Towards the Human City – Colombia, Part 1

First Stop: Colombia

Our first stop had to be Colombia, not only from the perspective of urban planning but also for reasons of personal attachment. The country deserved our admiration for the manner in which they had tackled the major challenges that led to periods of extreme violence: the huge inequalities, the active guerrillas, the lucrative narco-culture and its globalised drug economy, the weaknesses of public institutions and the fragmented civil society had jeopardised any hope for urban development and/or impetus from real urban leaders.

In Bogotá for instance, in 1993 intentional homicides were at a rate of 81 per 100,000 inhabitants; (since 2007 they have fallen to 19 per 100,000 inhabitants). Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, became known in the late 80s for being the most dangerous city in the world, in the midst of drug war cartels and Pablo Escobar’s war against everything and everyone. And just recently, the Urban Land Institute chose Medellin as the most innovative city in the world due to its progress in education and social development; the Overseas Development Institute awarded the city for becoming a pioneer of a post-Washington consensus ‘local development state’ model of economic development; and it is now the preferred corporate business destination in South America.

Behind such unprecedented progress are names and surnames of political and civil society leaders, heroes in our minds, who had challenged the violence (some of them surviving personal and family attacks), putting forward creative solutions to the main urban challenges, while strengthening public institutions and providing hope for a new peaceful society for its citizens. Names such as Antanas Mockus, Enrique Peñalosa, Sergio Fajardo, Aníbal and Guillermo Gaviria, among many others, had challenged the odds and succeeded, offering a more liveable city for its inhabitants.

I began working with Colombia in the mid-1990s and have been in the country almost every year since, so I had carefully followed the process that resulted in such progress. Paula and I had also been there together several times and we shared a fascination and respect for the efforts and determination of its people to achieve a better society for all.

So the first stop had to be Colombia. Our agenda was not entirely clear when we arrived, although we did have one goal in mind, that is, to interview Antanas Mockus. Without Mockus our project was certainly limited. We were fortunate to engage a team of colleagues to help us out with the regional agenda, among them María Alejandra Pineda, Professor at the Universidad Politécnico Grancolombiano, who had worked with us on previous development projects. To our surprise, her first announcement was, “an interview with Antanas Mockus is scheduled in the agenda tomorrow morning first thing, at 9 am”.

So here we are, just landed in Bogotá on our first day of the project after having left everything behind, with brand new filming equipment – which I confess I was still kind of learning to use properly –, and our first interview was probably the most important one we had to conduct in the whole region.

Luckily, we had the support of Daniel Barbosa, a young cameraman from Bogotá who had agreed to join us in the process and had his own equipment. That first morning we woke up excited and eager to start what we knew would be our new way of life for the next two years. Filming, interviewing and learning from experts around the world how to design and manage better cities.

Interviewing Antanas Mockus is an unpredictable adventure whose only guarantee is to have an uncertain end. Provocative, maverick, eccentric, disobedient with a civic and humanist tone. Of Lithuanian origin, Mockus is a philosopher, mathematician and politician (twice mayor of Bogotá and twice candidate for President of Colombia, an ambition he very close to fulfilling on his second endeavour) who for many different reasons has given Colombians the capacity to dream again and to fight for the right to make cities more liveable.

Mockus Interview with TTHCHe has proven highly controversial on many fronts; however, if something sets his urban management apart, it is certainly his creation of a different style of governance, characterised by direct communication with its citizens by instilling responsibility and self-management. As he put it to us, “One is not born a citizen but becomes a citizen. Therefore, the key is widespread pedagogy, in other words, the ability of each of us to learn and help others learn certain things. You learn, I learn, we both learn. So the value of the big city is tremendous with endless potential and an infinite wealth of professions, backgrounds, lives, traditions and types of beliefs. A city is the platform where all these human interactions flourish”.

Inspired by his words, we were off to a good start (you can see our published interview with him in Spanish on El País/Planeta Futuro – Seres Urbanos, and we will post the video interview on our website soon).