Colombia Dispatch 11: Former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa- page 3 | Travel | Smithsonian
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Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogota, rides a bicycle (Kenneth R. Fletcher)

Colombia Dispatch 11: Former Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa

The former mayor of Colombia's capital city transformed Bogota with 'green' innovations that employed the poor and helped the environment

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Now the new mayor is talking about building a subway. In a city that has so much poverty, where around 15 to 20 percent of the streets still don't have pavement, the children have to walk in the mud to school, how can you invest $3 billion dollars on a subway when you can do with a $300 million Transmilenio. Of course a subway is great, but here in this context it's not.

Was education also part of your plan?
We actually invested more in education than everything else together. We did some beautiful nurseries in the poorest areas of the city for children under five. We built 23 new beautiful schools like the most luxurious high-income schools in the poorest neighborhoods. We built fantastic libraries, three big libraries and 11 smaller ones now being used by 400,000 people every month.

What was the biggest problem you faced?
The most difficult thing was actually getting the cars off the sidewalk. But we constantly had fights. Why do we have battles? Is it just because we are crazy people who like to fight? No. If you want to really construct equality and not just talk about it, if you really want change, there has to be conflict. Some people are benefited by the status quo, and if you want to change the status quo people will complain.

Politicians like the last mayor, he just came here and said he wanted to give free food to the poor, no conflict with anybody. But that's not constructing equality. When I build a fantastic library next to a poor neighborhood, I am telling them that I believe in their intelligence and their capacity. I am constructing equality. When I give away free food, regardless of how much it is needed, I am destroying equality.

I am saying that if you are not even able to cook your own food, you are not even capable. Sometimes you have to do it and all the free food that you give to the elderly and to the children, that's fine. But once you give free food to working-age adults you are telling them they are inferior.

Do you think these ideas could be used in other cities?
Basically any city in the world could be a little more humane. Clearly the American suburban model is one that is totally nonsustainable. It consumes extremely high amounts of energy and it creates a very boring environment where there are no people in the streets and children are dependent on the soccer moms to take them everywhere. But the Americans are so amazingly efficient, I am sure that the transformation that is happening in the United States is going to be amazing.

My dream is that we can influence the development of new Asian cities. Latin America grew from the 1960s to 2000 and went from something like 30 percent to 80 percent urban. Now the same thing is happening in Asia. We can learn by our successes and errors. For example, it would be very easy to incorporate in new cities a whole network of hundreds of kilometers of pedestrian and bicycle streets. It would cost almost nothing and would totally change your way of life.

You have been in Bogota, it's a disaster. We have acquired a reputation because we have made a few interesting experiments. But our city does not have enough parks. Children are not safe in the streets. We don't have enough playgrounds. Every child here in the city plays soccer and we don't have any public soccer fields. A synthetic turf soccer field in a low-income neighborhood is more effective in reducing crime than a police station. Since I left, there have been practically no new bike paths built. It is very sad. But we realized that in the 20th century we made big mistakes and I think that in many youngsters in Bogota a seed was planted.

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