I was recently asked to do a conversation/talk with Janette Sadik-Kahn, our commissioner of transportation, at the AIA New York Center for Architecture Center (American Institute of Architects). Since I imagined there might be some architects or designers in the audience, I took some time to share some of my notes and photographs from my summer Latin American bikes and cities tour. I also took this opportunity to finally organize some of the notes I had taken and post them. So here it is, many months late.
Flashback to July 23, 2011—Oscar Diaz is my host here in Bogota. He worked closely with Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of the city (from 1998-2001 and currently running this year with the Green Party), on various projects to improve Bogota’s system of parks, bike paths, road construction, and mass transit system. He suggested we take a field trip so he could show some of the projects they had initiated. A few of us piled in a van in the morning and headed towards the outskirts of town, to the Kennedy District. In this district there are several small neighborhoods like El Tintal, Bellavista, and El Recreo. Bellavista is a small community that was formerly illegal. It was a place of dirt streets, no sewage, no water, or electricity. There was no property ownership or the various rights that go along with that. Much of that has changed, for the better, since that administration implemented a number of interrelated schemes.
There are lots of these illegal communities around Bogota and other cities here. Invasiones ilegales or piratas (illegal or pirate invasions) are what these communities are called when they begin forming—as they’re completely illegal. They’re called favelas in Brazil, townships in South Africa. They don’t hook up to city water, sewage, or electricity (not legally anyway), but there are still entrepreneurs who will develop real estate in these settlements, if you can call it that.
This is the way they used to look (Oscar took this in 1997):
One might call this old view of this community an example of crowd-sourced architecture—as there are no regulations or governmental guides. The patterns—streets and basic infrastructure—that comes into being could be considered to be emergent. But without sewage or water it’s pretty sad. Maybe that crowd principal can’t really be applied in all areas? Or maybe it needs a framework and set of principals and then it can form and grow around those?
This is the way it looks now (I took this July 2011):
We biked along these bike/ped paths that have been built here. We passed many improvised bike repair stations that have sprung up—a guy with a set of flat fix gear and other tools sets himself up as a pop-up business. Little shops have appeared on the ground floors of many of the buildings since the paths have been built. Needless to say in the intervening years this area got electricity and sewage, streetlights and schools.
Unfortunately, because of the current administration, the neighborhood has gone back to being a tough and dangerous area though it didn’t look it—I was advised to slip my big camera into my bag rather than letting it hang on my neck. Whenever I went off a little on my own, someone from the group would appear close to me, watching out. But now, at least there are possibilities for the residents—the local schools, the library and other centers provide educational services, and the TransMilenio buses that now reach here can connect these folks to employment in town—all of which didn't exist until the bus system (BRT) was created under Peñalosa’s administration.
The bike and pedestrian passages that former Mayor Peñalosa and Oscar instigated go through these communities and provide a network—they give the communities a street-type focus. Also, the “roads” serve as a link to other communities and to the TransMilenio—the rapid bus network that goes to, among other places, the center of the city.
The TransMilenio system, was begun some years ago as a cheaper and less socially and ecologically damaging alternative to the 600 million dollar highway scheme that was ready to go. The buses run really fast and, because you buy the tickets before getting on, there is no time wasted doing ticket business after you board the buses—which pull up to specially built stations along the existing highways as well as inside the city. They pull up, exchange passengers, and then zoom off. Only a masochist would decide to drive his or her own car to work... but there are plenty of those.
In the Americas terminal the station has indoor bike parking, as the inhabitants of that zone get around mainly by bike or by walking.
Would this kind of bus system work in some place like Atlanta, Georgia, where people spend hours and hours stuck in their cars getting from one side of the sprawl to the other?
It was pointed out that the improvements in Kennedy (schools and the bike/ped paths), and those in other barrios, were funded by the savings that accrued after the decision to build the TransMilenio system—a much more cost-effective solution than building the massive highway that had previously been proposed. There are 84km of exclusive corridors in the TransMilenio system. 1.7 million people are transported every day. 7 million people live in Bogota.
Many of the inhabitants of these squatter towns had never been outside of those places. These bike/ped "roads" coupled with the bus system allowed them to get out, get jobs in town, go to school, university etc. The storefront businesses that sprung up along the paths changed the communities in other ways, not only by creating jobs—people began to be more motivated, feel better about their situation, and about the future chances for their kids. My point to the architects was that here were fairly cheap and simple improvements that (coupled with some other changes described below) radically transformed people’s lives.
In order for these "townships" to receive basic city services—sewage, city water, electricity, schools, etc.—the settlements had to be legalized. Usually, previous city administrations would legalize about 12 of them a year but under Peñalosa and Oscar, they legalized 600. To kick the process off, the city would buy some of the vacant land and sell it to developers, as well as putting in some infrastructure such as the bike paths, pedestrian walkways, and public parks—all the stuff the “developers” in those zones would not ordinarily put in but made the areas attractive and more livable. The developers, seeing that clients were drawn to those amenities, began to advertise their future developments as having those features. Here is a developers’ billboard—their advertising features apartments with public spaces and green zones:
The public education in these areas was terrible. According to Oscar, that was partly due to the unions, who were mainly interested in holding onto their positions and increasing their benefits. The city took an initiative and began to build schools and then open them up to bids for private management at the same cost allocated per kid in a public school. In other words, if a kid were allocated $500 a year for a normal public school education, that was what the bidders would receive—but often under private management they could accomplish a lot more for the same amount of money.
It was a way of getting around the unions, and it was very successful. Some of the management of these schools was by Catholic schools that do not really aim to make a profit on their schools the way others might—breaking even is considered OK by the religious schools. The grade results and SAT scores are now equal those in the established private schools.
Critics say this system is privatizing education—a dangerous precedent, but Oscar counters that the parents don't have to pay tuition as they would in a real private school. It has brought a vast improvement in the quality of education to these poor neighborhoods. My friend Sally wrote me: “The education stuff sounds dangerously close to arguments made here for charter schools and the evils of the teachers' unions; I would say [to you] to be careful and be specific, but then again I am wary of such semi-private endeavors in education and you may not be...” I too am wary of the privatizing of education—it could turn into something driven by profits, like prisons are in the US. Can you imagine if a basic service like water were privatized—as is being discussed in some places? Scary. However, Oscar claims in this situation it worked because the education remains public for the children and the city pays the same per student. What changes is the administration, teachers and program—all managed by the private schools and universities that won the public bid.
Next we toured Biblioteca El Tintal—which is a library, auditorium, meeting rooms and cafeteria complex that was built on the site of former garbage dump. In the past, the trucks would go up the ramp and dump their loads, and the resulting heap was eventually carried off to the distant landfill. It was an unsightly dump, and certainly didn’t make the area attractive. These new library complexes—and quite a few were built based on this model—are usually located near a bus transit hub and surrounded by green. They were built by respected local architects and were the sort of eye-catching buildings any city would be happy to have downtown, but here, they were being built in the poorest neighborhoods. Needless to say, besides being a social, educational and cultural center, these places became sources of pride.
Here is an aerial view—the library complex has now been there for a while, and as a result the shanties that used to sprawl out in the area have been replaced by apartment blocks and row houses—all still linked by bike paths and pedestrian walkways:
Peñalosa fought to keep the former garbage truck ramp as a reminder of what it once was. When it was built there was not much around here—the illegal communities were springing up all around in a kind of squatter anarchy. The parents in those days would plop their kids in front of the TV. Now, the kids are going to schools and can use computers at this center—and teach their parents how to use computers as well.
Here’s an inside view:
Here is one of the other libraries in another outlying area:
This concept of the library as community hub, and as a transformative catalyst in a community was also picked up by the former Mayor of Medellín, Sergio Fajardo. His realized version was even more spectacular looking, though the effect was similar.
He brought in Giancarlo Mazzantito as an architect to build Biblioteca España on the edge of a hill, as part of a funky barrio, Santo Domingo, that had been dangerous and was considered a sort of dead-end for its citizens. The newly created plaza soon became a place for folks to meet, mingle and shop in the kiosks that sprung up—a focal point the barrio didn't previously have. The library became both a local and international architectural landmark, and is an example of both how architecture can transform a community, as well as being an example of serious architecture being introduced into a poor neighborhood, as opposed to where it usually is—in city centers where the well-to-do are entertained.
Fajardo did something similar to the BRT bus system connection as well—he linked this formerly isolated community to the main city by public transportation. Though in this case, it wasn’t possible to tag a bus line onto existing roads because the way up that hill is too twisty. So, instead, they made a gondola that takes folks to and from town.
From Judith Ryser’s Urban Thinker blog:
Fajardo managed to transform Medellin from a place of squalor and despair into a liveable open city. He resorted to architects and urbanists, many of them Colombian (Rogelio Salmona, Giancarlo Mazzanti who designed the Parque Biblioteca Espana, Alejandro Echeverri who was responsible for the spatial development strategy, Sergio Gomez for the Botanial Garden), to realise “our most beautiful buildings in our poorest areas.”
His strategy was to begin in the most deprived areas, gain the trust of the poorest with the lowest chances of succeeding in life. Santo Domingo Savio which houses some 170,000 people was the starting point of the regeneration of Medellin from where it has spread elsewhere. Places for learning, schools, a library were deliberately designed as landmarks to signal a brighter future. Parks (of Wishes, of Bare Feet), internet facilities, an art gallery and a day care centre form part of the public realm open to all, together with new connections to the city at large. Converting dilapidated spaces into places where people can meet without fear and the very young population can play triggered improvements to the precarious abodes.
Openness and, most importantly, beauty was brought to these areas, for which the inhabitants started to feel civic pride.
The locals participated actively in these transformations. Youngsters and the unemployed were given the opportunity to learn building trades. Not only were they able to improve their own abodes, but their skills provided them with jobs and a new lifestyle.
Oscar and I had lunch with Alexandra Rojas, former Deputy Secretary of Finance, who is involved in a program of national accident prevention. She was also involved in a big campaign (Fondo de Prevención Vial—FPV) to reduce road, pedestrian, bike and car accidents. She said that the prevailing attitude is that accidents are destiny—that they come upon us at random and unexpectedly—black swan events that we can’t predict. There is a feeling that you, therefore, can’t do anything about them. Their program, fronted by a very well known TV presenter, was called Epidemic of Excuses. Interesting that when they tested they found that this presenter had a credibility rating of 80%—so she was perfect for getting this difficult message across.
Rojas says all studies show the opposite to the prevailing perception of accidents as random or fate—it showed that traffic accidents, and especially those involving pedestrians, are indeed mostly avoidable, and therefore preventable. However, to prevent them, there would need to be some compromises for drivers such as driving slower (which may mean more traffic jams, though), along with additional crossing stations, more lights, etc. The number of lives that would be saved is not random—it’s completely predictable. Janette Sadik-Khan is figuring out how to do a similar program here in NY to get drivers to slow down. In Colombia, as in the US, it’s an uphill battle. In Colombia, 80% of the population does not have cars, but, as in the US, most of the infrastructure budget goes to accommodate the other 20% who do own cars. As Peñalosa and others have pointed out, these fiscal policies are counter democratic—they privilege a minority, a wealthy minority, of course, over the bulk of citizens. It would be as if sections of public parks were lopped off to create helipads for wealthy businessmen, or as if hire cars were allowed to stop and park wherever they wish. As in many parts of the U.S., lots of roads in Colombia have no place for pedestrians—there is no sidewalk. If you don’t have a car, tough luck. When the largest part of a nations funds go to accommodate a small, wealthy portion of citizens (the drivers, in the case of Columbia), democracy and the rights of the citizens are being subverted in the most profound way—at the level of the pocketbook.
Back in the U.S.A.
In a similar effort to those that Peñalosa, Salas, and Fajardo have done, an organization named Studio H has been active in North Carolina. I read a piece the other day that Alice Rawsthorn wrote for the NY Times in which the organizers were quoted as saying that, similar to Fajardo’s scheme, they focused on young folks becoming involved in the building effort. Many of these folks were around 17 years old and had never made anything in their lives—never held a hammer or sawed wood. So this was a big step that not all of them wanted to take, but for those who did their sense of self was radically changed.
Here is a farmers market they made: