Great Streets Project Sits Down with Enrique Peñalosa

July 20, 2009 at 11:56 pm Leave a comment

From July 5 – July 8, the San Francisco Great Streets Project, in cooperation with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, had the distinct honor and pleasure of welcoming Enrique Peñalosa to San Francisco.
As Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia from 1998-2000, Mr. Peñalosa led massive efforts to rebuild the city in areas of transportation, land use, housing for the poor, and pollution abatement.  He rejuvenated the city’s public spaces by creating parks from areas previously overrun by crime and drugs and establishing a dynamic pedestrian promenade from what had been a deteriorating and congested downtown avenue.  In 2000, Mr. Peñalosa instituted the first car-free day in Bogotá, a milestone for which he won the Stockholm Challenge Award.  He worked hard to involve citizens in the revitalization of some of Bogotá‘s marginal neighborhoods, planted more than 100,000 trees, and jumpstarted a highly successful bus-based rapid transit system that is a shining example of sustainable and equitable transportation for the world to see.
Mr. Peñalosa has been awarded the Eisenhower Fellowship and the National Simon Bolivar Prize, and he is currently a visiting scholar at New York University and senior international advisor to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.  He was formerly economic secretary to the President of Columbia, as well as Dean of the Business Administration faculty at Externado de Columbia University.
While in San Francisco, Mr. Peñalosa met with interested citizens, urban planners, government officials, and business leaders.  We had the chance to sit down with him to ask him a few questions about his work, his motivations, and moving forward together to create a better San Francisco.

Great Streets Project: Mr. Peñalosa, thank you so much for taking the time to share your wisdom and inspiration with us.  Can you talk about what motivates and excites you about this work?

Enrique Peñalosa: I think it’s very exciting to participate in the creation of environments where people are happier—where life is better, where there is more equality, and happiness.

GSP: So, for advocates like us who might feel the same way, what is the advice for how to make change in our own cities?

Enrique Peñalosa: Well, more than advise I just have to congratulate you; you do a wonderful job.  I will just say that most of the time in societies, people have been so used to the way things are, that even some very horrible situations have seemed normal. Perhaps today many things that are really inhuman—and which in a few hundred years will seem unimaginable—are surrounding us all over the place.  Perhaps we can invent better ways of organizing life.

GSP:  After walking around San Francisco and seeing Market Street, how do you think that it can become a truly great street?

Enrique Peñalosa:  Well, Market Street is a difficult case; it has so many good ingredients, and yet it seems it does not attract enough people.  I think the traffic of bicycles on Market Street justifies a top-quality bicycle lane—a protected bicycle way.  That would be a nice improvement.  It seems that in many areas of San Francisco you could have higher densities, higher buildings.  You could easily put double the population that it has now without having any twenty-story or fifty-story high-rises, just with six-story high, seven-story high buildings.  But I cannot really know what the ingredients would be, I really cannot claim to know, but it seems that there are many good ingredients on Market Street.

The thing that we most underestimate and undervalue is dreams.  Dreams tend to be just some sort of a game that doesn’t have any worth.  I think it’s the most difficult thing to do—to dream, to imagine.  Of course, it is even much more difficult to construct a shared dream.  I think the first thing is to look at many details, and then to propose changes, to propose renderings, perhaps.  But those dreams have to be—at least initially—as free from restrictions as possible.  You cannot begin by saying what is not possible.  Later in the process we will figure out what is possible and what is not, but at the beginning you cannot start with the restrictions.

GSP: When we try and make improvements like this, what is the thing that usually stops them or slows them down?

Enrique Peñalosa: Well in general at this time in history, we are trying to retake our cities from cars, to which we gave them in the twentieth century.  The twentieth century was disastrous for human habitats.  We really made cities for cars and not for people.  And therefore at this time most of the improvements are improvements trying to make cities more for children, more for wheelchairs, more for the elderly, more for humans.  Sometimes taking away some space for cars making wider sidewalks or taking a few lanes out to make a truly great promenade, continuing sidewalks at grade so that it is clear that it is cars who are entering the pedestrian space and not vice versa.  But you have to have a city, which in every detail shows that human beings are sacred.  There are a thousand ways of doing it, but in short it’s very simple—almost too simple—to basically make cities more humane, more for people.

GSP: So when it comes down to it, who is responsible for making this possible?

Enrique Peñalosa: Well I think eventually you have to participate in politics somehow.  Politics is the way societies are organized to make decisions.  It’s not a matter of being a politician or not, but our society is organized in such a way such that government—at some level, there may be different ways that are more or less participatory—at some point the people who are elected hold the possibility to make decisions that change everything—faster or slower, with wider or narrower, with more or less consultation.  So think that’s inevitable—to participate in politics somehow.

GSP: Mr. Peñalosa, thank you so much for your time.

Enrique Peñalosa: Thank you.


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Our Mission

The San Francisco Great Streets Project catalyzes the return of our city’s streets to their rightful place as the center of civic life in this wonderful city by working with government, business, and neighborhood leaders to test, analyze and institutionalize placemaking.


Kit Hodge
San Francisco Great Streets Project
995 Market Street, #1550
San Francisco, CA 94103
kit [at] sfgreatstreets DOT org
415-431-2453 x313

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