The City Fix
June 23, 2015
Former mayor of Bogota Enrique Penalosa has been a champion for building equitable cities. Photo by Colin Hughes/Flickr.
Enrique Peñalosa, Bogota’s former mayor, will come to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on September 9 for the Mayors´ Summit. The event is hosted by WRI Brasil | EMBARQ Brasil as part of EMBARQ Brasil’s 10th anniversary celebration. Here is an exclusive interview for TheCityFix and WRI Brasil | EMBARQ Brasil.
While mayor, you were responsible for numerous and sometimes radical improvements in the city. Which one brought the most happiness to people?
Enrique Peñalosa (EP): We have made a city much more for people and less for cars. I took tens of thousands of cars off the sidewalks and we made new sidewalks. We had TV commercials explaining sidewalks are for talking, for playing, for doing business, for kissing. We´ve started a sidewalk revolution.
TransMilenio, the BRT system, was also a very powerful equality symbol because we took space away from cars to give it to public transport. And for the first time we had the people in public transport going faster than those in cars. It shows there is democracy; it shows all citizens are equal.
We created the Alameda El Porvenir – maybe the achievement I am most proud of – which is a bicycle highway 50 meters wide and 24 km long that thousands of people use every day to go to work. In addition, we built the Juan Amarillo Greenway which links the richest parts of the city to some of the poorest parts. We began to build extremely high quality schools in the poorest neighborhoods with very high quality libraries to show that knowledge is more important than wealth.
Which improvements brought the most headaches for you?
EP: The most important thing is to realize that we did what nobody else would have done. It was a completely new concept, new ideas. So we had a lot of conflicts. Maybe the most difficult one was to get tens of thousands of cars off the sidewalks. There were even some people who started collecting signatures in order to impeach me. To implement the bus system we had an enormous war against the traditional bus operators and they went on strike, they brought the city to a halt. There was also a huge war to create parks because many parks had been gated by the private sector. We also had a war when we recovered the central area that had been taken by drug dealers – an area just two blocks away from the Presidential Palace and from the central square, somewhat similar but a hundred times worse than Cracolândia in São Paulo. We had a war trying to build some public spaces and plazas that were completely taken over by vendors. The most exclusive country club, where the most powerful families were members, was expropriated in order to create a public park.
You said “You dream of a tropical city, crisscrossed by large pedestrian avenues, shaded by enormous tropical trees, as the axes of life of those cities”. Were you able to achieve this city?
EP: I was mayor for only three years and in Colombia there is no re-election in the constitution. Now, that time is longer, four years. I think the cities we have today – all cities around the world – are very wrong. We are so used to them that we think this is normal – to live in fear of getting killed. But this can’t be normal. To live in cities we have to create places where we have hundreds of kilometers of green ways, where we can have people and bicycles on the streets. So you can crisscross the city in all directions without cars. It will take us a few hundred years to correct them, but this will change at the moment we realize that what we have today is completely crazy. That’s not the ideal we should have for humans in the future.