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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Guillermo Penalosa: People Moving Cities: Part II

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Guillermo Penalosa speaks to the wonder of building our cities for the people who actually live in them. [Photo: Brendan Hurley]

Guillermo Penalosa is considered one of the premier voices on the vitalizing nature of human powered transportation and public spaces in Cities. He is the head of 8-80 Cities a non-profit organization that looks at the what “contributes to the creation of vibrant cities and healthy communities, where residents live happier and enjoy great public places.” Brendan Hurley and Yuri Artibise of SpacingVancouver were lucky enough to sit down for an evening coffee with “Gil” directly across from the Vancouver Art Gallery and the active Hornby Bikeway, shortly after the Vancouver Urban Forum this summer. The conversation focused on the experiences and best practices he has observed here in Canada and around the World, and how Vancouver is holding up in that context. You can read the first part of that conversation here.


Spacing: We wanted to talk about the Power of Public Spaces. There was a passed over statement in your presentation earlier today on the nature and power of public spaces. Vancouver’s Seawall has been voted Canada’s Best Public Space by Spacing Magazine. It is one of those integrating places that you do see everybody coming together. The bike lanes in Vancouver still feel to be a divisive, at least politically. Especially when it is those on the street cyclists who are hardcore cyclists, but when on the seawall there is more of a feeling of casual fun. What are your impressions of the nature of these spaces.

GP: I think that we should have a sense of the public space as a place where we are equals. This is where we develop a sense of belonging. In a country like Canada, where we have many immigrants also, it is valuable to have a place to say: “I belong to this city, I belong to this province, I belong to this Country… I belong to the world.” It is almost sacred. That is why I think that it is so horrible that in many cities the cars park on the sidewalks and there are actions from people like the mayor of Moscow who is turning the squares and plazas in the city into public parking lots. It is totally nuts. They are something that really benefits everybody. That is the power of the public space.

On Sunday I was in San Francisco, and we were celbrating the 5th Anniversary of Sunday Streets. That is their program, and one of the many little babies out of Cyclovia.

I have done lots of work promoting open streets around the world. One’s in San Francisco, Portland, in New York, in Los Angeles or In Ontario, in Hamilton, in Kingston. Everywhere it is the same. If you go to San Fransisco again you will see the very rich and the very poor, and the men and the women and the fat and skinny and everybody, basically.

Sunday Streets in San Francisco open the streets to traffic in the traditions of Coclovia [Photo: Colin Hughes 2010]

People could be walking alone around their neighbourhood, but people go to the Sunday Streets, in San Francisco and go to Cyclovia in Bogota because they want to be with other people. That is the wonderful thing about human beings, we are social animals, and we like to be with others. If we had come to this restaurant and it had been empty we probably would not have sat down. We go to concerts, not because we want to listen to the music, we could download the music at better quality, but we go because we want to be with other people. So, the people that go to the Sunday Streets there, or in New York the Summer Streets, and Portland the Sunday Parkways, it’s because they want to be with other people. We enjoy the presence of each other. Those places have become so safe. That’s what the parks and all of these programs do. I think that’s why all of this is very important.

With parks for example, I am worried that each day we are paying less and less attention to the them. The new mayor of Toronto wants to cut the budgets to all of the parks and, instead of maintaining them and cutting the grass once every other week, he wants it to be once every 4 weeks or whatever. But that is where we build community.

I’m amazed at how often in municipalities you see children’s playgrounds that are broken, but when you go to the city tell them and they say: “Oh, Why don’t you do some fundraising?” But, if you go to the same municipality and you say that there is a pothole in the street, and they fix it. Is the pothole on the street more important than the children’s playground? Somehow we get switched wrong in our priorities.

Spacing: You said earlier in you presentation that planners, politicians, and decision makers – who are trying to enact these vibrant cities for everyone to be together in – need to have “guts”, and have to take – in some cases – big risks. What are the A “the “Guts” that are needed and what are B the big “Risks” going to be in taking these next steps?

GP: There are a number of things, as it is a very big question.

Today [at the Vancouver Urban Forum] there was a lot of discussion about the legal issues and the structure of municipalities in their relationship to higher levels of government. All that is fine and I think that we should solve it, but I don’t think that’s where the problem is. That becomes more of an excuse than anything, to not do things. It is not because municipalities or provincial governments are weak. All of a sudden someone can come and change the situation.

An altered “unthinkable” New York is emerging from protected and programmed pedestrian and cycling space on many of the city’s streets. [Photo: Brendan Hurley]

There is the example of New York, where they said for many, many years: “Nothing can happen in New York”, because of the mafia and the corruption, and the politicians, and because no one feels that they have any power as a New Yorker. All of a sudden, you get these two women: The Commissioner of Planning, Amanda Burden, and the Commissioner of Transportation, Janette Sadik-Khan, and more than even Mayor Bloomberg those two are transforming the city.

The thing that people thought could never be done they are doing it. They are really ‘doers’. They are not the people finding problems to the solutions. No, they are finding solutions to the problems. When they were going to do some projects like the bikeways, they responded: “Oh no Janette, you need an environmental assessment.” She responded, “Let me take a look at the law.” What she found was if you do a pilot project, you don’t have to do the environmental assessment ahead of time, you can do it at the same time as you make the project. So she has hundreds of pilot projects.

I think we need these people with the capacity to do it.

For example, in Calgary, now, the mayor is really doing the right talk. He has, 8 of 11 Councilors. We’ll see what he is going to do, and whether he actually does it. There is absolutely no excuse for him not to transform Calgary. He knows what needs to be done, he has all the political power, and let’s hope he uses it.

In Toronto, the former Mayor, Miller in his second term was reelected with an overwhelming majority. Never-the-less, he thinks he’s very bicycle friendly, but he didn’t do one meter of protected bikeways, when he could have done 200 km.

The mayor of Chicago, where the city’s broke and they don’t have the economy to spend. Well, Mayor Emanuel, he just came in. And in his first 30 days he did the first protected bikeway, and he is now saying he is doing 160 km. Why is he doing 160 km? Because he realizes if he only constructs 10km that don’t connect anything to anything, and people are not going to use it.

You need to do a minimum grid. And at some point you are going to need to have people with the guts to do it.

Where will Vancouver’s minimum grid be? This plan represents the early steps of the Transportation 2040 Plan for separated bikeways. Penalosa would likely argue that this plan should go Much, MUCH further in connecting our streets, places, and people. [Image: City of Vancouver, 2012]

Amanda Burden, in New York, where they have this elevated rail line, that was built 45 years ago to carry toxic materials. About 20 years ago it stopped working. So they were going to bring it down, and then Amanda Burton met with some residents, and they said “Why don’t we do a linear park?” And they did High Line Park, and it is one of the most fantastic parks and public spaces, which goes right through the middle of Manhattan.

By the way it is great business for the city. The City of New York, put down $200 million, and the numbers are going that in the next 15 years they are going to get $1 billion back. So they are going to multiply their investment by 5, all on just the property taxes.

So if an apartment was worth $600000, now with the park it is worth $700000. Only on the margin of the additional value, the property tax will multiply by 5x the money for the City. On top of that it is a wonderful place that is great for tourism, and great for many other things.

The High Line in created a vibrant and imaginative public space that is the delight of Chelsea in Manhattan. [Photo: Brendan Hurley]

Why do I say that it is risky, and why do I say that it needs guts?

Because, on many of these things related to public space, people are not begging for it. The public space, such as the parks or the plazas in many ways they work differently than the rest of the public services, like electricity or water. When you don’t have electricity, you are very unsatisfied, but when you have it you are not satisfied. It doesn’t produce any satisfaction.

The parks, plazas, and squares are the opposite. When you don’t have them you are almost not aware of how you miss them, and you are not really asking for it, you are not very dissatisfied. But when you have them, they produce limitless satisfaction. When you go to the park, you are so happy, and tomorrow and the next it continues as a never ending source of satisfaction.

So why do I say that it takes guts?

For example, no one was begging mayor Bloomberg to make Times Square pedestrian. It was very gutsy. It worked, and now everybody says: “Wow! He’s brilliant.” But what if it didn’t work? Then people would have said: “What an Idiot!” “How on earth could he have thought that making Times Square for pedestrians would have been good for the city.” In that sense it is gutsy.

I did a keynote in San Francisco, where they were celebrating doing 5 years of the Open Streets, and I gave a lot of recognition to the mayors and the politicians of San Francisco. I said “over the 5 years of the project of Sunday Streets, you took the courage to do it.”

When it was successful, everybody said, “Great”, but if it had not been people would have said: “Taking the cars out of the streets and putting in bicycles and pedestrians in. Are you stupid? The streets were made for cars.” That’s why I think that it is gutsy.

Unfortunately, when you have indefinite reelection, some politicians become ‘professional’ politicians. Then every time they win an election, that day, their #1 priority becomes how to be reelected 4 years from now. Then the easiest way to get reelected is to not do anything new. Just to do a little bit more of the same, maybe do it a little bit better, but don’t rock the boat. The politicians become very risk averse this way. We need politicians who are there to do what they think is ‘right’ not what they think will get them reelected.

I think a lot of these mayors who are doing interesting things, they have been very gutsy.

Five Years ago in Paris no one even knew what a public bike was. All of a sudden, the mayor of Paris starts building bikeways all over the city, and people are saying: “Why are you building this?” Then he brings in 24500 bikes. For those public bikes he set up 1471 stations. For those stations, he took our 7000 car parking stalls. 7000!

Y’know in some cities here if you take out 3 car parking stalls [gasp!] it’s a big issue, and the TV comes and the radio and the papers cry out: “Oh no, they are eliminating 3 car spaces!” … 7000!

So it was very gutsy to do it. Now they have over 200,000 bike trips per day. It has become a transportation system, but no one could have thought it would have been so successful. Now many cities are doing it, because “Paris did it, so let’s do it.”

Velib in Paris. Taking up parking stalls and connecting bikeways… Gutsy. [Photo: Coyau via CreativeCommons]

In those decisions, I think you really have got to have 5 Elements to make the change:

ONE We need to develop the sense of urgency.

In Canada we are growing so fast that in the development of our cities will will be adding the equivailent of making our 5 largest cities all over again, in just 25 years. I mean Canada is going to grow by nearly 7 million people in the next 25 years.

TWO We need the political will.

By political will I mean “the guts”. The politicians must understand that the general interests must prevail over the particular, because many times the politicians say, “oh there is some concern.” Of course there will always be concern. Change is not unanimous. Even Times Square, which now is not a pilot anymore. They’re going to make it permanent. Still 30% of the people are against it. Bloomberg is not saying “there are some concerns”, he is making the general interests prevail over the particular.

THREE We need doers in the public sector.

In the public sector we need people who realize that we as citizens are paying them every other week to get things done. Not to have excuses on why things can not be done. It is very easy to find excuses, like “Oh no, it’s a legal issue; Oh no, the community plan.” Their job is to get things done.

FOUR We need leadership.

We need leaders all over. We need leaders in the schools, we need leaders in the business community, we need universities… thousands of leaders. Actually, behind every good public action there is always a leader.

FIVE We need public participation.

The citizens can no longer be spectators. The citizens need to participate. I am amazed that even at the universities where I go to speak to 500 students. And when I ask “Who has ever sent an email to a news paper, or to any media, or to a politician?” May be one person raises their hand. “How are you going to get things changed?” Things don’t change when you gossip with your next door neighbour to complain. The least you have to do is send an email, go to public meetings, make a phone call. The citizens need to participate. You have to remember if they are not making the phone calls or sending the emails, someone else is, and that someone else is setting the agenda.

Those are the 5 elements that we need to create change.

There must be that sense of urgency.

They just extended the Toronto area from Oshawa to Niagra. That’s 7.5 Million people.

Let me tell you this last anecdote…

When Bloomberg came to power he made the plan NYC 2030. He said, “we are going to grow by 1 million.” The already had 8 million. If we don’t do something we are going to collapse. The 1 million is great for the city because it is good for the restaurants, and retail, and businesses, except for mobility.

When they extend the GTA from Oshawa to Niagra it has almost the same 8 Million. It is going to grow by 3.7 million. So almost 4 times as much, but there is no sense of urgency. You don’t see people saying, “Whoa! We need to get on this.” It is huge to see a city grow by almost 50% in twenty years. We need to realize what ever we do or don’t do is going to be there for hundreds of years.

It is not only important for us, the current generation, but for our children, and grand children, because for the next 300-400 years the parks that we leave and the street structure that we allot, the public spaces we create will likely stay. In that sense we really have to be generous with the future. I think that politicians at some point are going to need a really nice balance of generousity with the future society. If Toronto is improving the waterfront and people say yeah, but we also need to improve the hospitals and education, but you also need to think about and do things that are going to be around for hundreds of years.

Where do we fit the next million? The urgency of this dilema is pressing and present in our city and others. Where and how we grow will define our future cities. [Image: Metro Vancouver 2040 Regional Growth Strategy, 2009]
Spacing: For many people the growth issue is sticky, because many people would prefer to shut it down, because growth to some means developer based housing crunches and the prices going up. What role does our public spaces have in getting people to accept growth?

GP: I think growth is inevitable. I think only people playing politics can say “I can restrict growth.” The reality is that all over the world people are moving to the cities because the cities are providing better sevices than in the rural areas. So the cities will continue to grow.

I think the problem is not whether to grow or not grow. I feel it is whether to do it properly or not properly. What we need to do work on is making sure people have parks within walking distance. For example, when I was in Texas at a conference on obesity,  where 1 in 3 people are obese. In the lower income and blacks and hispanics it is 55%. In these places, they don’t have parks or public spaces.

Los Angeles has a lot of parks, but only in some areas of the city. In the other area it means that 2 out of 3 children do not have a park in walking distance. When you look at obesity it is right in the same areas. If you put a third layer of economics on to that, it turns out to be where the poor people live. Everything is related.

The public space plays a critical role. It not only plays a critical role in not only growth, but a critical role in being competitive. What really created wealth in the 19th Century was land, so people would take over the next door. In the 20th Century it was capital, so people were subsidizing companies. Now it is knowledge, but knowledge moves around, The number one priority for cities like Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, and the like, is to figure out “How can we retain our best people? How can we attract our best people?”

The best people can live anywhere in the world, whether they are the best chefs or carpenters or medical doctors, or organizers or many others… they can live anywhere in the world. So if people can live anywhere in the world, they are going to say: “OK, where am I going to find the best life for myself, my spouse, and my kids.” People are realizing that the public spaces and quality is not just something nice to have. No, this is the most important tool of economic competitiveness.

A City’s effective and engaging public space network is the most important  tool we have for economic competitiveness. [Photo: Brendan Hurley]

Yesterday, I had lunch with a few people from twitter. Twitter this Friday is moving their headquarters to downtown of San Francisco in the middle of Market Street, in one are that is pretty rough. They think that if they bring a 1000 people down they are going to rejuvenate the area. Even Google, where most of staff live in downtown San Fransisico, even though they built neighbourhoods around the campus. But those were spiceless cities. None of their creative people wanted to live there. It was artificial, and to do anything elsewhere you have to get in a car. So reach these people google is sending busses get their workers from Downtown San Francisco.

This is about being competitive. That is why Boeing Corperation set up their headquarters in Chicago. The top 200 staff said they wanted a city with public spaces, and they ranked that above all. This is really exciting, because now public spaces are drivers of economic vibrancy, as well as public health.

I think we need to be much better at promoting public spaces. By we I mean the citizens need to have the sense that it has so many benefits. It is good for mental and physical health. I was working two years ago for the mayor of Dublin in Ireland, which is going through a huge economic crisis. But the mayor was saying that so many people are unemployed, but in Dublin there is a park for 97 percent of everyone within 300m of their homes. 300m is nothing. He says that has worked like a safety net. People that live there have a place to go and see others, and chat or do exercises.

Public Spaces are great for health, but they are also great for the environment, and they are also great for economic development. So, we really have to make the case for why we need to put money into them.  Not only to build them, but to design and construct them as successful public spaces. As important or more is the management.

I find with a lot of cities they find it easier to find the millions to build the public space than to find the thousands to make them work.


A heartfelt thanks to Gil for taking the time to chat with the Spacing readers.

Yuri Artibise is a public policy analyst and social media specialist. Through his Yurbanism brand, he explores the ‘Y’ of urbanism by sharing ways to make our cities more livable, community-oriented places one block at a time. He currently works with PlaceSpeak, an online location-based community consultation platform.

Brendan Hurley is a local urban designer who focuses on planning for adaptive neighbourhood change. His recent work has been internationally focused, but is strongly rooted in his native Vancouver. Living and working out of the heart of downtown, he remains keenly focused on the region’s development and history. Brendan is acting as Associate Editor of Spacing Vancouver, but also consults with the UrbanCondition design collective.