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We (Re) Built This City

As American mayors debated the repercussions of terrorism for their cities, the former leader of Bogotá, Colombia offered an inspiring vision for the future at the Urban Land Institute’s big fall meeting in Boston.

“When we talk about cities, we are really talking about how we would like to live.”
— Enrique Peñalosa

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Enrique Peñalosa’s city is a place of beauty and brutality, reformation and corruption, pride and poverty. Outside Bogotá, guerillas control entire sections of Colombia. Inside the capital city’s poorest neighborhoods, drug traffickers continue to thrive amid nearly 7 million residents who are struggling against high unemployment, a fragile economy, and staggering crime rates.

Left-wing Colombian rebels kidnap between 2,000 and 3,000 people each year. Car bombings and random abductions are common throughout the tumultuous country, which ranks among Israel, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan for terrorist activity. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of State urged American citizens not to enter Colombia, partly because “there is a greater risk of being kidnapped in Colombia than in any other country in the world.”

“Bogotá was a hated city when my term began,” says Peñalosa, who served as mayor of Colombia’s capital city from January 1998 through December 2000, when “absurdly short” term limits prevented him from seeking reelection. “The people who live there despised the city, and they believed that it would only grow worse in the future.”

The former managing director of Arthur D. Little consulting in Colombia, Peñalosa worked to combat urban devastation in untraditional ways, using bike paths and public parks to lift downtrodden neighborhoods and to reduce national crime rates. In a country best known for paramilitaries, drug cartels, and crime kingpin Pablo Escobar, Peñalosa focused his efforts on education and public spaces. He built or reconstructed more than 1,200 urban parks, created 50 new schools and rehabilitated 150 more, planted 100,000 trees, increased public-school enrollment by 34%, and introduced nearly 200 miles of pedestrian walkways and bike paths throughout Bogotá.

For his efforts, he nearly got impeached. Wealthy residents began a petition to oust Peñalosa when he barred them from parking on sidewalks and from fencing in the public parks in upper-class neighborhoods. The petition failed, and by the end of Peñalosa’s term, street crime had fallen 50%, and murders had dropped 20% in Bogotá. Though the city is still no peaceable kingdom, Bogotá made great strides forward during the late 1990s. And Peñalosa learned that transforming a terrorized city requires more compassion than castigation, more humanity than hostility.

Today, Peñalosa sees an opportunity to reinvent urban America under those same principles. On October 3, he shared his vision with three dozen mayors from Pasadena, California to Kenosha, Wisconsin to Adelaide, Australia during the Urban Land Institute‘s fall meeting in Boston. As other city leaders focused on better malls, anthrax scares, and federal assistance, Peñalosa introduced an inspiring blueprint to guide the planners and builders of America’s great future cities.

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“When we judge a city’s success, we talk about superhighways, skyscrapers, and parking places,” says Peñalosa, now a visiting scholar at New York University. “Modern cities are built for cars’ mobility, not for children’s happiness. But I believe the most successful big city would be totally accessible on a child’s tricycle.”

That means viewing public space as a budget priority, not a frivolity. It also means allocating fewer funds for highway improvement or expansion and more for light-rail systems and bicycle paths, he says. That open-space doctrine makes sense not only from an aesthetic or environmental point of view but also from the standpoint of public safety and equality.

At a time when democratic principles are threatened and treasured more than ever, Peñalosa says that Americans can only achieve true equality by allowing all citizens — rich and poor, old and young, Islamic and Jewish — their Constitutional right to pursue happiness.

“Higher-income people can drive to the countryside, go to clubs, and eat at restaurants during their free time,” he says. “For the poor, the only leisure-time alternative to television is public space. For that reason, high-quality, public, pedestrian space is needed for a true democracy to work.”

Parks and public space are also important to a democratic society because they are the only places where people meet as equals, Peñalosa says. When you travel the same sidewalks, play in the same parks, and share the same cemeteries, differences in income, nationality, race, and religion seem to fade away.

Peñalosa says that the importance of public parks is magnified in crowded urban centers like New York and in Third World centers, where the effects of overpopulation are severe. He predicts that by 2015, there will be 22 megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants in the Third World. In his own city of Bogotá, the population has skyrocketed 1000% in the past 25 years. At the same time, entire populations of squatters have sprung up outside the city, forming their own makeshift societies without any planning, resources, or choice. Peñalosa fears for the children growing up in those transient towns, where the only alternative to boredom is violence.

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“In cities like Bogotá, public parks and pedestrian walkways are often viewed as frivolous and useless, but they are really the most important things,” says Peñalosa, who is now writing a book about Third World cities. “Public space is for living, doing business, kissing, and playing. Its value can’t be measured with economics or mathematics; it must be felt with the soul.”

In a speech to the Urban Parks Institute earlier this year, Peñalosa said that pedestrian streets, sidewalks, greenways, bicycle paths, metropolitan parks, neighborhood parks, and plazas demonstrate respect for the most vulnerable members of society: the poor, the old, and children. In his address to the international mayors’ forum, he encouraged leaders across the United States to rethink the function and form of their cities. Though many of the attending mayors were fixated on post-September 11 problems, such as hate crimes, public-transportation safety, and declining tourism, Peñalosa urged them to build the new face of the United States with humane principles and wide, open spaces.

He also predicted that as cities develop their own unique solutions for future growth and development, citizens will begin to associate themselves more with a metropolis than with a form of government, a religion, or a territory. “In the future, nation-states will matter less,” he says. “Cities, as they grow more competitive and innovative, will matter more than ever.”

Anni Layne Rodgers (arodgers@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company senior Web editor. Learn more about the Urban Land Institute on the Web.

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