Story of Bogotá

HAPPY is the new URBAN

How can urban design transform our lives?


“There is a myth, sometimes that a person need only do inner work, in order to be alive like this; that a man is entirely responsible for his own problems; and that to cure himself, he need only change himself… The fact is, a person is so far formed by his surroundings that his state of harmony depends entirely on his harmony with his surroundings.”

Christopher Alexander, The Timeliness Way of Building

Let’s picture a city that had been deeply wounded by the 20th century urban theories: its highways are suffocated by private cars, its public spaces are largely privatized, and mobile vendors are taking over public plazas and sidewalks. Imagine citizens who cannot enjoy this city’s simplest daily delights: walking on convivial streets, sitting around in public, talking, gazing at grass, falling leaves, water and other people. Picture this city’s children: deprived from playing freely on the streets – not because of the fear of gunfire or bombing – but because the streets became very dangerous with the presence of speeding cars.

Sad, isn’t it?

What if this city is not a picture in our minds but an actual place in our “urban world”?

You might think for an instance that it’s one of the Arab world’s cities or maybe a Lebanese city. However, this is Bogotá as described by award-winning journalist Charles Montgomery (2013).

Many of you might not know Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. Toward the end of the 20th century, Bogotá had become a truly horrible place to live-in. Over-whelmed with refugees, surviving a decades-old civil war and sporadic terrorism in the form of grenades and bombs and bombarded by traffic, pollution, poverty and dysfunction, Bogotá was regarded as a very sad and miserable city.

However, now things have changed drastically.

Whenever you want to have a safe bicycle ride from your home to your school, university or work, Bogotá is the place to be.

Why this drastic change?

The answer lies in a very simple yet very complex word: Happiness. Indeed, Bogotá got happier thanks to the Mayor of Happy, Enrique Peňalosa.

“We’re living an experiment. We might not be able to fix the economy. We might not be able to make everyone rich […] but we can design the city to give people dignity, to make them feel rich. The city can make them happier.”


Enrique Peňalosa, 2007

enrique penalosa on bike

When Peňalosa ran for the mayor’s seat in 1997, he didn’t make promises like every other politician.

“If we defined success just in terms of income per capita, we would have to accept ourselves as a bunch of losers”, he said. His promise was very simple. He was going to make Bogotans happier.

“And what are our needs for happiness?” he asked. “We need to walk, just as birds need to fly. We need to be around other people. We need beauty. We need contact with nature. And most of all, we need not to be excluded”. In short, we need to be happy.

Happiness. What a word that can hold a thousand meanings?

Definitely, these days, we do not need another happiness guru. Some of us would say that spiritual practice is the way to reach happiness. Others simply ask the world for prosperity. But Peňalosa did not call for mass counseling or religious practice or courses of psychology. He proposed and insisted that the city itself can be a tool for happiness. Life could be changed by changing the shapes and the systems that define urban existence.

His strategy was the following: First, he realized that a city can be friendly to people or cars, not both. He declared crime on private cars not on drugs and bombs. Second, he threw the plan of a highway extension and instead poured his budget into hundreds of miles of bike paths; a vast new chain of parks; and a network of new libraries, schools and day-care centers. He built the city’s first bus transit system. He hiked gas prices and banned drivers from commuting by car more than three times a week.

This strategy redesigned the experience of city living for all Bogotans. It was the opposite of theories that guided city builders for centuries.

In the third year of his term, Peňalosa challenged Bogotans to participate in an experiment, a día sin carro. As of February 24 2000, all private cars were banned on the streets for a day. Hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets walking, cycling, and skating to work or school. It was the first day in four years that nobody was killed in traffic. Hospital admissions fell by almost a third. The toxic haze over the city thinned and schools reported normal attendance. Bogotans enjoyed the day so much that they voted to make it a yearly affair. People said that they were more optimistic about city life than they had been in years.

dia sin carro

Bogotá changed, and it changed dramatically.

If a poor and broken city like Bogotá can be reconfigured to produce more joy, then surely it’s possible to apply happy city principles to the wounds of nearly every city.

Of course, Peňalosa’s principles are not science, they raise many questions as answers. His rhetoric’s inspirational qualities do not constitute proof of the city’s power to make or break happiness. After all, how can anyone know enough about the needs of our human soul to prescribe the recipe for an ideal city for happiness?

I asked myself this question a lot when reading about the changes that happened in Bogotá and how Peňalosa became a hero to many Bogotans. But as I imagined Beirut as a happy city, with children running in its streets flying kits and skating, people from all ages walking or cycling to school or work, men pushing refrigerated ice-cream tricycles, women laughing on their way to work and businessmen, despite being busy, are greeting everyone they see on the streets. You may say it’s farfetched but it is a scene that you see frequently in Bogotá nowadays. Just imagining this made me feel happy and very much empowered. I believe that the solutions to make our cities better lies often in our own hands. And maybe happiness is one tool to reach a delightful city.

Bogota 1

This article is inspired by Happy City, Charles Montgomery, 2013.

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