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Politics of Public Space – the Transformation of Bogotá

During the first half of the 1990’s, the Colombian capital, Bogotá, had the reputation of being ‘the worst city in Latin America’. In the aftermath of the 1980’s fights between governments and drug cartels, the overall situation of the country was critical. The situation in Bogotá was a reflection of Colombia’s serious institutional decay. Crime rates were high, public spaces were of poor quality, and the quality of public services were lower yet. The police force was corrupted; drugs, murder, and domestic violence were mundane for many… The list goes on. Bogotá’s future looked none too bright, until a visionary philosopher, Antanas Mockus, arrived onto the political scene in Bogotá.

Mockus emerged in the middle of the national chaos from the Academic world without having ever previously participated in national politics. He had an intuition that improving the city’s physical environment could create a better and more equal society. At the core of Mockus’ vision were democracy, education, honesty, and above all, that the human life was sacred. “The history of Colombia will be written with pencil and not with blood”, he proclaimed. Mockus believed that people of all ages needed to be re-educated, not necessarily via traditional education, but by observing their surroundings, and by re-learning core cultural values. To show an example, Mockus dressed up in a superhero costume, and picked up trash from Bogotá’s public spaces with his own bare hands. Mockus was trying to campaign that a ‘super-citizen’ does no violence, takes no bribes, and works for the common good. In 1995, he was voted into the city’s administration.

Mockus’ radical media pulls gained a lot of publicity. One of his first and most famous decision as mayor was to hire 420 mimes to work for the local police force. The task of the mimes were to teach citizens moral lessons through performance art: when a citizen would act according to traffic rules, the mimes would provide a gigantic smile and “thumbs up”-sign. On the contrary, if a car disrespected the traffic rules or pedestrians and cyclists, the mimes would show a big “thumbs down”-sign and make the traffic rule violator feel bad. The case of the mimes is still known today as one of the most successful stories of fighting against corruption and crime on a local scale. It is extraordinary since typically crime and corruption would have been addressed by increasing the police force’s salary or by increasing the quantity of educated police, not through a philosophical approach like Mockus’.

Antanas Mockus innovative leadership has led to a transformation of Bogota. Picture: Stephan Röhl, Flickr
Antanas Mockus – innovative leadership even without his superhero costume. Picture: Stephan Röhl, Flickr

Later in the 1990’s, Mockus allied with another politician, Enrique Penalosa. Together the two Bogotános are renowned for changing the urban fabric from dystopian city into a city of learning and hope. Mockus enforced the cultural and social aspects of urban transition like public parks, libraries, schools, proper roads and sidewalks. Penalosa was determined to implement a Rapid Bus Transit system that would be accessible to all citizens, which complemented Mockus’ vision. Together, the two mayors managed to push through radical changes in urban policy, and along with it, increase the usage of public space. The morals of the urban civil society were altered in that public commodities were finally respected.

Enrique Peñalosa was highly influential in transforming Bogota. Picture: Dodo, Flickr
Enrique Peñalosa was highly influential in transforming Bogota. Picture: Dodo, Flickr

Even though no society is flawless, and the building of a better city is never-ending, the story of Mockus and Penalosa remains relevant today due to its central message: through human-oriented and conscientious urban design we can enhance the societies we live in. Urban design is a very broad concept, referring to urban landscapes, buildings, transportation, streets, and public spaces. In our everyday lives, we encounter the latest mentioned frequently. Yet, it is rare that we think about how these spaces influence our living and decision-making. What kind of messages do the environments we live in convey? What are the politics of public space? As illustrated in the example of Bogotá, an urban designer’s occupation can be very silent. Meaning that, if any public space, be it a street, plaza, park or a bench, is well designed, we easily take the place for granted. Conversely, if the city’s public spaces are not functioning as an entity, in the worst case, poor urban design may lead to unsafe environments and higher crime rates.

Poor-quality urban design is a typical outcome of modernist architecture. Modern architecture is associated with fast building for the technologically advanced society, spreading particularly after the World Wars. A clear example of modern planning is producing spaces for “the 60-km-per-hour traveler”, rather than for the human scale consumers. It could be argued that, not only did highway-intensive planning produce significant wasted space; it also made our cities more contaminated, removed pedestrians and cyclists from the everyday urban landscape, and made our communities less healthy while separating us from a sense of community. Certain architectural solutions, such as big and open plazas, tend to make us feel uncomfortable. The human eye only sees as far as about a hundred meters, and if this distance barrier is crossed, we feel threatened. In our discomfort, it is clear that Modernist-designed public spaces ignore the innately human characteristics of urban populations. For example, consider the desolateness of open areas on a regular day. This was not always the case, as the physiology of humans was already included in ancient town planning. Cities were built on top of hills to ensure protection and public spaces within the city, such as market places, were designed for the human scale. In a small market square, the traders were safe, which made people more relaxed, and in a way, in control over the space. Feeling in control and safe stimulated positive emotions in the consumers of the space, and consequently, positively influenced business.

As a countermove for the modernist planning model, many individuals, activists, scholars, and even politicians, like Mockus and Penalosa, began to speak for an urban design that would bring ordinary people back to the centre of urban planning, instead of technocrats. The above story is an example of such a response, illustrating that carefully planned urban design can, in fact, enhance the societies we live in. It’s important to acknowledge that planning should be comprehensive, not just physical structures in space, but responding to the psychological needs of people, as well.

Kia Silvennoinen

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