking lots for cars. Public parks had been fenced off, essentially privatized by neighbours. And for years, the government had been blowing its budgets on highways and road improvements, with the encouragement of Japan’s international development agency, which was apparently in the business of creating new markets for Japan’s carmakers. So while the wealthy in Bogota could spend their weekends in country clubs or private gardens, the poor had little but jammed streets and televisions to occupy their leisure time. Peñalosa resolved to establish a balance.

Peñalosa’s official War on Cars began when he ordered the sidewalks cleared of cars. That triggered a movement to impeach him–unsuccessful, since it was in fact illegal for people to park on the sidewalks. He then launched a system which banned 40 percent of vehicles from the roads during rush hour. Peñalosa convinced his city council to raise the tax on gasoline, and used half the revenues to fund a rapid bus system that now serves more than 500,000 citizens.

After Bogota’s first wildly popular “Car-Free Day” in 2000, residents voted in a referendum to make the event an annual affair. Most powerfully, the city was transformed from a place of hopelessness to one of civic pride.

I’ve never seen a crowd of planners, politicians and sustainability wonks go wild like they did after Peñalosa’s address. The guy got a standing ovation. Stuart Ramsey, a B.C. transportation engineer, explained why.

“Bogota has demonstrated that it is possible to make dramatic change to how we move around our cities in a very short timeframe,” he said. “It’s simply a matter of choosing to do so. We could improve our air quality and dramatically reduce our emissions anytime we want. It’s easy to do. For example, we can improve the capacity of our existing bus system without adding a single bus. All it would take is a can of paint, and you’d have dedicated bus lanes. It doesn’t require huge amounts of money. It simply requires a choice.”

What seems to have surprised Peñalosa is that his policies have been lauded by international environmental groups as green activism for their salubrious effects on local air, public health and greenhouse gas emissions. But for him the idea of giving all citizens equal rights to transportation, education and public spaces have always been matters of social equity. What pleases him most is the notion that, at least on Bogota’s greenways, children are no longer terrified of being hit by cars.

One more thing. Where did Peñalosa find the inspiration to transform his city? Why, at Jericho Beach in 1976, where his father was the secretary general of Habitat ’76.

IISD’s Linkages also has been covering the WUF and report on Peñalosa’s session:

Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, Colombia, mentioned that the number of urban inhabitants in developing countries will grow by more than two billion over the next few years, and that they need to learn from the land-use planning experience of developed countries. He argued that, to achieve sustainability, developing countries must find a different model of growth. Referring to Bogota’s experience, where car use had been reduced and greenways, bikeways and bus lanes added, he said this had resulted in major social justice improvements, in addition to providing environmental benefits.

Participants raised comments on cities being at the forefront of the major health and nutrition challenges, and on the fact that Colombian cities are faced with more severe problems such as violence, sanitation, and unemployment. Participants encouraged a focus on the MDG target on slum upgrading.

On the scale of change required to achieve sustainable development, Herfkens urged participants not to be intimidated by the need for revolutionary change. Peñalosa said that while resources were often available, political will was required to implement sustainable policies, and called for small steps that will lead to big changes.

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