We have interviewed Gil Penalosa, Founder & Chair of World Urban Parks & 8 80 Cities for the April/May issue of the European Covenant newsletter .
The Interview can be found in all EU languages under the following links:
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Climate change, air pollution and population growth are putting a strain on the livability of urban areas. You are saying that we should rethink the way we build cities. What is your vision?
People are living longer than ever before. 200 years ago, the life expectancy was 45, today it is in many areas at over 80. We live longer and increasingly in cities, but the question is now how do we want to live our longer lives in cities?
We have been building our cities as if everyone was 30, but this neglects the remaining population. We have to build cities that are great for an 8 and an 80 year old. The population over 80 is bound to quadruple in the coming decades. Our cities should reflect and accommodate this development.
Public places have often been captured by cars and concrete, to the detriment of green spaces. You are advocating for more parks in urban areas. What would be the benefits of giving back space to the green?
Public places are magnificent in so many ways that we should take advantage of them. They create socialization, as young and old meet and enjoy the presence of each other. Moreover, Parks and public spaces are equalizers. In those places, we meet each other as equals, and we change our minds about one another in the process.
A good city is one where I can sleep at home and live outside. Furthermore, a good city is one where I can easily move around by walking or cycling. In Bogota for example, the city closed streets on a Sunday to make room for cyclists. At first, citizens were fervently against it. But when they saw the multiple benefits this measure created – better air quality, less noise, more public space – they changed their minds and strongly supported it. It is important to take such measures to incite change in people’s minds and give public space back to the citizens in our cities.
What messages would you like to pass on to Covenant signatories that can provide inspiration for their transition towards becoming vibrant, sustainable and resilient cities?
Firstly, think of the gentle majority in your cities: kids, old people, vulnerable citizens. Be creative, create spaces where kids can develop creativity and learning. We build fantastic parks for dogs, but not for kids under 5. When you are a kid, this is when you develop a sense of belonging to a community! Everyone should have a park within 10 minutes walking distance. Think not only about creating enough parks for your citizens, but also about creating enough opportunities to do activities inside. We are talking about equity, not equality. Equity means giving more chances to vulnerable citizens in your city, and it is a key principle local leaders should follow in their policies.
Secondly, we have great opportunities, but also a huge responsibility: The population in our cities is growing rapidly, and we have to think how this growing number of people is going to move from A to B. Giving all these people cars is not the solution to move forward. We need to change, and it is possible to change. Look at Copenhagen for example. When they wanted to create the first pedestrian streets in the 60s, people said no at that time, because there were still too many cars on the streets and there was no real culture of being outside. Now, Copenhagen is one of the most cycle-friendly cities in the world! 41% of trips in Copenhagen are made by bike, and they have nearly reached their goal of 50%.
Thirdly, remember that change is never unanimous: General interest must prevail over particular interest. Whenever you say no to something or someone, you say yes to something else.
Fourth, make mobility sustainable: The first mode of transportation in our cities is walking, so we should establish the infrastructure to make walking as safe, convenient and comfortable as possible. There should be islands on crossroads to protect people that are walking. Furthermore, every residential street should be a 30km/h street. If we only switch our cars to become driverless and electric, we won’t change anything about mobility in our city. But more walking and cycling will change cities, and for that, you need to adapt the infrastructure of your city. Boosting public transport is also critical. A livable city is not one where the poor have cars, but one where the rich use public transport.
Fifth, make efforts to improve the health of your citizens: Encourage people’s physical activity, and the best place to encourage that is to create enough parks. Plus, more nature and green space is good for mental health and wellbeing.
Sixth, create alliances and be bold: Build alliances within your administrations, with other sectors such as education, health, etc. As a mayor, have a vision AND take action. Not only be mayors, but do as mayors!