For those that didn’t make it to our film night or haven’t seen Gary Huswit’s Urbanized here is a little more on what was, for me, one of the highlights of the film. Dr Enrique Peñalosa. The implausibly suave ex-Mayor of Bogota. Interviewed on one of his cycleways riding in a suit, pausing mid interview to greet people zipping by.
Enrique Peñalosa was Mayor of Bogota from 1998-2001. He transformed this very divided city by prioritising spending on the poor instead of the rich, which included building a BRT system and cycle and walking infrastructure instead of highways. He also built a lot of libraries, kindergardens, and public parks. Naturally this all made him very unpopular with some very powerful sections of society but, despite his short time as mayor, he did still manage to transform the city in ways that persist today. Here’s an interview with him from 2007 on Streetfilms.
Now of course Bogota is a very different place to Auckland. In particular Auckland has a less extreme social hierarchy, or at least a bigger middle income group, but still, the more I read about Peñalosa the more I find his approach both relevant and inspiring. For example this is true everywhere:
“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.” -Enrique Peñalosa
Too many decisions have been made in Auckland and New Zealand through processes that privilege technicalities over outcomes. In other words lower order issues of through what process to fund infrastructure or what we are used to building gain priority over higher order questions of what kind of society do we want. We have the cart before the horse. Remember that the fateful coup that totally redirected all of Auckland’s transport infrastructure away from people and towards the car in the mid 1950s was achieved with the words: “It’s a technical matter”.*
“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.” -Enrique Peñalosa
Of course enabling productive business is important but only in order to serve the greater good of human happiness; business, like faster transport is not an end in itself. Furthermore the world’s economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. It is not an either/or situation. We cannot delay living better. Fitting sustainably into the reality of a finite planet is not something we can turn our attention to after we have somehow become rich while despoiling it. Sustainable practices are not, as our current government speaks about them, some kind of wasteful cost, but a real benefit. And this century we are going to have to change pretty much every detail of our lives in order to accommodate pressures that just weren’t as pressing in the last one;
“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.” -Enrique Peñalosa
I am constantly surprised by how little debate there is in New Zealand about these issues, how out of date the terms of most of the conversation is, and how resistant to change our institutions are. But then I think this is because we are relatively lucky: We have been fortunate by being insulated from the worst of the ongoing crisis in the global economy by high commodity prices and having China’s mine as our largest trading partner. And by the fact we have a thinly populated and therefore relatively unspoiled country. The urgent problems facing the whole world can feel quite distant here, for which we are right to feel grateful, but not complacent. It is a feature of the increasing interconnectedness of both the world’s economy and its biology that we cannot escape these mega-issues; change is coming whether we welcome it or not.
And here’s the thing: The more the pressures of this century unfold the clearer it becomes how much better life could be by adapting to them rather than just pretending that we can go on indefinitely as we are. That Republican idea that this way of life is non-negotiable is as pig-headed as it is certain to be untrue: It will be re-negotiated. Cities that stop building for cars and invest instead in Place and People are becoming better, safer, more resilient, richer, and yes, happier, than those that cling to the late 20th century model.
The only constant in life is change. And it is a lot more pleasant to choose to change than to wait until it is forced on you. This is true personally and collectively, and when it comes to cities, the ones that are better adapted, ‘fitter’ in the Darwinian sense, for the forces at work this century will be the most successful.
It is instructive to recall that mid 1950s moment that plunged Auckland from having about the highest public transport rates in the developed world to later that century having the lowest as proof that quite extreme change is not only possible but more frequent than might be thought. That was, of course, a top-down revolution and currently we have a government that refuses even to have a conversation or thought about change. In fact its actions can be read as a wilful attempt to force continuity onto the world by simply ignoring any factors that don’t fit its model. Yet there is more than a nagging fear concealed in its anxiety to rush through its plans with such urgency, like unconsciously it knows that the game is up- this is the last great highway mania. And of course systems have momentum and tend to persist; but the corollary to that is that things also go on until they don’t….. Interesting times.
It seems we may have to experience crisis directly before we are ready for our own Peñalosa.
* See Paul Mees Transport for Suburbia RMIT 2010 pp20-29 for the history of this pivotal event.
Here’s trailer for the film: