Monday, March 27, 2006

From Third World Country To America's First Suburb

A new Guest Blogger joins us, straight from Bogotá. Ah, would you believe, Oceanside. A great big Community Alliance welcome to Ellis Simon.

What Bogotá Can Teach Baldwin

By Ellis Simon

Can Long Island’s aging suburbs learn anything about community design from the mayor of a burgeoning Third World city?

The problems facing middle-class communities like Baldwin, Bellmore or Bethpage “don’t amount to a hill of beans” when compared with those confronting places like Bogotá, Colombia, Nairobi, Kenya or Manila, the Philippines. Yet, they have overlapping concerns such as quality open spaces, walkability, traffic and environmental justice.

Last week, Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá and a candidate for President of Colombia, described for an audience of 500 at The City College of New York’s Great Hall how he transformed that city “from a symbol of chaos into a symbol of renewal.”

“Before you can decide what kind of city you want (to design), you want to first know how you want to live,” he said. “That gets into deep and complicated issues.”

Such decisions, he contends, should not be made through market forces. “Most people agree that the market economy is the best way to manage most of society’s resources, but it creates inequalities.”

As an example, he cites land distribution. “The supply of land doesn’t increase as the price of land rises. Hence it becomes an obstacle to solving housing needs and providing good public spaces.”

Penalosa views the quality of public spaces as an important quality of life issue. In public spaces, people meet as equals, regardless of their income levels, he notes. “Parks are not a luxury, but a necessity as important to quality of life as hospitals or schools. They should be great places that even the wealthy will want to go to,” he adds, citing New York’s Central Park as an example.

Another important issue for Penalosa was allocation of resources between the “haves” and “have nots” in his city of seven million, i.e. between those with cars and those without. “The more money we allocate for automobile infrastructure means less is available to meet the needs of the poor,” he notes. “Putting money toward cars uses it to make life better for the rich.”

In opting to build public spaces, schools, libraries and housing instead of more roads, not only did he side with the lower classes, who comprise 80 percent of Bogotá’s population, but he acknowledged the futility of highway construction as a tool for relieving traffic congestion. “Building infrastructure to solve traffic is like fighting a fire with gasoline,” he says. “As you build more highways, people just move further away.”

Instead, he initiated restrictions on auto use in the city’s central business district during peak hours and began construction of a bus rapid transit (BRT) system to replace the cities fragmented and stigmatized private bus lines. Today, 20 percent of the BRT system’s riders, are car owners, he says. When the system is fully built out, 85 percent of the city’s population will live within 500 meters of the nearest stop.

It is doubtful that someone with Enrique Penalosa’s credentials would follow the same playbook if he or she were occupying Kate Murray’s office. Our comparatively low population density makes us dependent upon the automobile, whether we like it or not. And, a relatively small percentage of our population lives in poverty.

However, as Penalosa points out, the more friendly a city is to cars, the less friendly it is to people. Our auto addiction comes at a price. It detracts from our quality of life and happiness by keeping us isolated and away from public spaces where we can partake in one of our greatest pleasures, watching other people.

Is it any wonder that the regional malls like Roosevelt Field and Green Acres have become our new town squares? As any teen can tell you, they are among the few great year-round people-watching places we have.

But the inclusiveness – or lack thereof – of privately owned malls creates a problem for Penalosa. In a democratic society, it is important that people not feel excluded or inferior, he maintains. “It is not bad to be poor, but it is bad to feel inferior.”

Ellis Simon is a resident of Oceanside.
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Assuming the grass is greener -- or at least less trampled by cars -- let's not downplay that Bogota, Columbia has a darkside, too. Drug trafficking, civil strife, narcoterrorism, and abject poverty are but a few of the concerns faced by capital city citizens. Or so the CIA Factbook would have us believe!

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