Time to demand a Better Bogotá

Bogotá’s urban innovations of the last two decades have been copied around the world but in recent years the Colombian capital appears to have lost some of its magic. After a period of steady advance during the “Mockus-Peñalosa-Mockus” years (1995-2003) Bogotá’s urban renewal has backtracked and the outside world is now beginning to notice. Just a week ago the Economist magazine claimed that “the chaos and corruption seem to be back” in Bogotá.

Indeed, the complaints from Bogotanos continue to add up: the much-lauded Transmilenio bus rapid transit system is almost always overcrowded, trash piles up on the streets and bike paths and unfinished construction works result in eternal traffic jams clogging the main roadways of the capital. Many rightly blame the ineptitude and alleged corruption of local government and the current mayor, Samuel Moreno. But there has also been a sense of complacency among city residents who have become used to the status quo.

Are the glory days of Bogotá over? German Sarmiento, author of the blog “Miblogota-Pensando en una Mejor Bogotá”, acknowledges that the city has become a “disaster” but he also believes there is now an opportunity to regain the momentum of the 1990s while learning from the experiences of other emerging world cities. “Yes, we should look back but we must also look at what other cities are doing in the world…many cities are sharing similar problems with mobility, security and crime, the environment and poverty,” he adds.

It is also time for Bogotanos to expect more from their city and its leaders. There is no doubt that the Bogotá of today is safer, cleaner and richer that in the 1980s and 90s. (In 2007 I lived for a number of peaceful months in La Candelaria, something probably unthinkable for a foreigner during the 1990s). However, the city’s progress needs to continue and as the country develops and the economy grows, Colombians should demand, and participate in the creation of, a modern capital city with accessible and efficient transportation, clean and safe streets, good schools and a healthy environment. In order to reach developed country status Colombian leaders need to finally get rid of the third world mentality.

A better and more livable Bogotá is not only important for current residents but also for local businesses. With a high demand for skilled workers in Latin America, the attractiveness of a business’s location is becoming more important in recruiting the needed talent. Without access to skilled employees (both Colombian and foreign) businesses could begin to leave Bogotá for better urban environments. One reason that Bogotá has become an Andean hub for a number of multinational companies is because many skilled workers would rather live in Bogotá than Caracas, Quito or Lima. As other cities in Latin America advance Bogotá will need to find a way to keep up.

One example to learn from is the Brazilian city of Curitiba which has become a global model for so-called “livable cities”. Once upon a time Bogotá took Curitiba’s idea for a bus rapid transit system and perfected it (through the creation of the Transmilenio) but since then, while Curitiba has continued to advance in transportation, recycling, waste management and housing, Bogotá has stagnated. By focusing on large-scale expensive projects such as the metro, Bogotá has lost site of the creativity and innovation which powered the city’s renewal in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba, famously states that “creativity starts when you eliminate a zero from your budget.” Now an urban consultant, he often advises leaders to “keep things simple and just start working.” Good advice for Bogotá’s next mayor.

Click here for the Spanish version in La República.


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