An interview with the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia reveals some essentials in city design. Straying from the norm of building cities for cars, Enrique Peñalosa focuses on designing new urban centers for people. Creating more face-to-face interaction on the street allows citizens to meet at an equal level and keeping public beaches gives every kid, even those without country club memberships, the opportunity to play in the sand. When people become separated within their cars, a hierarchical form of segregation divides the people on the street from the people in vehicles while the rise of individualized transportation has increased pollution in the urban centers here in the US. As our cities continue to urbanize, we should learn from thinkers like Peñalosa who seek equality, democracy, and environmental improvement where we live, work, and play. -Editor
Questions for Enrique Peñalosa
June 8, 2008
Man With a Plan
Interview by DEBORAH SOLOMON
Q: As a former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, who won wide praise for making the city a model of enlightened planning, you have lately been hired by officials intent on building world-class cities, especially in Asia and the developing world. What is the first thing you tell them? In developing-world cities, the majority of people don’t have cars, so I will say, when you construct a good sidewalk, you are constructing democracy. A sidewalk is a symbol of equality.
I wouldn’t think that sidewalks are a top priority in developing countries. The last priority. Because the priority is to make highways and roads. We are designing cities for cars, cars, cars, cars, cars. Not for people. Cars are a very recent invention. The 20th century was a horrible detour in the evolution of the human habitat. We were building much more for cars’ mobility than children’s happiness.
Even in countries where most people can’t afford to own cars? The upper-income people in developing countries never walk. They see the city as a threatening space, and they can go for months without walking one block.
Isn’t that true here in the United States as well? Not in Manhattan, but there are many suburbs where there are no sidewalks, which is a very bad sign of a lack of respect for human dignity. People don’t even question it. It’s the same as it was in pre-revolutionary France. People thought society was normal, just as today people think it is normal that the Long Island Sound waterfront should be private.
Are you comparing people with homes overlooking the Long Island Sound to corrupt French aristocrats? If democracy is to prevail, public good must prevail over private interests. The question is: would the majority of people be happier with a public waterfront on the Long Island Sound or not? All children should have access to waterfronts without being members of a country club.
Do most of the six billion people in the world live in cities or in the country? At this very instant, a little bit more in the country. We are in the process of becoming more urban. In the developing world, more than half the cities, especially in Asia and Africa, are yet to be created.
What are the best-designed cities in the world? The best-designed cities are in northern Europe, like the Dutch and Danish cities.
As mayor of Bogotá, you reclaimed the sidewalks for pedestrians by banning sidewalk parking, your most famous achievement. The most famous and the most controversial. But we started by building bicycle paths, and now 5 percent of the population, more than 350,000 people, go to work by bicycle.
Why do you think you lost your most recent bid for mayor last year? I had some huge fights when I was mayor. I was almost impeached for getting the cars off the sidewalk.
Do you own a car? Yes, an S.U.V. with armor.
You mean it’s bulletproof? Yes. We had some problems.
People shot at you? No, they never shot at me, but you never know. Any politician in Colombia is at risk.
Where were you educated? I went to Duke. I actually majored in economics and history.
You were probably the only socialist at Duke. I eventually realized, of course, that socialism was a failure as an economic system. Yet equality is not dead. Socialism is dead, but equality as a goal is not dead.
Do you see yourself as a city planner or a politician? At heart what I really am is a Colombian politician, but a bad one because I lose elections.
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED, CONDENSED AND EDITED BY DEBORAH SOLOMON