Improving quality of life through urban development in Bogotá

This morning I’m super pumped after reading an article on pedestrian and bike-friendly urban design initiatives in Bogotá, Colombia. (Can We Design Cities for Happiness?

The article focuses on the basic premise that development should aim to improve people’s quality of life.

I have a ton of questions after reading this article, which zooms in on Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá of three years. He’s described as a tireless advocate for “promoting human happiness.”

Here’s a key excerpt:

Peñalosa’s ideas stand as a beacon of hope for cities of the developing world, which even with their poverty and immense problems will absorb much of the world’s population growth over the next half-century. Based on his experiences in Bogotá, Peñalosa believes it’s a mistake to give up on these cities as good places to live.

That last sentence really resonates, because this is not the first time in history that people have looked at rapidly-growing cities with fear and pity for its teeming denizens. (see Dickens’ London, Hugo’s Paris, et j’en passe).

I like that, according to Peñalosa, quality of life isn’t a trivial matter:

“We live in the post-communism period, in which many have assumed equality as a social goal is obsolete,” [Peñalosa] explains. “Although income equality as a concept does not jibe with market economy, we can seek to achieve quality-of-life equality.”

The list of the city’s accomplishments under Peñalosa’s is dizzying–major public transportation projects, huge increase in green space and pedestrian-friendly zones, improved water systems, to name a few.

Yet this article serves as a good example of the cult of the “social entrepreneur.” That is to say, the idea that social progress happens thanks to the tireless efforts of extraordinary people. There’s an aura of magic around such stories. Sure, they’re inspirational, but they tend to ignore the larger socio-political context, and therefore give us a skewed idea of how to go about replicating such a model–or if that’s even possible.

I want to know what, besides the mayor’s charisma, made these developments happen! What kind of political support, and resistance, did his administration have? How long did it take to develop these projects? And for good measure I hope some impact analysis is in the works. I’d be sad if this image of urban improvement were too good to be true.

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Filed under South America, Transportation development, urban development, urbanisation

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