the Wagner Planner

The Wagner Planner is an independent student journal of the Urban Planning Student Association at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.



Nicolas Galarza talks with former Mayor Enrique Penalosa. Photo by Nicolas Galarza.

Man With A Mission

An Interview with Former Mayor of Bogota, Enrique Penalosa

Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, is a recognized authority in the planning world and is consultant for many governments throughout the world. Among several distinctions, in 2009 he was awarded with the Gothemburg Award for Sustainable Development, widely regarded as the Novel Prize for the Environment.

Mr. Peñalosa agreed to talk with the Wagner Planner about his vision of the city, equity, politics, his experience as Major of Bogota, how it was to implement the BRT – TransMilenio – system in Bogotá, and the use of cars in the city. He also gave some advice to planners on the frantic process of urbanization in the world and about what planners should do to build better cities.

Nicolás Galarza: It is said that cities are a great tool for generating equity and your work in Bogotá is a significant proof of that. How did you build your vision of the cities as instruments of equity?

Enrique Peñalosa Londoño: I fully agree with you that the cities are really powerful instruments to construct equality and if not equality [then] equity. And inequality is the biggest obstacle to creating good cities. Inequality is what makes people want to go into private clubs and not to parks, keeps higher income people from using public transport, leads people to live in gated communities in the suburbs, leads to the privatization of beaches, and it is what makes it difficult to give priority in the use of road space to public transport.

But, how do you get there? Since I was a small boy, my father was in government. In 1976, he served as the secretary general of the World Habitat Conference, the United Nations conference on human settlements. I became more and more interested in cities. And at that time, Colombian cities were growing at about 5, 6, 7% annually. To me it was clear that it was more important what we did with cities to happiness and equality than anything else that we could do. That if we were able to save land for a park, this would create so much equality and joy and happiness for hundreds of years, and instead if we were not able to save this piece of land for a park this possibility would be lost – this possibility to create happiness for hundreds of years.

NG: Do you think planners should be more active in politics? And do you think that  your success as a planner and as a public servant had to do with the fact you had the authority as head of the city?

EPL: Well I never studied planning in college. I never took one course of planning. However I studied economics and history and then I did graduate work in management and government. It was very important to be a good manager I think because one thing is to talk and another one is to make reality. What is clear is that I wanted to become mayor because I wanted to create a kind of a city. It’s not just like it was for most politicians. It’s not just another job to become more important. No, for me, being mayor was a means to create this dream of a city. And I had written a lot about cities in the newspapers and things for many years. So in a way I had done much studies as a planner, but not in a formal way. And I clearly think planning is much more than a technical issue. Because what we are really choosing is how we want to live. A city is only a means to a way of life. So what we’re choosing is how do we want to live. I think it’s impossible to do planning without an ideological background or a vision, because basically what we are deciding is what kind of society will make us happier. So clearly this is not a technical issue. It’s closer to religion than to engineering.

NG: What is your advice on how to balance the technical vision and your plans, with the will of the people?

EPL: I believe ideas are very powerful, and they can change the way people see things. But as things stand, the change is always very difficult, even the changes that are evidently good for you. Like, for example, when I was vice president of the Bogotá Water and Sanitation Company and maybe even before any big corporation, I decided we would not buy any more typewriters, and we would only use computers. And then I sent everybody to computer lessons and everybody was so proud, and the secretaries were so proud, and they on their desk went and took the course and they got the computer and then they would put a flowerpot on top of the computer and continue using the typewriter. So, even something that can clearly improve your wellbeing and your productivity such as a computer is difficult to adopt at first.

So it’s difficult for people to change. And especially when we are talking about a city, I mean, the people that will be benefited, they don’t understand or they don’t care, especially if we are in developing countries cities. But the minority of people who feel they are affected and they are, or they imagine that they will be and make such a huge noise. For example, when we proposed to create bikeways, and no bikeways existed not only in Colombia but in Latin America. When we created a 300 km network of bicycle ways, there was not one meter of bicycle ways anywhere in America, and practically there were only bikeways in The Netherlands and Denmark and China. Nowhere else. And so it was a little crazy, but people thought it would be crazy to give space to bicycles and all this. Now we have more than 300,000 people using bicycles every day in Bogota. And now no one questions today that bicycle ways are good, and besides they are doing them everywhere in the world. They are doing bicycle paths in France and here in New York and everywhere, but at that time, 15 years ago, this was something that sounded crazy. And some even more crazy projects. Because we did about 60 km of roads only for pedestrians and bicycles, and so these were completely different concepts of how a city could be organized. If we had asked the people in these very low income areas sometimes where these bicycle highways go through, whether they wanted this, instead of paving the streets, the traditional streets, I’m sure they would have said no. And even though they don’t have cars! But it’s very difficult to change. I was almost impeached! It was very painful. I was almost impeached because I decided to get cars off the sidewalks. All it takes is a change in mentality. But that was extremely painful.

NG: Given the difficulty of implementing new ideas, how did you go about it?

Of course you have to try and sell the ideas, but in the end I think a mayor has to run risk and do things that are unpopular, or that some people will not like. In the end, people love it. Sometimes when societies are very democratic, such as the New England towns where everybody votes on everything, or Switzerland, it is very difficult to change anything, because change always starts with a minority idea. A new idea never happens to a majority at once. A new idea occurs to one person first, then this person may convince five more, then they convince ten or twenty or fifty or maybe even 10% of the population or 20%, but it’s always impossible that a new idea will have majority support initially. So, always change comes from a minority. Always change comes from one person initially and slowly from a minority. But to get change – to get majority approval for change – is almost impossible.

NG: How can cities be made more accessible to bicyclists? What would be your advice?

EPL: Well I think we can go again to equality. Every detail of what we do in a city should reflect that human beings are sacred. We tend to make cities which show that cars are sacred, not that human beings are sacred. In developing countries the issue is even more clear in terms of equality, because only a minority of people have cars, so anything that you do to protect pedestrians is not only good for human dignity, but it is also good for equality. Of course, it’s also good for the environment. The same thing with bicycles. I would say bicycling is just a more efficient way of walking. Today at least, I think, most people would agree that sidewalks are a right. Now, bikeways, that’s a question – is it just a cute architectural feature, or is it a right to be able to ride safely, without the risk of getting killed? This is a very interesting question. I think the in the future we should have the right to be able to ride in a protected bicycle way in every single street. It should be a right, not some kind of cute thing. Because, only if you think only those people in a motor vehicle have a right to safe mobility, without the risk of getting killed, which would not be very democratic, especially in the developing world. So, these are very important issues. But again, we have to know how to measure what a city should be like. Because otherwise, how will we know what is right or what’s wrong? Equity, is one measure. The other is, anything we do to a city or in a city, be it: a building, or a transport system or anything, does it make the city more pleasant to be when you are walking? More pleasant for children? For the elderly? For the pedestrian? Does it make it more fun? More pleasant? Or does it make it less?

NG: Continuing to the issue of transportation, you are perhaps best known for developing the BRT in Bogotá. How did you end up implementing TransMilenio after 20 years it was launched and created in Curitiba?

EPL: The Curitiba system was implemented in Brazil in a small city which was about 400,000 inhabitants at that time, and it was a very rich city. So, people never paid attention to the Curitiba system in the world, because the developed countries thought this was a developing country idea, and was not relevant. The other poor countries thought this was a very rich city and a very small city and so it was really not relevant. And even though at that time there was a dictatorship in Brazil, and so many people thought it would be easy to do that in a dictatorship, but not in a democracy. But to me it was absolutely clear – and it continues to be. I believe bus systems with exclusive lanes are not the best solution for cities in developing countries. They are the only solution possible, and not only because of cost.

There are many advantages to bus systems. One is that they have been very stigmatized as being for the poor. It was not always like this. In 1940, it was trams that were seen as bad and for the poor. That is why, when buses appeared, trams disappeared in a matter of ten or fifteen years, not because General Motors bought a few trams and scrapped them. Basically, they had a very bad image and buses were sexy. Of course, by 1940 already cars were sexy. When we did it in Bogota, which was a large city, a poor city, a mess of a city, and we did something that was very well done.

Today, TransMilenio is the best bus system in the world despite its failures. It is moving more passengers per hour than any of the subway lines in New York – than any of the subway lines in the United States or Europe. Even in China, or India, so only about four or five subway lines move more passengers per hour than TransMilenio. It has become a symbol, and very similar systems were copied all over the world. In Chile, in Mexico, in Indonesia, in China, in Iran, in Turkey, in Australia – everywhere.

NG: As students of urban planning, what is your advice for us who are going to be designing the cities and managing the cities that are going to receive 2 billion people in the next 50 years?

EPL: Well, there are different things to do in new cities, and others on existing cities. For example, in the United States clearly we all agree that suburbs are a disaster. It’s very boring, there are no people around, you have to go by car to buy bread or milk. They cannot have any autonomy, while in a good city any 12 year old child would be able to go everywhere by themselves, by bus or public transport or bicycle. And so, the question is, what is it that people seek in suburbs? There are many American cities, in what they call their inner suburbs, they are completely abandoned. They are very close to the center. Abandoned! Huge areas, in Birmingham, in Philadelphia, in Baltimore. There is a huge opportunity to demolish very large areas very close to the city center – totally demolish, and redo them. But people here are paralyzed by fright, because they feel guilt. But in Europe they have done hundreds of very successful public urban renewal projects. I mean, we cannot continue here in the Untied States to be in this analysis paralysis. You know, people cannot do anything. So there is a great opportunity here.

Now, in relation to the developing world, even in places where the societies have already largely urbanized, such as Latin America, where it’s almost 90 percent urban, the cities will more than double in square meters over the next 30 years. For example in Bogota will be more than double as large as it is today. Bogota’s population increased between 1950 and 2010, the urban population in Colombia went from about 35% to about 80%, and the large cities population increased by more than 1000%. We are going to have to do over the following 50 years in the developing world to do cities much more than they exist now. Much more. Cities from zero, where there is only agricultural land today, which are much more square meters than exist today. The issue is, are we going to do the same stupid things we have been doing? Cities without parks and so on. One of the main ways to be behind is bad, to be backward, but in some aspects its good, because we can learn from the development mistakes and successes of the advanced societies. I believe we can do totally new – and the opportunity for urban planners is amazing. We can do completely new cities, with hundreds of kilometers of roads for buses and pedestrian only, with hundreds of kilometers of promenades for bicycles and pedestrian only, without cars next to it. Just through the buildings. Completely different ways of organizing urban land – to provide in high density what people seek in suburbs. To provide green, great parks, but all of these things will only happen if government acts. This will not be the product simply of market forces.


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