October 28, 2006

Colombia city makes a U-turn

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A decade ago, the Bosa slum was the black hole of Bogotá. Its darkest corner was Laurel Park, a grassless, trash-strewn lot with open sewage and gun-toting gangs bent on muggings and murder.

Today, Bosa has paved streets, new schools, health clinics and cafeterias, and links to a new mass transit system. Laurel Park has been rechristened Park of the Arts and is alive with children at play and free theater, fashion shows and concerts.

Like much of this re-energized capital of more than 7 million inhabitants, the war zone that was Bosa has been transformed.

“The change has surprised everyone, not just visibly but socially,” said Nubia Zuaza, a community activist who has lived in the area for 20 years. “From a focal point of delinquency, the park now embodies a sense of community that wasn’t there before.”

The same can be said for much of Bogotá, which in the 1990s earned a well-deserved reputation as a world capital of mayhem. Car bombings, assassinations, killings and kidnappings sent thousands of Bogotá‘s residents fleeing to the United States or had them hunkering down in their homes. Bogotá was, in many urban experts’ view, a failed city choked with traffic and pollution and victimized by a seemingly uncontrollable crime wave.

“When I took office, people told me: ‘Nobody can fix this. Bogotá is totally hopeless,’ ” said Enrique Peñalosa, the capital’s mayor from 1997 to 2000.

Now, visionary leadership by Peñalosa and two other Bogotá mayors is credited with helping turn the city around. Improved public finances, reduced crime and congestion, a slew of public works, and reduced and more orderly traffic have made Colombia’s capital livable again.

Urban experts around the world are taking notice. At the architecture exhibition at last month’s Venice Biennale, the organizers cited the city as an exemplar in mass transit. Highlighted were the continent’s largest network of bike paths and Bogotá‘s 300-mile Transmilenio bus system, which after six years of existence boasts a daily ridership of 1.4 million.

The United Nations, the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have cited the 70% drop in Bogotá‘s homicide rate, an even steeper decline in kidnappings, and the addition of a score of public libraries, most of them in poor areas.

But the proof of the turnaround is in the attitudes of the residents. Polls show that citizens who once overwhelmingly saw life here as a cross to bear are hopeful about the future and happier to be here.

“The quality of life has improved with all that’s been done, like the schools and the community dining rooms. People see that the government is doing something,” said seamstress Sonia Ruiz, 45, a 25-year resident of the Bosa barrio. She spoke as she walked near the Park of the Arts, which on a weekday afternoon was clogged with kids playing on swings and kicking soccer balls.

Another Bosa resident, 50-year-old electrician Manuel Penola, said that the barrio was “no utopia yet” and that break-ins still happen, potholes go months without fixing, and there is flooding after downpours. “But that’s because the city is too big, and barrios like this arose illegally with no planning,” Penola said. “Now, at least, we have cooking gas and, with the Transmilenio nearby, the streets are safer and a lot less jammed.”

The city appears to have entered an era that author Armando Silva hopefully describes as a “culture of citizenship,” a term that could never have been applied to Bogotá a decade ago.

“The self-image of crime, violence and no future was so strong in the ‘90s that no one could see a way out,” said Silva, a philosophy professor at the National University of Colombia. “But there has been a change in the political direction of the city, and you have to credit the citizens themselves who demanded it.”

Urban planning expert Juan Carlos del Castillo said the seeds of change were planted during the administration of Mayor Jaime Castro in the early 1990s. Castro initiated Bogotá‘s first land-use plan and persuaded the federal legislature to grant him stronger powers, having found himself overshadowed by a city council dominated by corrupt real estate and transportation interests.

“At the time there was total chaos in the city,” said Del Castillo, who teaches at the National University of Colombia. “The law of the jungle said that people did whatever they wanted, whether it was walling off a street, ignoring their taxes or gas bills, or parking their cars on sidewalks.”

Castro’s successor, Antanas Mockus, son of Lithuanian immigrants and a former university rector, tried to restore a sense of citizenship, employing a whimsical approach that included using mimes to shame motorists into heeding stoplights and crosswalks. But he also played fiscal hardball to improve tax collection and clean up the city’s finances.

Mockus said in an interview that he also attacked Bogotá‘s seemingly unsolvable crime problem by approaching it as an “epidemiologist would tuberculosis.” He mapped out areas where crime was highest and targeted them by increasing patrols and halting liquor sales selectively after 1 a.m. on weekends.

“Crime is caused not only by professional criminals but by social aggression, arguments that get out of hand, often when alcohol is involved,” Mockus said. “My approach was that all of us have a rude person inside of us and it’s our job to regulate him.”

Although crime has by no means disappeared, most Bogotános you stop on the street tell you their city feels safer.

“Two or three years ago, I never walked downtown alone. Now I feel I’m taking no risk in going,” 25-year-old domestic worker Mari Cordero said as she left her job in Bogotá‘s wealthy Chico section.

By the end of Mockus’ first term in December 1997 (he was reelected in late 2000 and began a second three-year term in 2001), crime rates had begun to fall and public finances were strengthening. Thanks to Castro’s improved property-tax collection and Mockus’ reorganization of the power company, Mockus left a budget surplus of about $700 million for incoming Mayor Peñalosa.

A part-time professor and business consultant with the U.S. firm Arthur D. Little before taking office, Peñalosa used the surplus to launch a public works program designed to dramatically reduce traffic, which he describes as Bogotá‘s bane. “Cars are lethal weapons that dehumanize society,” he said.

“I could have used the surplus to build seven elevated highways for more cars, but that would have left no money for public spaces or libraries,” Peñalosa said. “Those highways would have been undemocratic since 70% of Bogotános don’t have cars.”

Using a model set by the Brazilian city of Curitiba, he planned and began construction of the Transmilenio bus system and restricted each private automobile’s circulation to five days a week.

The current mayor, Luis Eduardo Garzon, has taken on the poverty fight, guaranteeing free lunches to the poor and elderly in a program called “Bogotá Without Hunger” and extending the city’s free health clinic network.

The city’s development trajectory is not without critics, including Venus Albeiro Silva Gomez, the federal deputy who represents the Bosa district. “Too much of the spending is directed to the north of the city where the rich people live,” he said, “and not enough in the south where the poor are.”

But few would dispute that Bogotá has vastly improved since a decade ago.

“It’s difficult to measure, but I think the city has recovered its self-respect,” urban planner Del Castillo said. “If you asked people 10 years ago, they’d tell you the city is governed by thieves. Today it’s the opposite.”

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