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Taking Back the Streets

One Urban Planner's Crusade to Change Minds

By Melissa Hayes
Existing-Portageville-Bridge

Gil Peñalosa

Gil Peñalosa, founder and chairman of 8 80 Cities, travels the world advocating for open streets and more public spaces.

Gil Peñalosa is on a crusade to make cities in every corner of the world more livable and inclusive. 

As founder and chairman of 8 80 Cities, Peñalosa, who is an urban planner, travels the world encouraging cities to open their streets to the public, create more parks, improve accessibility and provide reliable public transportation. He explains that he named his non-profit 8 80 because if a city meets the needs of an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old it will serve its entire population well. 

In August he spent time in Tokyo; Hong Kong; Stockholm, Sweden; Kuala Lumpur, Malasia; Santiago, Chile; Bogota, Columbia; and squeezed in a few days at home in Toronto.

He began September in Warsaw, Poland and made a stop in London before setting off for a speaking engage-ment in Lisbon, Portugal. 

While the audience changes—sometimes he is addressing public officials, other times activists, residents or the media—Peñalosa poses the same question regardless of what city he is in.

“How do we treat our most vulnerable citizens—and our most vulnerable citizens are the children, the older adults and the poor,” he asks. “I would say that a great city has to be a city that is great for the three of them.”

People are living longer and Peñalosa stresses the importance of maintaining the population’s mobility as it ages—ensuring that the elderly can still get around even when they give up their drivers licenses. He said isolating this population not only affects their physical health, but their mental health as well, which is why ensuring mobility is so important.

“Most of the people that are being born in the U.S. now are going to live to 100,” he said during a telephone interview from Bogota, Columbia in August. “Unfortunately most of the cities we’ve been dealing with in the last 100 years begin as if everybody was 30 years old and athletic. But we’ve really got to build great cities for everyone.”

He advocates for every resident to live within a 10 minute walk of a park. One easy way to make this a reality is by converting school playgrounds, many of which are predominantly pavement, into community parks that the school children use during the day and anyone can use after school hours. Peñalosa also supports parklets or small parks, a concept that became popular through PARKing Day, an annual event during which parking spaces are converted into small public parks.

“PARKing Day was wonderful and lots of people said if we can do one day a year, why not do something permanent? They’re really beautiful, they’re done by the community, they don’t all have to be the same and the community takes care of them and they create free public places,” he said.

In addition to founding 8 80 cities, Peñalosa is chairman of World Urban Parks Association, a non-governmental organization that advocates for open space and recreation.

He was exposed to community work at a young age. His father was Secretary-General for the United Nations Human Settlements Program—now called UN-Habitat—the first official United Nations organization dedicated to addressing urbanization. His brother, Enrique, is the mayor of Bogota, where Peñalosa gained acclaim as the city’s parks commissioner in the 1990s for transforming the park system and breathing new life into ciclovia, a program that closes the streets to cars and opens them to pedestrians and cyclists. Ciclovia is now a weekly program in Bogota—held every Sunday and on holidays—that draws 1.5 million people. Cities around the globe have adopted similar programs, including several in India, where Peñalosa held training sessions in Bangalor, Deli and Mumbai.

“It works in rich cities, in poor cities, in big ones, in small ones,” Peñalosa said. “I’ve seen it work very well in cities of 50,000 people but also in cities of 20 million people, like Mexico City.”

In his public speeches, Peñalosa often equates his proposals to flowers, using impatiens and orchids, to signify relatively easy and inexpensive projects and the longer-term more difficult goals for a community. Ciclovias or new road striping are examples of impatiens, while chang-
ing a law to reduce the speed limit in a residential area or building massive new parks would be an orchid.

While ciclovias may be seen as a purely recreational event, Peñalosa said open streets programs have many benefits. He said they show people that the streets are public spaces, not just a surface for cars to travel on. They also illustrate how easy it is to travel by foot or bicycle instead of car. Peñalosa said many people do not realize how close their homes are to their offices, schools or stores.

But Peñalosa said the most important aspect of ciclovias is that they bring people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and neighborhoods together in one place as equals.

“They don’t go to the same restaurants, the rich and the poor; they don’t live in the same building; their kids don’t go to the same school,” Peñalosa said. “In open streets they are meeting each other as equals and I think that is something that is extremely valuable.”

He recommends making open street events a weekly program, though he suggests a community that is new to the concept try holding a ciclovia or similar event monthly to start out. He said if people know it is a regular event they are more likely to participate and reap the benefits.

“Have it as long as possible to make sure it connects as many different groups of the population as possible,” Peñalosa offers as advice to communities. “The frequency is important because if you want to have it from the health point of view—health physically, but also mentally—if you just do it one Sunday a year, they’re not going to see the health benefit."

The programs are relatively inexpensive because there aren’t any capital costs. Peñalosa said the biggest expense is paying police to close the streets and patrol during the event, but that cost can be offset by using volunteers and only placing police at the busiest intersections.

“Politicians and people should not be afraid of trying it, you’re not building a gymnasium,” he said. “What is the risk? Nothing. If it doesn’t work for whatever reason you don’t do it the following year, you haven’t invested any capital money.”

8 80 Cities worked with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to bring Healthiest Practice Open Streets Programs to cities across the United States, including Los Angeles; Akron, Ohio; Brownsville, Texas and New Brunswick, N.J. There is a toolkit, fact sheets and other information available for free to communities that want to start their own programs at healthiestpracticeopenstreets.org.
Peñalosa is passionate about equity and access. His mission is simple—to empower the public to enact positive change in their communities.

“More than anything it’s trying to get people to move, to realize, to develop a sense of urgency,” he said. “I know most cities are talking about these issues and it’s great because maybe 10 or 15 years ago we were not talking about it, but we have really got to move from talking to actually doing. And that is hopefully how I help them the most, to get them to move from talking to doing.” 

Melissa Hayes is the managing editor of InTransition.

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