Parks for Livable Cities: Lessons from a Radical Mayor
The following is a transcript of a keynote address at the Urban Parks Institute’s “Great Parks/Great Cities” Conference, July 30, 2001.
An accomplished public official, economist and administrator, Mr. Peñalosa completed his three-year term as Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia on December 31, 2000. While Mayor Colombia’s capital, 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; built hundreds of kilometers of sidewalks, bicycle paths, pedestrian streets (one passing through some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods), and greenways along creeks. More than 1,200 parks were built or totally reconstructed, including a large park in an area previously taken over by crime and drugs. His idea for a car-free day received massive popular support – and the Stockholm Challenge Award. Through a referendum, people adopted a yearly car-free day and decided, from 2015 onwards, to eliminate cars from streets during rush hours (6am-9am and 4:30pm-7:30pm).
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. Overall, he led the transformation of a city’s attitude from one negative hopelessness to one of pride and hope. Peñalosa is currently a Visiting Scholar at New York University, researching and writing a book on a new urban-development models for the Third World.
GOD MADE US walking animals: pedestrians. Just as a fish needs to swim, a bird to fly, a deer to run, we need to walk, not in order to survive, but to be happy. A bird can survive inside a small cage and even bear descendants. But one suspects the bird would be happier inside an enormous cage the size of an auditorium and even more flying free. As we could survive inside an apartment all our life, but we can be much happier if we can walk and run about, as freely as possible.
The importance of pedestrian public spaces cannot be measured. We cannot prove mathematically that wider sidewalks, pedestrian streets, more or better parks make people happier, much less measure how much happier. However if we reflect, most things that are important in life cannot be measured either: Friendship, beauty, love and loyalty are examples. Parks and other pedestrian places are essential to a city’s happiness.
A few months ago I was impressed by a documentary about herons in a Brazilian wetland. As child herons were learning to fly, some would fall to the water, where crocodiles promptly devoured them. As I was feeling sympathetic towards the herons, I realized that children in cities faced a similar predicament. As they leave their homes, they risk being run over by a car. This is not theory. Thousands of children the world over are killed by cars every year. City children grow in fear of cars, as Middle Age children feared wolves. One of the main reasons for moving to the suburbs is finding environments children freer from the threat of cars.
The importance of pedestrian public spaces cannot be measured, but most other important things in life cannot be measured either: Friendship, beauty, love and loyalty are examples. Parks and other pedestrian places are essential to a city’s happiness.
Third World cities are still growing at astonishing high rates. Most will more than double their built area during the next 50 years. By 2015 there will be 22 mega-cities of more than 10 million inhabitants in the Third World. The world’s environmental sustainability and quality of life will depend to a large extent of what is done there during the next few years. Yet Third World cities pressed with everyday urgencies are not being particularly creative. There is still time to think different, in high density but more pedestrian friendly cities, with countless exclusively pedestrian streets and park areas representing up to 40 % of the city. Perhaps a city that is neither suburban, nor urban in the traditional sense is still possible there. There could be cities with as much public space for children as for cars. The backbone of the alternative city model would have to be pedestrian streets, sidewalks and parks, supported by excellent public transport.
Parks play many non-obvious roles in constructing a society. One of them is to make cities more egalitarian. In the Declaration of independence of the United States we find some principles expressed marvelously: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…” Parks are precisely about equality and happiness. What was so powerfully expressed in the revolutionary Declaration of Independence unfortunately is not there with the same clarity a few years later when the Constitution was approved; perhaps because by then revolutionaries allowed lawyers to get involved.
If we truly believe in a society of equals, we must have a few minimum conditions for equality. I am not talking of equality of income, but equality of dignity as a member of society and equality for the pursuit of human development and happiness. Because this was not so obvious, the American Constitution forbids granting any titles of nobility.
The world’s environmental sustainability and quality of life depends to a large extent on what is done during the next few years in the Third World’s 22 mega-cities. There is still time to think different… there could be cities with as much public space for children as for cars, with a backbone of pedestrian streets, sidewalks and parks, supported by public transport.
I must emphasize that wanting the poor to improve their state is different from wanting people to be equal. Most upper class people want the poor to be better of; but certainly not equal to them. I have a Labrador dog I love very much. I feed her; take her to a good veterinarian. When my family and I moved to the US we brought Dorotea Peñalosa with us. And all that is fine, as long as Dorotea does not feel she is equal, and wants to sit at the table with us. Many people want the poor to improve, but of course never so much as to think that they equal to themselves!
All through the world we have accepted that the best system is some form of capitalism; that is, all people are better of if most of society’s resources are managed through private property. Yet a minimum of public goods available to all citizens on equal conditions are necessary for society to hold together and advance towards happiness. Even those who disagree with the concept of a society of equals will adjust their position if asked whether children should share as equally as possible in society’s resources.
Parks and other public pedestrian spaces are some of those few critical elements that make societies a bit equal. What mix of public and private space is subject to discussion. And what a discussion! As a Mayor I was almost impeached for getting cars off sidewalks, which car owning upper classes had illegally appropriated for parking. I faced enormous problems as well for taking down illegal fences enclosing parkland in some neighborhoods. Others sued the city in efforts to block greenways that would connect lower income neighborhoods to upper income sectors.
As Mayor, I was almost impeached for getting cars off sidewalks that car-owning upper classes had illegally appropriated for parking. I faced enormous problems for taking down illegal fences enclosing parkland. Others sued the city to block greenways that would connect lower- and upper-income neighborhoods.
Parks are about many things, but above all parks are about equality. And this is not only the case for the Third World. Last week a judge ruled that a beach park in the high-income neighborhood of Greenwich, a few miles north of New York, had kept gated for the exclusive use of Greenwich residents be open to the public. Greenwich legal representatives will appeal and will fight to the end to avoid lower income undesirables from contaminating their Long Island Sound beach park. I am certain that most Greenwich residents want the poor to improve their lot and be as happy as possible. As long of course as they do not begin to think that they are equal to them and want to share their beach on equal terms.
The issue is much broader and could be extended to the entire Long Island Sound coast. Millions of people live within a few miles of the Long Island Sound coast. But they could just as well live thousands of miles away. Because they have no access to it, except in a very few small and crowded spots. Can you imagine how much happier would the immense majority be if there was a greenway all along the Long Island Sound, running between the water edge and the nice houses, with access to many beaches?
A most fundamental principle of social organization is that the common good prevails over the private interest. In practical terms it means that when more people benefit from a project than are affected negatively by it, it should become a reality. There are laws that make this principle operational, for example through the application of eminent domain. It is applied almost every time a road is built. Only in the United States millions of people homes have been acquired and demolish to make room for road building.
Why is all the power of the State is applied in opening the way for a road, while it is not done for a park such as the Long Island Sound greenway? Despite the fact that more people may benefit from the greenway than the highway?
In the case of the Long Island Sound greenway it is not even necessary to demolish houses, but simply to acquire rights of way.
It is interesting for all societies and for our group to analyze why is it so obvious that all the power of the State is applied when it comes to open the way for a road while it is not done for a park such as the Long Island Sound greenway. And this is so, despite the fact that a larger number of people may be benefited by the greenway than by the highway.
First it has to do with the reality that over the last 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. Second, whenever roads are built, it is mainly lower income neighborhoods that are affected by demolitions; and there usually are some upper income groups that benefit from the new road and actively promote it. The scenario described is not particularly American. The same happens all around the world.
If only children had as much public space as cars, most cities in the world would become marvelous.
I read once that when the British asked American Indians to sell land to them, after a puzzled hesitation the Indians answered: “But of course, we will sell you the land and if you want we will sell you the air as well and the moon if you want it too.” To them, land was as the air, for everybody to enjoy. But land became private and its use exclusive. Human beings’ mobility in the planet became restricted to their property, normally a small home, AND to the public space.
Unique natural resources such as coastlines, riverbanks, mountains, should never be private and exclusive, particularly in urban and suburban settings. These are God’s gift to mankind. Excluding anybody from access to them should be deemed illegitimate and not democratic. The higher income groups always have access to nature, at beach houses, lake cabins, mountain chalets, on vacations to Alaska or Africa, or in more urban settings at golf courses or large gardens. Parks allow the rest of society to have that contact as well.
At first it may seem that in Third World cities with so many unmet needs parks would be a frivolity. On the contrary, where citizens lack so much in terms of amenities and consumption, it is quicker and more effective to distribute quality of life through public goods such as parks, than to increase incomes or improve individual income distribution. It is impossible to provide citizens certain individual consumer goods and services such as cars, computers, or trips to Paris. But is possible to give them excellent schools, libraries, sidewalks and parks.
Higher income groups always have access to nature at beach houses, lake cabins, mountain chalets, on vacations – or in urban settings at golf courses or large gardens. Parks allow the rest of society that contact as well.
It is during leisure time that income differences are felt most acutely. Neither sleeping, nor at work there is much of a difference in satisfaction levels. During work time the high level executive or the low rank worker are more or less satisfied. It is when they leave work, particularly in the Third World, when there is an abyss of a difference between the two of them. The higher income person can drive to the countryside, go to clubs, restaurants, the array of possibilities is endless. While for the poor, the only alternative to television for their leisure time is the public space. For this reason, high-quality public pedestrian space in general and parks in particular, are evidence of a true democracy at work.
Parks and public space are also important to a democratic society because they are the only places where people meet as equals. In our highly hierarchical societies, we meet separated by our socio-economic differences. The CEO perhaps meets the janitor, but from his position of power. In sidewalks and parks we all meet as equals.
In a city, parks are as essential to the physical and emotional health of a city, as the water supply. However, this is not obvious from most budgets, where parks are treated as somewhat of a luxury. Roads, the public space for cars, receive infinitely more resources and less budget cuts than parks, the public space for children.
Where citizens lack so much in terms of amenities and consumption, as in Third World cities, it is quicker and more effective to distribute quality of life through public goods such as parks, than to increase incomes or improve individual income distribution.
I have mixed feelings towards a growing number of schemes to funnel private funds to parks. Of course it is good for us park lovers to see any resource go to parks. But there are fears as well about this growing reliance on private money. One ends up with perfect parks in richer areas and many substandard situations in poorer areas. Why not let road maintenance and not parks depend on private contributions and organizational schemes? Why are the public spaces for cars deemed more important than the public spaces for children?
Compared to the cost of Police, education or road maintenance, park maintenance costs are relatively minor. It seems that society’s welfare increases when resources are transferred from the private to the public sector for park construction and maintenance. Parks are different from other public goods in that they are and end in itself, and not simply a means. For example a road is a means for getting from one place to another, not an end in itself. Not having running water, or having potholes in the street produce dissatisfaction. Yet having running water or a street in good shape does not produce any particular satisfaction. With parks we have almost the opposite. When they don’t have them, people often don’t think they are missing something important. But having them provides them much satisfaction. And marvelously, something that doesn’t occur with almost any other good, the pleasure derived from access to a high quality park does not wear away with time.
A city is better not when it is rich, but when its people are happier. Therefore Governmental and other efforts must concentrate on making them happier. They will get a bonus though, which is that they will be richer as well. In the Industrial Age capital was the source of wealth; subsidies were given in order to attract investments. Now in the post-industrial age the source of wealth are creative people. Rather than subsidies, the way to attract wealth-generating people is quality of life. Parks are then critical to city competitiveness.
For the poor, the only alternative to television for their leisure time is the public space. For this reason, high- quality public pedestrian space, and parks in particular, are evidence of a true democracy at work.
While road usefulness can be easily measured, parks serve human needs difficult to quantify yet essential for happiness. For example human beings need to be with others, even if strangers. That is why crowded restaurants are more attractive than empty ones; people like going to the beach rather than sunbathing on a terrace; prefer going to a concert to watching a videodisc at home. Suburbanites find boring the empty streets of their neighborhoods and go to the malls. Parks are a place to meet not only with nature but with other people as well. Children prefer small neighborhood parks to the large and often beautiful home gardens of many suburbs. Jan Gehl, a Danish urban expert found that preferred benches in parks were not those in front of the most idyllic spots, but those most people walked by. Most university campuses are as close to an ideal urban setting as possible: Beautiful buildings, pedestrian spaces, gardens and trees. But they lose all their attractiveness as soon as vacations begin and there are no people around.
Parks are meeting places. Large parks integrate very different people, from different sectors and incomes. Neighborhood parks integrate communities and thus contribute significantly to the area’s security.
There is a human need to have contact with nature, to see a few trees, birds, a butterfly. For Americans, coming from a culture where parks traditionally have been profoundly important, it is difficult to even imagine what it could be to grow in a city of several million inhabitants, many blocks away from the closest park. Most people in developing country cities do not have the possibility of going to the countryside. A park is the closest they get to nature.
I have mixed feelings about funneling private funds to parks. Why not let road maintenance depend on private contributions and organizational schemes? Why are the public spaces for cars deemed more important than the public spaces for children?
Convinced of the importance of parks, as Mayor of Bogotá, a 7 million inhabitants’ city, I led the creation of more than 1300 parks. We invested in water and sewerage supply, schools and libraries, transportation systems and pavement. But beyond education, we didn’t have a higher priority than public pedestrian spaces: pedestrian streets, sidewalks, greenways, bicycle-paths, metropolitan parks, neighborhood parks and plazas. Spaces for people but above all, spaces that demonstrate respect for the more vulnerable of society’s members: the poor, the old and children.
At this time, my country is being ravaged by violence. I am certain that if our children were only happier, we would be well advanced towards a solution. Parks are an important means to children’s happiness and therefore, to a more convivial, constructive and civilized society. I wish you the best success in your sessions over the next few days, for the advancement of happiness and civilization.
Portrait courtesy Enrique Peñalosa; all other photos copyright Project for Public Spaces.