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'Third World Wisdom' What Bogota Colombia Can Teach Us About Progress

Aug 17, 2007
It sounds surprising, but Bogota, Colombia is one of the most modern metropolitan cities in Latin America, and one of the most progressive. Urban development in Bogota is proving to be environmentally friendlier, cost effective and convenient for the citys residents, and the world is taking notice.

Perched high in the Andes, 2,600 meters above sea level, Bogota is the biggest and busiest city in Colombia, edging towards 8 million people. Its the centre of Colombias economy, military and trade industries, and the face of a country which has struggled for peace and security for many years.

Both historically and contemporarily, Bogota has struggled to cope with civil unrest, widespread poverty, violence and one of the largest illegal drug producing industries in the world. But beyond the headlines of chaos, Bogota has plenty to teach the world about progress.

In 1998 Enrique Penalosa was elected as mayor of Bogota. During his term of service, which lasted until 2001, he was responsible for a radical agenda of successful urban re-development projects. These projects were not developed out of environmental and economic concerns only, but also out of concern for the psychological and physical effects on Bogotas residents through over urbanisation.

He declared 'I dream of a tropical city, crisscrossed by large pedestrian avenues, shaded by enormous tropical trees, as the axes of life of those cities.'

His motivation was his belief that a developing nation could take their modest situation in the scheme of global wealth and development as an advantage. An opportunity to avoid development mistakes of first world nations, and in doing so, create the best urban environment possible: one that services the needs of its citizens efficiently but is also an enjoyable environment to live in.

He said 'Over the past 80 years we have been building cities for cars much more than for people. If only children had as much public space as cars, most cities in the world would become marvelous.'

He also believed that by bringing nature closer to Bogotas poor communities, he was bridging the gap between the wealthy, who could afford to take countryside vacations, and the poor, by providing them with better recreational areas that would give them somewhere to relax, exercise and spend time with family, leading to a happier existence and healthier lifestyle for all.

One of the most celebrated initiatives he undertook was the development of a massive network of cycleways all over the city, giving commuters a safer, healthier and environmentally friendly alternative to travelling to work by car.

Fittingly, the project was largely funded by an increase in taxes on petrol. The thinking was, that those wealthy enough to choose to travel by car instead of by bike, could choose to wear the hike in tax also. Revenue was also raised by increasing public parking fees.

Restrictions were also placed on the hours between which people could drive cars through the streets of the city, forcing people to ride bikes, walk or catch public transport during peak hour periods. The desired affect was achieved with a reduction of nearly 40% of cars during these hours.

Today there is more than 300kms of ciclorutas in Bogota, the most extensive network in any city of the world. The use of bicycles in Botoga has risen by 900% and the amount of traffic accidents has also reduced dramatically.

But Penalosas efforts did not end there. In February 2000, Penalosas first 'car free day' was held. No cars were allowed to drive anywhere in the entire city between 6:30 am until 7:30pm. Despite the day occurring on a Thursday, no major disruptions were reported, and some local retail businesses even reported a welcome increase in sales.

The day was declared a success and a public referendum was held, determining that an annual car free day every February would be organised. Further to this, it was decided that by 2015, driving between morning and afternoon peak hours would be banned altogether during weekdays.

Public approval of the plan was such that now, every Sunday in Bogota is also a car free day, allowing residents to travel by roller blades and bikes anywhere within the city without the danger of cars to contend with.

Along with the reduction of personal vehicle use, Penalosa also focused on an efficient public transport system, and the development of Bogotas Transmilenio system was begun. Car lanes on busy streets and arterial roads were reclaimed for a network of high speed buses in dedicated lanes.

Since the opening of the system in late 2000, the travelling time of the average commuter using the system was decreased by 32%, gas emissions were reduced by 40% and the amount of accidents in areas where the system operates reduced by 90%.

There were critics, of course, but the majority of Bogotanos supported these projects. They are now enjoying the benefits of exercise, shorter traveling times to and from work and reduced transport expenses. Family welfare groups are also supportive, due to the increase on families spending time together rollerblading and biking around the city.

Today, Penalosa is hailed as a pioneer. He is credited by many Colombians as changing the face of their nation but the international community has also recognised his work. In 2000, he received the prestigious Stockholm Challenge Award in recognition of his Car Free Day project.

The award was designed to acknowledge those who pioneer technological developments to improve quality of life and provide plausible models for others to follow for the sake of global improvement, be it environmentally or socially.

After his term as Mayor of Bogota he was invited to speak on behalf of the world Energy Foundation. Today he is a scholar at the New York University where he is writing a book on Urban Development.

When Penalosa's term ended in 2001, his campaign did not. As well as pursuing urbanisation issues academically, he now works as a consultant for developing world cities. His projects in Bogota have become the centre of research and study by other cities around the globe, as a model for local development projects in places including Mexico City, Delhi, Lima, Panama City, Jakarta and Guangzhou.

But perhaps the greatest contribution Penalosa made was his demonstration that good urban development comes firstly through a change of attitude. That by taking action and exploring less conventional approaches, change for the better is possible and affordable.

As he said, Public space is for living, doing business, kissing, and playing. Its value can't be measured with economics or mathematics; it must be felt with the soul.
About the Author
Gaizka Pujana is the co-owner of Barcelona Homes, S.L. which is a company
specialized in providing short term tenancy solutions in Seville and Barcelona through its
web pages Bogota apartment rental"
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