Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogotá from 1998 to 2001, is credited with bringing major changes to the Colombian capital, including the library system, parks, the bus rapid transit (BRT) system and improving hundreds of poor schools. He talks to Alia Dharssi at the LSE Urban Age conference in Delhi about how he got things done, rethinking urban planning and pedestrian-friendly cities.
We’ve spent a lot of time at this conference talking about how local governments have a hard time getting things done, that they don’t have enough decision-making power, enough money and so forth. But you got a lot done when you were Mayor of Bogotá. How did you do it?
Well, the mayor of Bogotá has a lot of power. But I also had a very clear vision of what I wanted to accomplish. Many politicians want power, but they really don’t know what to do with it once they have it. With me, it was the opposite. I wanted to be elected because of my vision of what I wanted to accomplish, not the other way around.
I was also able to get top-quality people – very dynamic people from the private sector who mostly weren’t involved in politics. We were able to work as a team with a clear vision. We also had dedicated project managers. For example, the library project had a manager who was hundred percent focused on the library project. The bus system had a manager who was focused 24 hours a day on the BRT project. We didn’t put the Secretary of Transport in charge because the Secretary of Transport had too many other worries. In this way, we were able to do an amazing amount of things.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Bogotá today?
Bogotá is still doing many things wrong. We need good management. We have had so many bad mayors recently. They increased the size of the bureaucracy and made the institutions less efficient. They’ve also focused on giving out subsidies instead of spending money on public works. But, in general, the growth of the city needs to be better planned. The national government should buy land in the right areas around the city and urbanize it well with large parks and good planning.
That relates to one of the main themes of the conference – that we have a chance to shape the future of cities through design because of how much and how fast they will grow in size over the next few decades. What kind of planning would you like to see in Bogotá? What should be the future?
Well, the most important thing for Bogotá, or cities in India, is that they grow in the right place – not where some developer decides, but in the optimum place to minimize factors such as travel times. Second, cities should be designed in a totally different way. For example, every other street – or at least every three or four streets – should be a greenway only for pedestrians and bicycles so that hundreds of kilometres of greenway criss-cross that city, like bicycle highway. Some roads should also only be for buses. I think you also need protected bikeways in every street, very large sidewalks and no parking in the streets.
Where will the cars go?
You know, the fact that you buy a car does not give the government any obligation to give you parking the same way that buying a refrigerator doesn’t give the government any obligation to give you an apartment. This is very important. Parking is not a constitutional right. I think the biggest problem in Indian cities and many backward cities in developing countries, including Colombia, is poor quality footpaths. Ideally, footpaths should continue at grade across intersections so it’s cars that have to come up and down, so that it’s very clear that it’s cars that are going through people’s space and not the opposite.
Those kinds of changes could flip how people experience roadways. In closing, what kinds of things do you think other countries should learn from Colombia’s experience?
India has so much to learn from Latin America’s recent urbanization experience. They should learn what to do, but, mostly, they should learn what not to do. The main thing that they should do is buy land around cities so that the cities grow with large parks in the right places. They should have very different urban design with much more space for pedestrians, not for cars. See, you smile when I tell you that there should be no cars parked in the streets, but it’s very normal in Indian cities for people to have no place to walk. And nobody cares. Nothing is done about it. It’s a very bad problem.
Alia Dharssi is a senior editor at The Global Urbanist.