Enrique Peñalosa

What makes a great city? That was one of the many questions that the visionary former mayor of Bogotá Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa, asked a packed auditorium in San Francisco last night. How do we define a good city, what is our criteria? What makes an urban environment desirable and livable, and how do we judge the quality of life? What is socially and environmentally sustainable?

Enrique PeñalosaMuch like Al Gore, Peñalosa has given his public space presentation all over the planet.


In Great Cities People Want to Go Outside


The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the SF Public Library and other groups helped to host Mr. Peñalosa for a very inspiring free two hour presentation and conversation about what is happening globally to improve our cities and how we live.

The audience asked a wide variety of questions, from how to create sustainable transport in a war zone like Kabul, to urban issues related to equality, homelessness and the equitable distribution of shared resources. The topics explored ranged from global warming and promoting bicycle infrastructure, to class conflict and the incredible importance of our shared public space. Referencing the brilliant Danish urban planner Jan Gehl, Peñalsoa explained that:

A great city is one where people want to go out of their homes. Public space is a magical good, and it never ceases to yield pleasure; we should give it a lot of attention. Public good prevails over private interest. A great city is where we all feel not excluded. The quality of the sidewalks in a city is the most telling thing. Just as a bird needs to fly, fish need to swim and deer need to run, we need to walk.”

Every Sunday in Bogotá, Colombia 120 km of the city’s streets are closed to car traffic for seven hours for the hugely popular Ciclovia. Over 1.5 million citizens come out in the streets to walk, bike, dance, play and socialize. This has been happening since the early 70’s, and has provided a successful model that numerous other cities worldwide have emulated. Peñalosa shared his perspective:

“The most valuable asset in a city is its road space. The road space can be used as a society wishes. How do you want to distribute this space between pedestrians, bicycles, mass transit and cars—this is a political decision. Trying to solve traffic jams with bigger roads is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. If there was more space for cars in London or New York, there would be more cars. Making new parking lots in London has been banned for over 40 years.”

Castro Commons
People enjoying the beautiful day in San Francisco’s Castro Commons on 17th Street and Market, one of the city’s popular newly created shared public spaces. The public plaza is part of its Pavement to Parks program.

No Constitution Contains Parking Rights


Doing what benefits everyone, however, requires real political leadership and risk. When Peñalosa was mayor of Bogotá he said that he was almost impeached for getting the hoards of cars off of the city’s sidewalks:

No constitution contains the right to park; providing parking is not an obligation of government. In this very classist society, allowing these cars to park on the sidewalk was sending a message that the people with cars, the rich, were more important than those without cars.  Liberating the sidewalks was a symbol that human beings are more important than cars. The whole objective of having a city is to mix rich and poor as much as possible.

I want to emphasize that the things that make people happy are not very costly, but they are politically difficult.”

Enrique Peñalosa

A City Creates Behavior


Where a city chooses to invest in transportation infrastructure is also reflective of what it values. Do we choose to invest in building safe bike routes to our children’s schools, or more sprawling polluting highways? How an urban environment is planned, designed and constructed greatly influences how we live, get around, behave and interact. Peñalosa explained that the infrastructure choices that our society makes not only hugely shape what we value, but how we function as people:

A city speaks, a city creates behavior. We want people to be able to leave their cars at home. In Holland a political decision was made to support bicycle infrastructure. It is done little by little. In Japan 30% of people who arrive at a train station arrive by bike. To have a safe bicycle route is a right; governments have to take a risk, show leadership and do the uncomfortable thing to invest in the necessary infrastructure.

Bicycle use is a great symbol of equality. Someone on a $30 bike and a $30,000 car are equal in the street. A cyclist has as much right to use the road space as does a car. In developing countries 15-35% of people’s income is saved by those who travel by bicycle. In the future, bicycles will continue to become more and more important.

In 200 years people will say how could they live in those horrible 2010 cities? The 20th century will be remembered as disastrous for cities, as they were designed to accommodate cars, not people. “

SFBC bike parkingThe SFBC provided free valet bike parking for the many people who came to hear Peñalosa speak at the San Francisco Public Library.