Big Think interview with Enrique Penalosa
Question: What Makes a City Great?
Penalosa: To me, at some point, it became more and more evident that what really makes a city a good city is it's pedestrian space; that's what really makes a difference. A city where you have great sidewalks, great parks, great pedestrian streets, great plazas; that's what a city really is. Out of the whole planet, the only microscopic space to which we have free access, especially if you are a poor student and you have no car or even money to go anywhere by train, is public pedestrian space in your city. The rest of the planet, we cannot go to other countries without having some Visa or some permission from other countries to let us in. Even in our country, our land is private—we cannot go to this land.
Question: What do citizens deserve from their city?
Penalosa: A good city should provide for some human needs that we have. Those needs are, for example, we need to walk—not just to survive, but to be happy. We could survive inside an apartment all our life, but if we can walk, and then if we can walk in ten meter wide sidewalks it is better than to walk in two meter wide sidewalks.
Then, here again, we come to an issue which is that there are no mathematical formulas when it comes to the signs and cities. It is very ideological—despite what Mr. Fukuyama says, that there is no more ideological discourse—everything about our city is ideological because it is something that cannot be proven right or wrong: The height of buildings? How do we mix commercial and residential? Shops and housing? How wide should sidewalks be? How abundant should parks be? Almost everything that makes a city better or worse is not something that cannot be defined in a certain mathematical or technical way, but we need to walk. We need to be in contact with nature, so we need also to have some trees or water.
We need to be with other people—we like to be with other people. We should be able to walk to buy milk. If we have to take a car to buy milk or to buy bread, then we don't meet many people in the street. We need not to feel inferior. One thing a great city does is that it puts very wealthy people next to very low income people, together, as equals. In parks, in waterfronts, in sidewalks, in public transport; hopefully, in culture and activities. Those are some–but again, we come back here always to the equality issue.
Question: Can cities help promote greater equality?
Penalosa: Many people thought after communism failed that we could forget about equality, that this was just an obsolete issue and that we should just worry about economic development and that everything will fall into place. Then we even have Mr. Fukuyama and then this is the end of ideology. We all agree now on everything, the market is the solution to everything, but I am not so sure because actually we have been trying to have more equality for the last 2,000 years. I mean, even more; Greece, Rome, the Judeo-Christian Revolution. I will even say that the western civilization came to happen, not because we had more advanced technologies or mathematical knowledge, but because we had this bonding element of equality, which was finally the basis for private property and laws that protected cities as rights and things like that. But over the last 300 years, all kinds of conflicts for more equality, so we cannot all of the sudden say that the equality is bunk.
So what kind of equality can we talk about today? Not income equality, clearly, because we all agreed that the best way to manage most of societies resources is private property and the market, and that creates income inequality. But, what kind of equality? So I would say at least equality of quality of life, at least for children; that all children should have access to everything they need to be happy, to green spaces. Without being members of a country club—to sports facilities, to libraries, to waterfronts.
Another basic principle of equality, I would say, is a basic principle of democracy; which is, in all democracies the first article in our Constitution is that all cities are seen as equal before the law. A consequence of that, which is explicit sometimes in the constitutions, if not always implicit, is that public good prevails over private interest. This is an extremely powerful principle.
If public good prevails over private interest, for example, we should not have private land around growing cities in the developing world. We should never have private waterfronts, especially around urban areas. So there is much to do, even in the United States. For example, all the Long Island coast should be public; a great greenway, a public park, and not these big fancy houses in front of the water. If we really had true democracy at work…if we have public good prevail over private interest, public transport should have priority over private cars in the use of road space.
Question: What are the challenges in making urban areas more sustainable?
Penalosa: Only in 2009 or 2010 or 2008, the world became more urban than rural for the first time in history. The developing world’s cities are growing extremely fast. Latin American urban development happened mostly between 1950 and 2000. The same thing that happened in Latin America, going from about 30 percent urban to about 70 or 80 percent urban, is the same thing that is happening in Asia now between 2000 and 2050—only in Asia, urban population is increasing by like 45 million people per year. But the amazing problem is that we are not really well organized for this. It is something that is much easier than putting somebody on the moon, but yet we have slums in many, many countries, all over the world. We have people either in slums or people living in over-crowded rooms with their whole family.
Enrique Penalosa on the cause of slums
Penalosa: So, if we find slums everywhere it cannot be because there was a bad Mayor or a bad President, because it cannot be that all Mayors are bad or stupid or corrupt everywhere in the world. There is a problem with the system. The system has a problem because the market economy, does not work well in the case of land around growing cities.
The market works well when prices increase–as prices increase, for example, in the case of tomatoes, the price of tomatoes increases, tomato production increases, and then the prices go down. But in the case of land around growing cities, if the price of land increases, the supply of land cannot increase—especially not the supply of land adjacent to the city where there is access to water, to schools, to jobs, to transportation.
That is really not justification for land around cities being private. In the countries, such as Sweden or Finland, since around 1900, 1904, all land around the cities belongs to the government. But in developing countries, a few rich people own the agriculture land around the city and they make enormous unjustified gains in the transformation between this land from rural to urban.
They are really are not effective tax gains, to tax earned profits from them. The problem is not so much that they make unjustified profits, but the problem is that the poor cannot solve their housing in a good well-designed neighborhood and the right places so that low income people go to the wrong places. Sometimes many, very often, to places who have high risks, such as landslide risk and some very high steep hills where they have to go to live or to flooding areas where which flood and many people die. Or anyway these surrounding neighborhoods, they have not enough public spaces, not enough roads, not enough parks, not enough anything.
On the limits of the market
Penalosa: We are at a time in where people believe in the market. That the market solves everything. In the case of cities, the market does not work very well. Government has to intervene. The market does not work well in the case of land around growing cities. The market does not, cannot, decide how wide sidewalks are or how high buildings are or how many parks we should have. The market will never create central parks. It’s government that will create the central parks and the pedestrian walkways. So, in this case of cities the market does not work well. Here is society, through something that we call government even though it is a dirty word to many people that has to decide what to do. The market will not created great cities. The market is creating gated condominiums in suburban low-density developments.
Question: How can cities balance investment in public space with meeting other short-term financial goals?
Penalosa: I don't think that is a contradiction between economic growth and the public space. First of all, I think the most crucial competitive factor in our time is not like it was in the past…land, or even, capital—but people, how to attract and retain the best qualified people. So I would say the most crucial competitive issue in our time is quality of life. And public pedestrian space is crucial for quality of life. Public pedestrian space gives the city the quality it needs to retain great people, but also it's very important for the people who live there themselves, for the poor.
So, I believe that there is no contradiction whatsoever in trying to have investment in some great public pedestrian space, but great public pedestrian space, however, different from most things governments do is not just a means. Most things governments do are a means to economic development. Governments invest in roads, in tunnels, in irrigation districts, in ports, in airports; because it is necessary for the country to produce material, goods, and services—but they are a means to an end. The end.
What is the end? The end is happiness. In the case of public pedestrian space, it's a very peculiar good because it's an end in itself.
I mean, just to have great public space makes people happier and creates more social integration. Again, I believe it also creates economic development because actually –for example, if I ask some people to go live…some cities in the third world have serious problems, like Lagos in Nigeria.
If people want to get some person to go live in Lagos, some expert engineer in something, they will have to pay him very, very much to compensate for the hardships of being in Lagos. Instead, when people go to Paris, it happens the opposite. People are willing to take a reduction in their material well being. They go without a car; they go with a much smaller apartment, because the city gives them so much back. So, actually, to invest in a good city is good business. It's not robots making investment decisions. We need to make a city that is attractive too
The people we most want to have in a city are those who could actually go anywhere in the world they want because they are such good technicians or artists or professionals at whatever they do, that they could choose to go wherever they want. If we don't have a great city, they will leave.
Question: What is your favorite part of New York?
Penalosa: Well, I love to ride my bicycle. I have had a small apartment in New York, a very small apartment, and I will say that I go around my neighborhood by a bicycle. I go through the village. I go through the East Village. I go through China Town. I like to go across the bridges by bicycle. I love to take the beautiful Hudson River Park bicycle way and go all the way up to Riverside Park and then to all the way to Harlem to go riding around there, to ride around the city college campus up town and I don't know.
What is a particular place that I like? Well, I like more of the area that I know more, which is all the area around the East Village and the -- all this area I enjoy. There is a lot of life and a lot of people. The Union Square area.
Question: Has New York used its pedestrian space effectively?
Penalosa: Well, New York was very innovative. I like to tell the people in the developing world, "Look." New York is very innovative. It was innovative in the past. I like to tell the people in the developing world cities, "Look. European parks were mostly the playgrounds of the wealthy, of the nobles, and the Kings, and the aristocrats, and sometimes it was necessary to cut their heads off in order to turn this land into parks. But Central Park was a park done by a democracy and it was done around 1870. When New York was smaller and poorer than most developing country cities today and even with that example developing county cities don't have many central like park examples to show."
But I would say that recently New York has invested again in public pedestrian space and has done some very interesting things. The Hudson River Park, the bicycle ways. What has been done recently by Janette Sadik-Khan, the transport commissioner, and Mr. Bloomberg, making more bicycle ways—so far only painted lanes mostly, but hopefully, more and more, they will be physically protected bicycle-ways. They have created the High-Line, the elevated, the former Red-Line, which has been turned into a park. It will be the same as there is one in Paris, too. These are fantastic public pedestrian spaces; these new public pedestrian spaces are some that are taking care of by private organizations, such as Central Park.
But, I think, first, there are some things that are still needed for the future and some that are have to be done to better conserve what exists. I mean, the main issue is New York sidewalks. I am very concerned with the New York sidewalks; there is a lot of dirt and the vendors are really taking over the New York sidewalks. Somehow, people think this is democratic to allow anybody to go and sell anything in the street. No, the vendors are not the poor people. The poor people are the hundreds of thousands of people who walk in New York sidewalks. If we want New York public space to be a space for integration between the wealthy and the poor, we have to keep this clean and there is nothing wrong about having beautiful spaces. Not people just put up ATM machines in the sidewalks and nobody seems to tell them anything.
Some streets in New York really are almost now like if they were in the most backward developing world cities, like Canal Street, and many places. So I think New York sidewalks need to be better kept; vendors have to be erratically restrained. I mean, you may allow a few vendors I suppose, with some restrictions and some regulations. But it is really becoming -- it's getting to a point where it's completely… So they say that there are some constitutional restrictions to restrict vendors, but I don't see why because in Chicago the sidewalks are perfect and you have the same constitution in Chicago.
So I think there is –you have to be extremely careful, but the thing is that you see that the new pedestrian spaces that have been created are the ones that are cared by the private sector, like Central Park or the high-line, or the Hudson River Park, they are beautiful; they have nice flowers, they are clean, they don't have vendors. Why? They are not managed in the same way the other public pedestrian space is. Now, for new projects.
Question: Can New York become a Bike-Friendly city?
Penalosa: I think New York will be an example. New York is an example to the planet. But New York is an example and I think clearly there is a challenge to complete the whole bicycle way all around Manhattan, in the Upper West Side, and I mean, especially to the north. It is necessary to work a lot to complete the pedestrian and bicycle walkway by the water side.
There are many, many streets where protected bicycle ways are needed because -- and some even seems to be – some were painted initially and now they seem to be getting better, like on 10th street It's like getting a raise, the one that was painted. So clearly there is a space in New York which is the real issue—it is the parking space for cars in the streets. The United States Constitution has many rights. People in the United States have a right to live without fear, without crime; they have a right to free education. They have a right to work—many rights. But parking is not a constitutional right. I think it should be questioned more seriously whether how to use this space which is now being taken by cars parking by the curbside.
It is a small minority of people who are taking up this extremely valuable space in the streets of New York, to park. I think in many streets you could get rid of parking and make some much bigger sidewalks, make some fantastic protected bicycle ways in all directions. Some regulations, I think, also have to be enacted so that people can walk in with bicycles into the elevators and into the hallways so that –if people can go with dogs or with shoes into a hallway or in an elevator, why not go with a bicycle? But this—New York I think, and Manhattan I think in particular, is the perfect city for everybody to move by bicycle. Even in the winter it is possible –most of the winter, with some coats to go by bicycle everywhere.
Question: Is it possible to have a city without cars?
Penalosa: We have had cities in the world for about 5,000 years, from Babylon and Ohr, and all of these wonderful cities. And for 5,000 years, all the streets were only for pedestrians. Even when we see pictures of New York in 1910, you see people walking in the street. I mean in Manhattan you see everybody—Manhattan was a pedestrian city in 1910. Everybody was walking in the middle of the street.
But the twentieth century was a disaster because we made cities much more for cars than for people; and we made horrible things such as the FDR and things like this. But, happily, all over the world this began to change at the end of twentieth century. We realized we had made a big mistake everywhere—that we have made cities for cars, not for people, so in Europe they began to pedestrianize streets. Now there is not one single city of town in Europe where there is not at least several blocks or a large area only pedestrian for a few streets. They began to make bigger sidewalks to get rid of street parking. And everywhere in the world I would say that in any advanced city today transport policy translates in to how to reduce car use.
Question: How can New York reduce it’s care usage?
Penalosa: But I think the best way to do it is to have–-to restrict parking. I think more progressively that should be a goal. We can also ask the people in New York, because it's only a minority of people who have cars. We should ask the people, "Do you want these cars parked there or do you want these beautiful big sidewalks with bicycle ways around in Manhattan?" Why can't of people in Manhattan vote on this? Why can't people in Manhattan vote whether they want beautiful network of bicycle ways and bigger sidewalks or do they want cars parked there?
So I think the way to restrict cars in Manhattan is, first of all, to get rid of curbside parking in the street. You cannot just do a negative reinforcement to get rid of the parking. You have to use something in exchange, which is a beautiful sidewalk or a beautiful bicycle way, or both.
So, and the second thing to do is to charge for the cars coming through the bridges, which are free. There are still many bridges –it is very easy to do congestion charging in Manhattan because you don't really have to do congestion charging. You just have to charge for crossing the bridges. It is a little even contradictory to have congestion charging when you allow people to cross the bridges for free. So I really believe that the first thing to do in Manhattan is to charge on the Manhattan Bridge and Williamsburg Bridge, and all the other bridges where people are going across the bridge for free.
The money that you collect from charging to cars, you can invest in improving pedestrian and bicycle ways and to subsidized public transport to make better and cheaper public transport, for everybody.
On the importance of improving public transportation
Penalosa: I think, in my areas of New York, you will need to improve -- New York has some of the best subway system in the world but still it doesn't go many places. There are many places which are under sale by public transport so you need great public transport and I think you need to improve the bus service. I mean, you need to have busses that go much faster. You need busses that really go in exclusive bus lanes, that go much faster and to many more places. To take a bus in New York is absurdly slow. I mean, it is almost faster to go walking.
Question: What is the most important next step for American Cities?
Penalosa: I mean we have to understand why people went to the suburbs. It’s not because they were dumb. It is because the suburbs were providing some things that the dense cities were not. The suburbs provided, ironically, safe spaces for children to ride bicycles, because people wanted the children to play safe in the street and ride a bicycle and, ironically, these completely car-dependent environments provided that.
Also, the suburbs provide green and contact with nature, more parks, but I believe it is possible to create cities which provide a little bit of both. Higher density environments… You don’t need, by the way, fifty-story high buildings to have high density. You can have just with five, six-story high buildings you can have very high densities, a huge amount of pedestrian and bicycle networks, greenways, bus ways, and we could very easily with very simple details have completely different cities that would work much better than the ones that we have today.
Question: Are many American cities moving in the right direction?
Penalosa: What I’m saying is things… And I see all over the United States it is clear. I talked the Texas developers and they talk like the most progressive and expert urbanites about mixed use and density and all this, but I think we have to be even more radical because we talk about the new urbanism, in the U.S., which is like going back to this quaint 1900 town.
I think we can do some much more radical things with much bigger pedestrian spaces; some more creative and different conceptions of a modern city, giving much more importance to the bicycle, I believe the bicycle—and now we have a new machine that I think is going to contribute to completely change the way we live, which is the electric bicycle because this allows people to use bicycles over longer distances or over hills, or elderly people. Bicycles, I think, we really have to…in the future I think protected bicycle ways are going as obvious as sidewalks are today, to have a protected bicycle everywhere. And the United States will have to develop in higher density environments. And the only way to do this is demolishing some of these inner suburbs, and making higher densities, but this… What I’m trying to… These new developments can be completely different, not just the typical street and sidewalk, but you could have as we are talking about, completely different urban environments.