Imagining the Democratic City
An accomplished public official, economist and administrator, Enrique Peñalosa completed his three-year term as Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia on December 31, 2000. While mayor, Peñalosa was responsible for numerous radical improvements to the city and its citizens. He promoted a city model giving priority to children and public spaces and restricting private car use, building hundreds of kilometers of sidewalks, bicycle paths, pedestrian streets, greenways, and parks. After organizing a Car-Free Day in 2000, he was awarded the Stockholm Challenge Award and rewarded by a referendum vote endorsing an annual car-free day and the elimination of all cars from streets during rush hours from 2015 onwards.
Thanks to his extensive efforts to make Bogota a greener, more livable city, Peñalosa now serves as an adviser and model to the Bloomberg administration, which in recent years has undertaken the serious work of greening New York City.
He currently works with Project for Public Spaces, a New York City-based nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people create and sustain public places that build communities.
While Mayor, Peñalosa also led efforts to improve Bogotá's marginal neighborhoods through citizen involvement; planted more than 100,000 trees; created a new, highly successful bus-based transit system; and turned a deteriorated downtown avenue into a dynamic pedestrian public space. He helped transform the city's attitude from one of negative hopelessness to one of pride and hope, developing a model for urban improvement based on the equal rights of all people to transportation, education, and public spaces.
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.
Enrique Peñalosa describes how cities can encourage greater equality.
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