Enrique Penalosa and the civilised city


Monday, September 15, 2008
by Ahmad Rafay Alam

Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of the Colombian capital of Bogota, will be visiting Pakistan under the auspices of the Clinton Climate Initiative this week. He will be addressing gatherings of senior government officials, policymakers and civil society in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

Mr Penalosa is most famous for rejecting, as mayor of Bogota, a proposal by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to construct a multibillion-dollar rapid mass-transit system and instead introducing a series of people-friendly urban-planning interventions. This was a marked shift from what is accepted as “development.” Mr Penalosa is of the view that this change in priorities is necessary for cities to remain competitive in today’s world.

Cities today are increasingly becoming the hub of service industries that manage the flow of capital between cities within a country and, in this age of globalisation, around the world. In order to remain competitive, in order to survive, cities today have to cater to the needs of these specialised service industries. The Global Cities of today – London, New York, Tokyo – are examples of cities that cater to the needs of a global market. In these cities you will find lawyers, accountants and consultants who manage the capital of the world economy. In these cities you will see facilities that cater to the needs of these workers: high-density, high-tech high-rises for office space, rapid mass-transit for mobility and a host of recreational facilities geared to improve the quality of life.

Mr Penalosa argues that cities in developing countries – if they continue on their current trajectory of development – will take another century-and-a-half to reach the sophistication of cities in the West. He points out that the cities of the developing world are rapidly changing and are set for even more radical changes. At the moment, just over half of the world’s population lives in cities. This percentage is set to rise to 75 percent by 2050. Most of the people in the world already live in the cities of the developing world and their number and the size of the cities in the developing world is set to double or treble within this period. It is simply impossible, argues Mr Penalosa, for cities in developing countries to try and compete with the development in cities in the Western world.

What Mr Penalosa suggests as an alternative is to focus on quality of life and cities as liveable habitats that power the engine of growth. He sets the definition of a civilised city as a place where the rich and poor both use public transport, where a three-year old can be safe from cars and traffic and where public good prevails over private interest.

These suggestions may sound like the poetry of some romantic or idealist. This is not the case. They come from the man whose achievements in the three-year term he was mayor are challenging the very idea of what development should be.

When elected mayor, Mr Pensalosa took action against car owners who parked their vehicles on green belts. He reduced the width of roads in the city centre and, in turn, increased the width of sidewalks. He rejected a project proposal from JICA to build a multibillion-dollar rapid mass-transit system and instead spent a fraction of the amount in providing dedicated bus lanes. He introduced Transmilinio, a bus rapid transit system based on the one developed by Jamie Lerner in the Brazilian city of Curitiba. He stopped all money being spent on roads for cars, and instead spent it on schools, museums, developing public parks and nearly 300 km of pedestrian and cycle promenades, the cicloruta, that makes it possible to access these places without being molested by automobile traffic. He passed a law prohibiting 40 percent of the automobiles from the streets of the city during rush hour and passed a law requiring every citizen of Bogota to use public transport the first weekend of every February.

Mr Penalosa is of the view that money spent on automobile infrastructure is money wasted. We have proof of this on our own city streets where ubiquitous road “remodelling” projects do nothing but add an additional lane of traffic. We build huge traffic arteries bisecting the fabric of our built heritage but forget that, in doing, so we are only moving ourselves further and further away. The increased distance negates the mobility provided by the money spent on the road.

In the meanwhile, Mr Penalosa points out that the urban poor become increasingly marginalised. Most of the people who live in cities in Pakistan already live in slums or unspeakable squalor. It really is a scandal. For the urban middle class, there is not much alternative to the home and the work place. In today’s Pakistan, as consumer items become more and more readily available, the big difference between the rich and poor is quality of their recreational time. The rich and poor may work alongside one another in varying degrees of social hierarchy, but when office hours are over, the overwhelming majority of urban residents do not have the benefit of a private country club or the pockets for a fancy restaurant. There are hardly enough cinemas to go to. There are no museums. There are no art galleries. There are no libraries. Thus, the urban poor or, more specifically, the urban non-elites, have nowhere to go.

Mr Penalosa has written that “Just as a bird needs to fly, humans need to walk.” Not to get from place to place, but to be happy. A city where rich and poor mingle together – London’s Hyde Park, for example, where billionaires and beggars walk shoulder-to-shoulder – is a city whose people interact with one another. Our cities do not allow for social interaction in a public space. It almost seems as if we shun the very idea of public interaction. But interaction is what gives humans quality of life. Humans need quality of life to be the efficient machines needed to power the economy of the future. The arguments work. During Mr Penalosa’s tenure, crime in Bogota fell dramatically (and this is cocaine country we’re talking about), school enrolment rose, property prices went up and the quality of life increased. The interests and the elite that were affected by these changes protested. Loudly. But by the time Mr Penalosa left office, many could do nothing but be proud of the newly invigorated city centre, the public parks, the libraries and cicloruta.

The politicians and bureaucrats in Pakistan haven’t quite grasped this concept yet, nor have they placed this idea within the larger framework of a globalised world. They are doing us no favours. The chief minister of Punjab has allocated nearly a quarter of a billion rupees for the feasibility study of an overhead expressway along Lahore’s Ferozepur Road. The CDA in Islamabad just launched the Rs2.3 billion Zero Point Interchange Project and the City District Government of Karachi is also looking at at least two overhead automobile expressways. This is in the face of the fact that a disproportionately small number of people actually own and drive cars. The automobile elite has a throttle grip on our urban development agenda.

According to Mr Penalosa, democracy is not a political process. It embodies itself in the urban development agenda. If you see billions of rupees being spent on a road that doesn’t have proper sidewalks, you don’t have democracy: you have an urban automobile elite telling you a man in a car is more important than a man on bicycle. Isn’t it shocking that there are many amongst us who know more about the safety of baby whales in the Pacific Ocean than the millions of children on the streets of our cities? It is no development if, in 2008, we programme our three-year olds to be terrified of cars and traffic just as we terrified them of the wolf a hundred years ago. This is not the way cities should be managed. This is not how we should let our tax money be spent.

Mr Penalosa will be addressing civil society at the Sayeed Saigol Auditorium at LUMS at 11am on Sept 19. Let’s see how many come in their cars.

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@nexlinx. net.pk

first published in the NEWS

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