COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Enrique Peñalosa

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

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 and 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.

Peñalosa also led efforts to improve Bogotá's marginal neighborhoods through citizen participation which involved planting more than 100,000 trees,  creating a new and highly successful bus-based transit system, and turning a deteriorated downtown avenue into a dynamic pedestrian public space. He helped transform the city's attitude from one of hopelessness to one of pride, developing a model for urban improvement based on the equal access of all people to transportation, education, and public spaces.


Born in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1954, Peñalosa holds a Bachelors Degree in Economics and History from Duke University, a Masters Degree in Government from the IIAP in Paris, and a doctoral degree in Public Administration from the University of Paris II. He was also a visiting scholar at New York University from 2006 to 2009.

During his tenure as mayor of Bogotá (1998-2001), Peñalosa led massive efforts related to transportation, land use and housing for the poor, pollution abatement, and the critical need for public spaces. In a city of 6.5 million inhabitants with no subway system, Peñalosa declared a virtual war on Cars, restricting traffic during peak hours to reduce rush hour traffic by 40 percent and convincing the City Council to increase the tax on gasoline. Half of the revenues generated by the increase were then poured into a bus system that currently serves 500,000 Bogotá residents daily. His accomplishments as mayor were vast, including:

  • Creating a successful Urban Land Reform institution.
  • Launching a new bus-based transit system, TransMilenio.
  • Spearheading large improvements to the city center, including the rejuvenation of plazas, the creation of a large park in an area previously overrun by crime and drugs, and the transformation of one of the main deteriorating downtown avenues into a dynamic pedestrian pubic space.
  • Building more than a hundred nurseries for children under 5, along with assured resources for their operation.
  • Increasing children enrollment in public schools by more than 200,000, a 34% increase in four years
  • Building over 50 new schools and organizing major improvements to more than 150 school buildings.
  • Installing a network of 14,000 computers in all public schools, with web access and connection to a newly built library network.
  • Building and reconstructing hundreds of kilometers of sidewalks, more than 300 kilometers of bicycle paths, pedestrian streets, and greenways; and more than 1,200 parks.

Peñalosa has published numerous articles in newspapers and magazines along with two books: Capitalism: The Best Option and Democracy and Capitalism: Challenges of the Coming Century. A book of a long interview with him by Angel Becassino was also published, under the title Peñalosa and a City 2,600 Meters Closer to the Stars. Today Peñalosa works as a consultant on urban strategy, advising officials in cities all over the world on how to build a sustainable cities that can not only survive but thrive in the future. He is president of the board of directors of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, an organization that promotes sustainable and equitable transportation worldwide.


Social Integration and Equality. Although Peñalosa's urban reforms have been praised for their environmental benefits and overall contributions to the quality of life, he prefers to focus on their role in promoting social equity. When serving as mayor of Bogotá, he realigned the focus of city planning and policies to a new priority: equal access of all people to public spaces, services, and facilities. Peñalosa believes that public spaces are one of the only environments where all citizens, regardless of income, can meet as equals. He explains that "high-quality public pedestrian space [is] evidence of a true democracy at work." One of the most essential roles of public spaces is therefore to give all people a sense of belonging and create a more socially integrated community.

Car-Free Days. For an entire day, a city of 6.5 million people bans cars from its streets, opening up public spaces for all people to walk, bicycle, and enjoy the city. The city is Bogotá, Colombia, where Peñalosa organized the first city-wide Car-Free Day in 2001. In banning all car traffic for a day, Peñalosa hoped to demonstrate the possibilities and benefits of alternative forms of transportation, encouraged people to bike and walk, and combated the stigma associated with bicycles as "vehicles of the poor". His efforts were met with much popular support, resulting in a public referendum instituting the Car-Free Day as an annual event and banning all cars from the city during peak hours by the year 2015.


"I was almost impeached for getting cars off sidewalks which car owning upper classes had illegally appropriated for parking."

"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."

"In my country, we are just learning that sidewalks are relatives of parks - not passing lanes for cars."

"Urban transport is a political and not a technical issue. The technical aspects are very simple. The difficult decisions relate to who is going to benefit from the models adopted."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"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."

"Why is all the power of the State 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?"

"Do we dare create a transport system giving priority to the needs of the poor? Or are we really trying to solve the traffic jams of the upper income people? That is really the true issue that exist?"

"God made us walking animals - pedestrians. 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 premise of the new city is that we want a society to be as egalitarian as possible. For this purpose, quality-of-life distribution is more important than income distribution. [And quality of life includes] a living environment as free of motor vehicles as possible."

"I do not think exactly as the new urbanists, that the answer is simply to go back to the 1900 city center. I believe that a radically more pedestrian city, with both more pedestrian streets and parks, can be created in a dense urban environment."

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

"We had to build a city not for businesses or automobiles, but for children and thus for people. Instead of building highways, we restricted car use. ... We invested in high-quality sidewalks, pedestrian streets, parks, bicycle paths, libraries; we got rid of thousands of cluttering commercial signs and planted trees. ... All our everyday efforts have one objective: Happiness."

"We built symbols of respect, equality and human dignity, not just sidewalks and bike paths. Motor vehicles on sidewalks were a symbol of inequality -- people with cars taking over public space."

"Over the past 40 years, environmentalism has created a culture of respect for the environment, but there's much less clarity about the kind of environment that creates a happy child."

"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."

"What we most want to see is people. You know, in the United States they invented a word that is called 'shopping' you know, and it is a very interesting word, because first when one is learning English one thinks shopping means to go buy things. But not it is not to buy things; it is just to go look at things where they sell them, so that you might eventually become interested in buying one. But of course later on you realize that what it really means is people go to shopping malls to see people so that they do not commit suicide in desperation."

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space