Urban Governance and the Politics of Planning: Visit by the Mayor of Bogotá

On November 6, Gustavo Petro, the Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, arrived at the GSD to present his new land use plan. He was accompanied by a team that included Bogotá Secretary of Planning Gerardo Ardila and Secretary General Susana Muhamad.  The visit illuminated some of the realities and controversies that affect planning and urban governance in the developing world.

Petro addressed a standing-room only audience in Piper Auditorium in a UPD lecture entitled "The Political Struggle for a Sustainable and Inclusive City.”

The Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial - POT - aims to transform Bogotá by tackling issues of climate change, social segregation, and transportation, among others. Some have hailed the plan as visionary, but it has also engendered fierce resistance. A major criticism has been that Petro issued the POT by decree without soliciting public opinion or communicating with key groups.

Petro is no stranger to controversy, having been a guerrilla fighter before turning to mainstream politics. He was a popular congressman before becoming mayor in 2012, but he has met more resistance during his term as mayor. On the day of his presentation, appeals proceedings were taking place in Bogotá to revoke his mandate.

In his lecture, Petro described the challenges Bogotá faces and how the POT confronts them. For example, at an altitude of 2,600 meters and 1,200 kilometers from any coast, the city depends on water sources that require preservation.  There are high-risk flood zones, especially in the densely populated poor communities on the periphery of the city. In response to this problem, the POT  would move residents from the borders to a denser, mixed-land use city center and create protected land areas on the outskirts of the city. According to Petro, what makes this plan controversial is that "it implies changing social power.”

The following day Petro, Ardila, and Muhamad met with planning students, faculty and current Loeb Fellow Matt Nohn to discuss the ambitious and highly contentious POT in a conference organized by Harvard Urban Planning Organization.

Adriana Gutiérrez (MDesS ‘15), a native of Bogotá, asked the mayor whether he thought it would be possible "to implement his ideas by making strategic alliances with private sectors of society,” citing Petro’s radical position as a cause for fighting between social classes. The mayor responded that it would not be possible, as democracy is inherently full of conflict. Afterwards Gutiérrez described the mayor’s visit as "insightful” and "a perfect example of how planning and politics are deeply intertwined.”

Irene Figueroa Ortiz (MArch and MUP ‘15) also saw the visit as "a great opportunity to see the politics behind city planning.” As a native of Puerto Rico, she was especially interested in seeing a case of "sustainability as a main driver of future planning in the Latin American context.”

When asked what lessons a U.S. student of planning could gain from Bogotá’s example, Secretary Ardila replied that planning is unique for each city, that one must observe the political context, and stressed, "You can’t use a formula to make decisions.”

That evening there was another conference on transportation with the Bogotá team and a smaller group, including Diane Davis, (professor of urbanism and development) and José Ibáñez-Gómez (professor of urban planning and public policy).

Bogotá is famous for transportation policies implemented by former mayors Enrique Peñalosa (1998-2000) and Antanas Mockus (1995-98, 2001-03). These policies include the 2000 implementation of the Transmilenio, a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, and the banning of vehicles on major roadways to make public space for pedestrians and bicyclists. Mayor Petro discussed his plans to construct a metro system and electrify buses to reduce the congestion and pollution that currently plague the city center and to promote his goal of creating a more egalitarian society.

Matt Nohn, a specialist in inclusive urbanization and co-author of a street design manual for Indian cities, argues that Petro’s transit plans will not serve the mayor’s goals of inclusivity. The metro and electric buses are high-cost and dependent on foreign technology and do not guarantee usage by the rich. Nohn believes adding multiple bus routes parallel to the current BRT line could prove to be a lower-cost, more democratic means of public transportation.

He provided the example of a metro line with few surfacing stations, which tends to increase the monopolization of land around a few stations. He compared this to a more decentralized network of BRT and feeder lines that could aid in revitalizing a much larger geographic spread with less money. On the other hand, Nohn welcomed the Mayor’s proposal to revitalize and densify the city center- even though the added floor space may reduce urbanization pressures at the urban fringe but not reverse them. Whether or not this is an effective policy will depend on the implementation. Prohibiting construction on the periphery, even though environmentally desirable, may further stigmatize the urban poor that settle there in absence of affordable alternatives.

Bogotá is by no means the only city in Latin America or the world seeking to end social segregation, adapt to climate change and implement other aspects of a visionary urban plan. While the complex challenges are to some extent unique, the visit by the mayor and his team opened a fruitful dialogue and provided insights into the important roles of governance and public opinion.

All  photos courtesy of Kate Anderson except where otherwise noted.

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