Today I attended the first day of the UCLG World Congress on Local and Regional Governments which is taking place in Bogota. I’ve already written some specific blog posts about two of the sessions I attended today that you can find on PCDN. In this short post I wanted to offer a few reflections on few things from today and share a few minutes from the opening talk of of President Santos the Nobel Peace Prize Winner for 2016 as well as an interview I did with one of the finalists for the Bogota Peace Prize which will be awarded on Friday (there are five finalists).
The UCLG was formed to help develop a collective network to advance collaboration and the influence of local and regional governments around the world. In the 21st century, cities are becoming increasingly influential in advancing environmental sustainable development, working with migrants, and at the center of many of the great challenges facing the world. The UCLG provides an incredible space for networking, sharing of best practices, providing a forum for local governments to link to global institutions such as the UN, World Bank, national governments, etc. The conference takes place every three years and there are over 3,000 attendees from around the world who have gathered to share, learn and be inspired.
The opening session featured several notable moments including the talk by the mayor of Bogota, Enrique Londono Penalosa. He spent considerable time talking about both the challenges the city faces in terms of transport, infrastructure and inequality. But he also talked about the steps being taken to make Bogota a much happier city that better serves all of its citizens. As he explained well-designed cities make for happier people and society. Having been coming to Bogota for nearly 20 years, I’ve seen many ups and downs. The city has had some extraordinary leaders (and some not so positive) who have helped to advance a much more civic culture, a strong presence of the arts, many new parks, amazing bike paths (Bogota has some of the best bike paths out of any city in an emerging country, let alone the world), increased public transport and much more. At the same time like many urban environments the city has many contradictions as public transport has increased, it has become filled to capacity, as roads have expanded traffic has increased, etc.
One of the mayor’s central goals is to work on ensuring greater mobility for all people in the city regardless of class or location (the city is still fairly segregated by class). He said some very powerful words, such as a bus that carries 100 people should have much more space and support than a car that just carries one person. That a central focus of the city’s increasing development should putting pedestrians and bikers at the center. That people who choose to drive cars should likely have to pay more in taxes for upkeep of roads. He also discussed a bold vision of building over 200 more kilometers of bike paths (on top of the over 400 km that already exists), creating more urban parks, starting the first metro line in the city’s history in 2018 construction will begin (the national government is providing 70% of the budget, 30% will come from the city) of building, of creating an urban cable car system to link some of the poorer areas of the city to other parts.
As he was talking I had to reflect on one of my favorite aspects of the city (there are many) which is the weekly ciclovia, where every Sunday where over 120 km of streets are closed for the city to come out and bike, walk, eat, socialize and have fun. It is an amazing tradition that started 40 years ago, where over a million people come out each Sunday. The ciclovia also takes places on many holidays. It is likely the largest weekly public bike festival in the world.
I can only imagine what if all cities around the world took their bike transport so seriously that instead of being a side issue, that they chose to close a significant portion of their streets for people to be out and enjoying their environment. Moreover, how can more cities put public transport, people and pedestrians first.
This is not to say Bogota has it right as the city has atrocious traffic that is getting worse every year (maybe the metro will help), poor air quality from traffic in certain areas and a host of other issues, similar to many major urban areas.
The other highlight of the morning was listening to speech from Nobel Prize Winner President Santos. He talked about the hopes of the peace process and also extensively about the work the country is doing to better serve and reach more marginalized populations. This includes building 30,000 new school halls to better serve students in public schools. Many times students in public schools have to divide up into two shifts for the day as there isn’t enough space. Thus many public school students might attend school only 5 to 6 hours a day compared to students in private school students who attend 7 or 8 hours. He is setting an ambitious goal of making Colombia the most educated country in Latin American within a decade.
I certainly hope that the government, and the larger Colombian society (including those who voted against the peace agreement) can find a way forward to help the country ensure the end to more than 50 years of armed conflict with the FARC. It is certainly a challenging time for the country and been an amazing rollercoaster for many the past few weeks with the historic signing of the peace agreement. This was followed by the no vote (only by .5%) by the population. Then followed by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Santos for the amazing 4 year effort to bring an end to one of the world’s longest running conflicts that has caused immense suffering for the people of the country.
I only recorded a short part of his speech which can be seen here (note the sound starts around 20 seconds into the video. Apologies but the Internet connection wasn’t great).
One of the things I’ve found incredibly inspiring in my over 15 years of visiting the country is the resiliency of Colombians and their determination to work for a better future. At the end of the first day of the summit I had the chance to interview one of the finalists for the Bogota Peace Prize, Palmira tu voz es paz. The group is working in one of the most challenging parts of the country and using music to help at risk youth be positively engaged in society. Their story is terrific and I encourage you to check them out (again apologies for the sound which doesn’t start till 40 seconds into the video).
The Bogota Peace Prize has five amazing finalists and is being provided to help “create a momentum for local governments worldwide that implement strategies for conflict prevention, peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction.” The winner will be announced at the conference this week. For more on the Bogota Peace Prize click see http://www.peaceprize.uclg.org/en/about