“Our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities.”
When United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon imparted this prediction in April 2012 at UN headquarters, he wasn’t speaking to heads of state. Sitting before him were mayors and governors of regions with large urban populations, not the national leaders and foreign ministers who usually frequent meetings concerning sustainable policy change.
Many of the initiatives needed to reduce carbon output can be and in some cases have already been made by leaders who have a smaller and less diverse electorate than do Barack Obama or Dilma Rousseff. And, as one mayor has shown, these changes don’t have to be painful for the population. They can actually improve the quality of life, improve social mobility, and make for a healthier and happier population.
In 1997, Enrique Peñalosa was elected mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, the Andean capital city then known by many as a hub of international drug trade and crime. He was the son of a minister of Agrarian Reform, a man whose job it was to take from rich landowners and distribute farmland to the poor. It was likely this childhood experience that influenced his future actions in office.
The guiding principle of Peñalosa’s innovative agenda was something that seems at the surface wholly unrelated to sustainability: happiness.
“We’re living in an experiment,” the mayor explained to one journalist. “We might not be able to fix the economy. We might not be able to make everyone as rich as Americans. But we can design the city to give people dignity, to make them feel rich. The city can make them happier.”
But how can policy create the happiness of which Peñalosa speaks? It has to do with shaping how people move, what they do with their leisure time, and giving them a chance to advance their social position.
Sundays were suddenly proclaimed a day closed to all car traffic. Instead of the exhaust fumes and honking horns, the city now provides free calisthenics classes in major plazas, and plentiful opportunities for cyclists, rollerbladers, and walkers to exercise without worrying about sharing the road.
Bogotá also designed streets to prioritize the needs of cyclists and pedestrians, usually the more economically disadvantaged city dwellers, by literally forcing cars out of the nicely paved streets, leaving the smooth boulevards to the proletariat. TransMilenio, opened in 2000, became world’s largest rapid bus transit system only 12 years after it premiered.
3 new major libraries became bastians of public knowledge and personal advancement, and were intentionally placed in communities that were in traditionally underserved and undereducated neighborhoods.
Cases such as this should provide hope for cities and their denizens around the world. Being sustainable doesn’t have to be depressing, unhealthy, and costly. It can enrich our connection to the places where we live. Ultimately, the power to promote and achieve sustainability lies in the hands of mayors and governors. For the sake of not only their constituents, but also mankind, one can hope they follow in Peñalosa’s footsteps.