Image: Gil Penalosa. (Courtesy 8-80 Cities)
Gil Penalosa is the executive director of 8-80 Cities in Ontario, Canada, which advocates for vibrant and healthy cities. He will be speaking tonight, Tuesday, March 13th at 6:00 p.m. at the Glassworks at 815 West Market Street as part of the Urban Design Studio‘s Sustainable City Series.
Penalosa previously served as Commissioner of Parks in Bogotá, Columbia and helped to initiate many of the city’s most innovative programs such as the Ciclovia Open Streets program where a street is closed to auto-traffic on Sundays and opened for use as public space to the larger community. Broken Sidewalk recently spoke with Penalosa about his work in creating better, livable cities and public spaces and how Louisville can benefit from increased attention to public space.
After achieving great success in Bogota, how did you end up moving to Canada and establishing 8-80 Cities?
I came with my family for a couple of years and we fell in love with Canada and we stayed. I worked for the city for a few years to get more Canadian experience, but a few years ago I created a non-profit 8-80 Cities. With 8-80 Cities, our approach isn’t only about walking or cycling or parks or public spaces. Those are just the means. What we really want to do is figure out how to collaborate to create vibrant cities and healthy communities where people are going to be happier enjoying parks and other public places.
We focus on advising decision makers—mayors, council members, governors—and community groups. We look at it like a three legged stool, one leg is the elected officials, another is the city staff, and the third leg is the community. If one of them is not in sync, then the stool is not going to be very useful.
In Bogotá, one of the projects you started that has caught on around the world is the Ciclovia.
One of the things we did was Open Streets. In Bogotá we called it Ciclovia. I have helped many cities and provided advice to cities like Portland, San Francisco, and New York, because I feel it’s very successful for cities of any size—50,000 people to 500,000 people to 5 million people—to close the streets to cars and open them to people. In a time of economic recession like now when cities don’t have the money to build arenas and gymnasiums and community centers, this is something that doesn’t need capital investment. It just needs operational investment.
One of the main benefits of Open Streets is that it’s an exercise in social integration, bringing together the young and old, rich and poor. One bike might be worth $5,000 and another might be worth $50, but in the end, both cyclists are having just as much fun.
The street doesn’t have to have the same use 24-7. It can have different uses according to the time of the day, the day of the week, the season of the year. This is something to make people realize that things can change. We have been building cities for over 5,000 years, but it’s only the last 60 or 70 that we have been thinking more of car mobility than people’s happiness. Those two concepts are incompatible.
When we look at Louisville from the air, the biggest public places are the streets, so the biggest discussion, not only now, but ten years from now, is how are we going to use the streets? And by public space I mean the space that belongs to everybody—the young and the old, the rich and the poor. The streets belong to all, so how are we going to use them? How much space are we going to leave for coffee shops and cafes to have tables outside? How much space for pedestrians? How much for cyclists and public transit and cars? How we distribute this space is very important.
How do you deal with resistance you might encounter in the community?
Sometimes politicians don’t want to be pioneers because they think pioneers get shot in the back. There are many cities already doing programs like Ciclovia, so you can look to them for examples. What is the experience of San Francisco or New York or Paris? You have to realize that change never happens by consensus. Change is hard. If you want to have change be unanimous, it will never happen. You’d have to water it down so much that there’s no change in it any longer.
In order to make a Ciclovia work, for example, you can see in other cities that there’s not that much traffic congestion because most people do it on Sundays. It’s different than a race or a marathon, because when you do a race, you have to shut down a street. When you do an open street, you don’t have to shut down the street completely; the cross streets remain open so you’re not isolating different parts of the city. Ciclovias are actually really good for business. In San Francisco, the people who were opposing Open Streets the most came back and realized they were wrong and are asking the mayor to do it every Sunday of the month because on Open Streets days they do more sales. It helps to let businesses talk to businesses in other cities and show them the experience from other cities on what is the perception. But politicians also must have guts and realize that the general interest must prevail over the particular.
What other projects can cities explore on a limited budget?
We work a lot with under-performing parks. In many parks and public places, cities are willing to invest millions to build them but not the thousands to improve their uses and activities. Successful public places around the world are successful not just because of the design but also because of the management. That’s not just cutting the grass and picking up the garbage. The bigger part of management is how to involve the community in the parks. How can we get the religious groups, the neighborhood leaders, the elementary schools and universities into the park so that they actually provide many more benefits.
One major difficulty can be finding funding for these uses. Because parks don’t have any walls, many people don’t think they need any investment. When cities build a community center with walls, immediatey they realize they need customer service, classes and programs, and security. But in the parks, we don’t include the same kind of investment. We need to think of parks more as outdoor community centers where we need to invest in uses and activities so they can fulfill their potential. When we improve parks, we’re really improving quality of life.
You mentioned the importance of programming in parks. Is this also important for events like Open Streets?
It is very important. Some people call it Sunday Bikeways but that’s the wrong name because it’s not about cycling. It’s about walking, running, skateboarding, but then some people want more than that. In Guadalajara, probably the best open streets today, we see people doing all kinds of activities from playing with hula-hoops to salsa dancing and tai chi. There’s music and other activities. Even free haircuts. Not everyone wants to walk or run or bike.
Is there a project you’re working on now that serves as a model for a mid-size city like Louisville?
I’ll be showing hundreds of slides in Louisville of projects in cities that are bigger and smaller, some that are poorer and some that are much wealthier than Louisville, but everything I’m going to show is doable in Louisville as long as people keep an open mind and realize that that this is not like a computer where you copy and paste but rather about how to adapt and improve.
A few weeks ago, a councilor from Thunder Bay, a small municipality of 50,000 people in northern Canada, told me about a new park they built in their downtown modeled after one in New York City. They really understood that it’s not about copy and paste, but adapting. They picked up the concept of the pilot project. You don’t have to do a complete project from the beginning, you can do a pilot.
Whatever I show, whether it’s how to improve bikeability or walkability, it’s going to be directly relevant to Louisville. I want to be useful in showing that we can do this, and we can do it now. We need to break projects into groups of what we can do now and what takes longer. Can we figure out what projects are Impatiens, the projects we can do now—this year—that are low cost and high visibility, and that you don’t have to go to the city council for approval. And then what projects are the Orchids, the longer term projects that might need approvals from a company’s board of directors or the city council to get them done.
Everything is about focusing on doing. We need to move away from just talking and start doing. We don’t have time to continue to talk, we need to act. So many cities have been doing study after study after study. They need a different attitude—”Ready, Fire, Aim.” Now too many cities are “Ready, Aim, Aim, Aim” and they never fire. At some point you need to realize that you don’t have 100 percent of the information, but people never do. You have to realize that you have enough information and we have to move forward.
What advice can you give to someone wanting to affect these livability changes in their own city?
Start with the Impatiens, the low-cost, low-risk, and high visibility projects. Sometimes people start with the biggest, the most difficult, the most complicated project, and then when they fail, everything else fails. But I don’t just mean putting up a garbage can or putting up a bench. It involves thinking creatively.