Sunday, February 8, 2009

Lessons From Bogata

Once again, an inspiring urban leader has come to Boston. Enrique Penalosa, former mayor of Bogata, Columbia held forth at multiple speaking engagements last week, thanks to the Livable Streets Alliance, Walk Boston and the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. As with Nicky Gavron, the former deputy mayor of London who I saw speak last year, there was much food for thought as we heard about the farsighted transformations realized by this remarkable urban leader.

The capacity crowd filled the Rabb Lecture Hall as Mr. Penalosa began his presentation. Distilling things down to their essence, he was able to convey, not just the mechanics of his remarkable public transportation and urban planning vision, but the basic philosophy that underpins his view of cities, how they function and what makes them livable. The fundamentals he presented have relevance anywhere and we would all do well to remember them as we plan and make policy in our own communities.

In London, all policies and plans flowed from a single driving principal, namely to make London the city of the future by planning for sustainability in all sectors. Every possible program, expenditure and policy was held to this metric and every effort was made to mutually support initiatives through multiple means. This type of single-minded purpose, which in practice, becomes the homing beacon for a wide-ranging and mutually supporting set of initiatives is very much like the process that miraculously surfaced in Bogota. The transformation of Bogota from a city of despair and desperation to one of hope and optimism was based on holistic, practical, bottom-up thinking and carried forth by a series of strong charismatic leaders.

Mr. Penalosa's vision emanates from a what he calls "Urban Happiness", which could best be summarized as a "people first" perspective. To understand how to achieve urban happiness we first had to come to grips with a few basic truths, which Penalosa proceeded to lay bare with simplicity and clarity. Each of them providing a theoretical foundation for the next:

1. Adam Smith doesn't work in cities.

In other words, everyone working to maximize their own benefit doesn't equal the best outcome for the public at large. To redress this balance is government's job. Those with little income or resources also lack political power, which is why "democracy" alone, does not work to the advantage of the disadvantaged. In the end, maximizing the benefit of all brings the greatest amount of prosperity to the community by raising standards of education, human potential fulfillment, health and contentment.

2. There is a basic conflict between people and cars in a city.

How is it that we accept as normal the constant threat to our lives, our children's lives and our freedom of movement from the automobile? Given free reign, the car took over the most congested, and once pedestrian dominated spaces of our villages, central cities and neighborhoods. In developing countries the inequality of this is even more pronounced, as the percentage who own cars is very small, yet their tyranny over the environment is no less total. The answer is not to give everyone cars. As populations increase, density increases, infrastructure and land costs are prohibitive, the environmental and energy costs laid bare etc. the "American sprawl" model is revealed to be a domed strategy. Practical mass transit solutions are essential. A variety of modes, all given equal weight, dignity and investment are necessary to ensure continued circulation, public health, equity, access and preservation of a public life.
In our relatively recent history, we have allowed the private automobile to dominate and harass all forms of life. Cars aren't necessarily bad, but they belong some places and not others. People are social beings and we have allowed the automobile to destroy our public life.

3. Our greatest public spaces are our sidewalks.

How easy it is to take this vital resource for granted, yet, when is it that we "run into" our neighbor? Do you get to stop to chat when you are whizzing by in your car? Do you get to have unexpected encounters when all your social exchanges must be planned ahead of time or worse occur via the mediated environment of the computer screen? If we don't have pleasant walking environments to "draw us out of our houses" and give us a reason to spend time in the presence of others, how will be feel a part of our community? How will we be exposed to diversity and retain our humanity and humility?

4. The way to judge the success of a building is whether or not it creates a pleasing experience for the pedestrian.

How many architectural models get evaluated from the "birds eye" perspective? Or how many drawings of buildings get presented to planning boards that show a building in isolation from the perspective of a passenger in a car in the middle of the road? What do these models and drawings tell us about the experience of that building as we walk past it? Nothing. The pedestrian environment is about details, scale, feeling comfortably protected yet not closed in. We have plenty of examples of pleasant pedestrian environments here in Brookline, thanks to our historic commercial areas. Too bad new building designers can't seem to internalize and utilize these lessons.

5. Cities are for people.

While trees and other natural elements are very welcome and soften the hard edges of the city, cities are about human interaction. As many studies have shown, (most notably by William Whyte and Jan Gehl) people are attracted to places where other people are. We might want to sit in the shade under a tree, but we want to be able to see everyone there, we won't go sit with our back to the "action". To put it simply, having a plaza, in the European sense of the word makes more sense than trying to recreate a forest in the city. Like the automobile, this is a case of having the appropriate environment in the appropriate place. When we need isolation, quiet and communion with nature in a different way, we go elsewhere, to our sanctuaries, national parks, etc. In the city, we enjoy liveliness.

6. People behave the way they are treated.

A better way to put this might be that when people are treated with respect, they are free to respect themselves and each other. By concentrating on providing services, facilities, parks, etc.that benefit all members of society, you help equalize opportunities and improve conditions for the community as a whole. This also extends to the psychological and cultural transformation that occurs when you elevate the pedestrian or bicyclist by protecting them and making it easy for them to enjoy getting around, rather than what is the usual case of treating the person on foot or bike as an obstacle to the car and making them feel not only threatened physically, but psychologically and socially inferior.

7. We are all equal in the public realm.

By mixing in public places, we are better able to remember our essential equality. Also, being exposed to diversity in a non-threatening way can help us remain open to new ideas and new ways of being. This is a fundamental principle that F.L. Olmsted believed in too. By providing public parks that were equally enjoyable to all classes and gave access to activities and settings that before had only been the province of elites, he hoped to ease tensions between classes and help integrate new immigrant populations into the community. This access was, Olmsted believed a fundamentally humanizing and health giving force that was a right and necessity for modern life. He also believed it was a key element to maintaining a functioning democracy.

8. Pedestrians and Bicyclists are not second class citizens and they deserve infrastructure investment, not making do.

After seeing Mr. Penalosa's slides of those wide dedicated bike lanes and separate walking paths, that were obviously carefully laid out to gently curve, provide views and access between key public facilities I could not help but contrast that with what we have here. How many fine days did I struggle to access the narrow strip of the Charles River Bike Path, just to get some exercise and a glimpse of the river...For most of the way, the bike path is bordered by Storrow Drive with its roaring cars, and the path itself is packed with cyclist, walkers, dog walkers, skaters, baby strollers, tourists, etc. it is an obstacle course because of the mix of users, so much so that one cannot really ride freely. Yet for this bit of scenery and access we are grateful. Everywhere else, it is only constant vigilance that keeps us from getting killed and we put up with it.....

9. If pedestrian and bicycling facilities are provided, people will use and enjoy them.

Many transportation professionals still view pedestrians and bicyclists as an after thought and do not plan roadways, sidewalks, intersections or new developments with them in mind. Some of this is just institutional inertia, some political will from the car driving public, but it becomes a chicken and the egg kind of problem. While the numbers are small, it seems easy to treat the pedestrians and bicyclists as an after thought, however, this is a self-fulfilling proposition. If facilities are built and planning done to make environments that are pleasant and safe to use, people will flock to use them. This has been proven through the ciclovia events, or "car-free" days that were sponsored in Bogota and other cities. Here we have our Sunday closing of Memorial Drive and our Bike Beacon St. day. When a facility is given over to bikes and people they happily take advantage! It becomes a question of shifting the balance in how we allocate what is a public resource, and an increasing valuable public resource at that, our streets and sidewalks. It is not an all or nothing proposition, but the balance is so far skewed towards auto use that just moving it a bit seems a momentous undertaking.

10. Waterfronts should be made available to the public and enjoyed by all. Not for roads, cars or private access.

Water is precious and soothing and in a city especially waterfronts can be the most beautiful settings. Unfortunately, highway engineers like to route roads next to rivers, etc. because the land is available and there are no intersections. This has cut off access to many cities most precious resource and we must take it back. In Paris they even bring in truck loads of sand and put up beach umbrellas on the roadway next to the Seine to create a "beach" in the summer and the citizens flock to it. Public access to water ways must be protected through laws as well, which prohibit the closing of beach access, etc.

One wonders how Mr. Penalosa and his predecessors where able to gather the necessary political support to begin their visionary reforms. But we are grateful for the example it has given us of enlightened leadership and planning.

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