February 06, 2009

Impressions Of Enrique Peñalosa Event in Boston Public Library

In what ended up being standing room only seating, Enrique Peñalosa gave a stirring speech last night at the Boston Public Library. Over the course of a three hour period he kept the large audience enraptured to hear about his philosophy on urban planning, and his stories of Bogota, and other cities and what they can and have been doing in the field.

Peñalosa’s speaking style is upbeat, and vivacious. He uses humor and his natural speaking style to effect and had the audience clapping and laughing at many points. His presentation rambled once in a while, but no one cared because it was humorous and fun, in short the man knows how to give a good talk.

His presentation really wasn’t about specific programs (although they were discussed). It took me a good nights sleep to realize that his presentation was really about changing a mind set. I guess I should say up front that I do not agree with everything he said. But I did find the vast majority of his views enlightening.

If I had to summarize his main points it would go like this.

* Cities are for people first.
* Urban planning is NOT an engineering problem, but rather a political one.

That’s it really. We can talk about buses and trains and this and that but really those are the main points. I was pretty on board with the first point,but had frankly never really thought about the second one much.

The first point is wrapped up in the idea that we should evaluate all changes to the city based on how they will effect human beings walking or biking around. Cars are then considered after human scale transport. He dramatically illustrated this point by showing pictures of miles of people only roads in Bogota, and neighborhoods that have sidewalks and bike paths, but no paved streets (they only had enough money for one or the other and most people don’t own cars in those places).

In my opinion, this is a no brainer. With the current state of the world (global warming, high cost of oil, urban sprawl, traffic, etc.), designing dense urban places to be primarily traversed by walkers, bikers, and transit makes total sense. It was his second point that really made the light bulb shine over my head.

For so long I had been of the mindset, “this road is X feet wide, that means we can’t have bike lanes” or “we leave 7 feet for parking, and that means we can have a 5 foot bike lane” and on and on.

His point was, “if you don’t have space for a bus only lane, take out the cars.” The point being that there is plenty of space for human scale transport all over, it is simply being taken up by parked cars, and car lanes. Removing parking is not an engineering problem, it is a political one.

Engineers can’t sit down and say “ohh take out car parking and we will have plenty of space for a new bike only lane.” Even though it would be simple as pie to do so. What would be needed in that situation is a political shift. A shift of the demands of the people. Put simply, do we want to have a city designed for cars, or designed for people.

I also thought his ideas about sidewalks were fascinating. I am paraphrasing but his idea was basically: “People think sidewalks are related to roads in that they both get people from point A to point B. But in reality sidewalks are not related to roads, they are more closely related to parks, and should be a place for people to play, walk, watch others, and kiss.”

He then made the point that if you start to think of sidewalks as parks, do you really only want 4 foot wide sidewalks? Is this enough space to play, watch others, relax and kiss? Would you be ok with the Boston Common becoming a parking lot so long as they left enough space for you to walk through it?

There were things I think he got wrong. His focus on humans first in every situation seemed to break down when he advocated ignoring environmental concerns for projects. He made the point that cities are places where humans live, and that as such humans should have first pick of the land (at the expense say of filling in a wetland, or removing habitat for fish, or birds). I found this to be shortsighted. He went on to point out that environmental concerns almost never stop roadways, and almost always only manage to stop bike or walking paths. I think this is most of a problem with politics of road construction, and the high importance that people put on cars. Again it’s a political and mindset problem not an engineering one.

Using his own logic there are plenty of spaces for walking and bike paths, we simply need to take that space back from the cars. Putting humans over the concerns of the environment will in the end lead to a city devoid of nature, something humans desperately need to re-integrate into our lives.

Over all however I found the talk to be amazing, and I left with my head full of interesting and new ideas. One of the most interesting, and one perhaps we (the biking community) should give a try, was a story of a man who took some cardboard and built a box around him as big as a car, and then walked around. His reasoning was that just because he was on foot, does that mean he isn’t allowed to use up as much space as a person in a car? Can you imagine how awesome it would be to have like 20 bikes with these “faux-cars” around them clogging up traffic. Not only would it make a point about the wasted space when you use a car but it might actually make the car drivers realize just how much extra crap they are pushing around just to get from point a to point b.

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Impressions Of Enrique Peñalosa Event in Boston Public Library

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