The Democratization of Urban Design

Every now and then I read, hear, or watch something that resonates with me so much I just want to share it with the world. Today that moment came after watching Enrique Peñalosa’s TED talk on urban planning and public transport.

Urban planning isn’t one of those sexy design niches that gets talked about all that much (yes, urban planning is design). Talking about grey asphalt and concrete buildings just doesn’t illicit the same intrigue within most people as the smooth anodised aluminium finishes on the latest Apple products. I’ve always been fascinated with cities though. I grew up in the countryside, so visiting a city was always a bit of a culture shock. It’s a completely different world.

I’m fascinated with the layout of cities. The way that roads form a maze between the tall buildings. How the placement of shopping malls, markets, and green spaces can totally change the character of an urban environment. But the thing that hits me most when I visit a city is the divide between rich and poor.

Cities are places of extremes. They are the centres of extraordinary wealth, but also crippling poverty. Cities are where our democratically-elected governments call home. Why is it then that their design often seems far from democratic?

In his talk Enrique Peñalosa speaks of his time as the mayor of Bogota, Colombia. Becoming the mayor of a rapidly expanding city cannot be an easy job. These cities face many problems; crime, poverty, vast informal settlements that come to define the landscape of the environment. Many of us in such a situation of leadership would feel so overwhelmed by the task-at-hand we would be powerless but to prod at the issues with short-term solutions.

Enrique Peñalosa however, recognised that this rapidly growing city had the opportunity to reinvent itself. An opportunity to become a more democratic city. A city that restored dignity to its poorest citizens. A city that empowered it’s citizens to dream.

Enrique Peñalosa spearheaded initiatives like [TransMilenio], a networked bus system comprising of over 130 stations that enables citizens to move around the city quickly and safely. The buses have their own dedicated lanes so as to avoid the busy city traffic. No doubt a controversial decision amongst motorists, but one that Enrique Peñalosa defends as restoring a basic human right set out in the constitution.

The first article in every constitution states that all citizens are equal before the law. That is not just poetry. It’s a very powerful principle. For example, if that is true, a bus with 80 passengers has a right to 80 times more road space than a car with one.

– Enrique Peñalosa

The automobile revolution redefined our cities. It reinforced the divide between rich and poor; opportunity and poverty. Now it’s the bus lanes, cycle ways, and pavements that are restoring equality.

An advanced city is not one where even the poor use cars, but rather one where even the rich use public transport.

– Enrique Peñalosa

So take 15 minutes out of your day and watch Enrique Peñalosa’s TED talk. It might just change the way you look at cities.

The cities we are going to build over the next 50 years will determine quality of life and even happiness for billions of people towards the future. What a fantastic opportunity for leaders and many young leaders to come, especially in the developing countries. They can create a much happier life for billions towards the future. I am sure, I am optimistic, that they will make cities better than our most ambitious dreams.

– Enrique Peñalosa

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