07 July 2009

Enrique Peñalosa Talk at the SF Public Library

One thing about getting back to reality is getting to hear pretty great talks about urban planning. Yes, I'm a nerd.

Today the SFBC, the SF Great Streets Project, the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy all helped to put on a talk by Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. Under his administration, he became famous for expanding the ciclovia that so many cities have begun to adopt and are trying to emulate a portion of its success. He made sure to stress that it was not created under his term, however.

He was a great speaker with lots of ideas how to transform cities into great cities. The first thing one must want to do when deciding how to make this transformation, one must ask: what kind of city do we want? How do we want to live? Do we want to be like houston (urban sprawl)? Do we want to be like amsterdam?

He sees city urban development as a quality of life issue by stressing continually that a good city should have public spaces where the rich and the poor can get together in the same public pedestrian space in the heart of the city. This is, he believes, where true integration happens.

He also said that a good city is one where one wants to be outside the home. As he has traveled all over the world talking to different cultures, he said he notices the more humans seem to be the same. He narrowed down 4 things that people across the globe seem to need: to walk, to be social, to be around nature and to play (for the lack of a better term). So if you are not wanting to be in your home or apartment, but wanting to be outside to meet these conditions, then you live in a good city.

This portion certainly resonated with me in that I lived in nyc for 8 years and in the bay area for 5 years. Its not that I don't like relaxing at home, because I do, but I have mentioned time and time again on this lil' blog that I need to be outside for my sanity. I feel much better when I'm not confined to an apartment and can feel the wind blow through my hair and on my face. I'm better when I'm walking or biking around.

Another talking point he raised that I thought was interesting was the universal fear of cars. He said all across the world, children as young as 3 years old are conditioned to be scared of cars. And he said that it's shocking that we think it's normal for this to be a fact: 1. that cars exist, 2. that cars they kill 250, 000 children worldwide and 3. therefore we should be scared of them. I thought this point was rather poignant and fascinates me. The culture of fear seems to be universal, and we do nothing to sort of combat the problem. Do we always need to have an "us v. them" mentality?

He mentioned a good city has wide sidewalks and little parking. In the next sentence he remarked that shopping malls are an indicator of how well or not well a city is functioning. He believes that one reason people like malls is that people like to walk (see above). They like to walk here because there are wide "sidewalks" with no cars; where people can sort of roam freely without fear of vehicles. He actually said that malls are a symptom of a "sick" city. A healthy city, one manages to do their shopping without driving to their destination, but rather they take a form of public transportation. Midtown manhattan (and the rest of nyc for that matter) comes to mind for this person. Austin, does not.

Speaking of austin and houston and (below) helotes, he mentioned the irony of the suburbs. People developed them because they wanted a safe place for their kids to grow up, away from the cars in the city. But the irony of the suburbs is that just lead to horrible other engineering problems for the city center that they surround which leads to a whole host of other problems, both health and traffic.

In texas where my family lives, there is crazy urban sprawl. Notice he used houston as a bad example earlier in the talk. It always completely surprises me that my cousin who visits here wants to go to the mall as part of her destination. I think it's a completely generic waste of time when you are in another city in another part of the country. Here you can find great parks, there's an OCEAN, there's any number of things that are not inside the mall. If you are in one mall, you might as well be in another since they all look the same-ish, and it doesn't really matter where you are. I know I have the nyc and sf plus a few years on her to have figured this out, but I also really like being outside. See, the redundancy is starting to click in the city in that I want and in the city in which I want to live.

Then the talk led naturally to the political hot topic of the day: parking. he joked that in no constitution he's ever reviewed across the world does it ever say there is a right to park. and he's right, it's totally an entitlement issue for those who have cars (and presumably more money) than those who do not. He said it was such a political hot topic for him, he nearly got impeached for taking away parking spaces.

He then started talking about the infrastructure changes he made in Bogotá, such as developing ciclorrutas, a 25 mile pedestrian and bike route linking the poor (& formerly illegal shantytowns) neighborhoods to the richer parts of this city of 7 million inhabitants. or BRTs, which I know are controversial in the bike blogosphere.

He also talked about the stress of starting the infrastructure early in the booming developing countries of India and China because then changes later start to become tricky, and that's where SF is in the process.

He concluded that a great city is on where a kid can travel safely everywhere...by bike.

He was fascinating to listen to, and I really could have listened to him all night. One thing I found interesting in the standing room only auditorium is that he was not preaching to the choir. During the Q&A session (someone was very anti-BRT, and I'm not so much) and listening to the elderly woman behind me talk to a fellow bike lover, it was very apparent that there is still a far way to go, but we all have the collective goal of making our city the best city possible for us in which to live. How we get there will be verrrrry interesting.

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