With half of the world's population already living in cities and megacities, and significant growth expected particularly in developing countries, social and environmental sustainability in urban settings is becoming one of the key challenges we're facing. That's why I've found particularly interesting this article from Ode magazine about the former mayor of Bogotà, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa. The story is almost two years old. Peñalosa is now a Fellow at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in New York (Colombian law prevented him from running for reelection) but in his one-term mayoralty, 1998-2001, he accomplished quite something. From Ode:
- Created the Trans-Milenio, a bus rapid transit system (BRT), which now carries a half-million passengers daily on special bus lanes that offer most of the advantages of a metro at a fraction of the cost.
- Built 52 new schools, refurbished 150 others, added 14,000 computers to the public school system, and increased student enrollment by 34 percent.
- Established or refurbished 1200 parks and playgrounds throughout the city.
- Built three large and 10 neighborhood libraries.
- Built 100 nurseries for children under five, and found permanent sources of funding.
- Improved life in the slums by bringing water to 100 percent of Bogotá households, and buying undeveloped land on the outskirts of the city to prevent real estate speculation. This land is to be developed as affordable housing with electrical, sewage, and telephone service as well as space reserved for parks, schools, and greenways.
- Saw the murder rate fall by two-thirds. (This was almost all conventional crime; contrary to expectations, terrorist acts are rare in Bogotá.)
- Reclaimed the sidewalks from motorists, who traditionally saw them as either a passing lane or a parking lot. “I was almost impeached by the car-owning upper classes,” Peñalosa notes, “ but it was popular with everyone else.”
- Established 300 kilometers of separated bikeways, the largest network in the developing world.
- Created the world’s longest pedestrian street, 17 kilometers crossing much of the city, as well as a 45- kilometer greenway along a path that had been originally slated for an eight-lane highway.
- Reduced peak traffic by 40 percent with a system where motorists must leave cars at home during rush hour two days a week. He also raised parking fees and local gas taxes, with half of the proceeds going to fund the new bus transit system.
- Inaugurated an annual car-free day, where everyone from CEOs to janitors had to had commute to work in some way other than a private automobile.
- Planted 100,000 trees.
The Ode story says Peñalosa "views cities as being planned for a purpose: to create human well-being", and that he believes Bogotà could offer practical lessons not only for helping poor cities, but also for upgrading the quality of life in Western cities. Indeed, the list above is amazing both in quantity and in quality. Particularily, Peñalosa is a big believer in public spaces:
"The least a democratic society should do, is to offer people wonderful public spaces. Public spaces are not a frivolity. They are just as important as hospitals and schools. They create a sense of belonging. This creates a different type of society - a society where people of all income levels meet in public space is a more integrated, socially healthier one."
He offers an example of how cities could be developed:
"I invite you to imagine for a minute a 20-mile long, 50-feet wide road only for pedestrians and bicycles through your neighborhood, regardless whether you live downtown or in a suburb. At intersections there could either be bridges, underpasses for motor vehicles, or simply traffic lights. Ideally it would link your neighborhood to a waterfront, a large park, a shopping area, a library and schools, just to mention a few examples. You and your neighbors could ride bicycles with your children to the beach or the library, go jogging. Older citizens could walk to a café, and babies could be taken out for fresh air in their carriages. It could completely transform a neighborhood’s life and even significantly increase property values".
In Europe many cities have old sections that were built pre-automobile (and suffer nowadays from traffic congestions) and have applied some of this also in modern developments, at least downtown (he mentions Dutch and Danish cities as examples; I would add Zurich to the mix) but much more could be done. His idea of a long, winding and turning pedestrian road that stretches across a whole city and connects all its neighborhoods and its social/recreational/cultural hubs is fabulous. His measure of a good city is not one that has great roads - over the last 80-100 years we've been building cities much more for motorized mobility than for people's well-being, he says - but:
"one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can safely go anywhere".
I understand that Peñalosa is writing a book tentatively called "The politics of happiness". Can't wait to read it.