Enrique Peñalosa on the Right to Happiness

By David Bender on Mar 08, 2018

2018 Edmund N. Bacon Memorial Awardee Enrique Peñalosa receiving the 2018 Edmund N. Bacon Award from Center Chair, Rich Davies
[all photos by Chris Kendig for the Center for Architecture and Design]

Author: David Bender

 “The goal of a city should be to promote happiness.” So began Enrique Peñalosa’s discussion on the imperative of good urban planning as he received the Center for Architecture and Design’s 2018 Edmund N. Bacon Award. The ceremony, hosted on the evening of March 1st, 2018, honored both Peñalosa, mayor of Bogota, Colombia, and the student winners of the Center’s 2018 Better Philadelphia Challenge. The award, event, and competition are presented annually by the Center in honor of it's namesake, Ed Bacon [1910-2005], the first Executive Director of Philadelphia's City Planning Commission from 1949-1970.

L-R: Rebecca Johnson, Executive Director of the Center for Architecture and Design; Enrique Peñalosa, Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia; Hilda Bacon, daughter of Ed Bacon; Rich Davies, chair of the Center's Board of Directors

Following the student presentations, Peñalosa took the podium to explain his goal as mayor of Bogota: to promote happiness through equity and social integration. Peñalosa believes that cities are the most important human creations, not only because their design effects a majority of humans on the planet (over 54% of all people currently live in cities with predictions that 70% will be urban residents by 2050), but because they are the most complicated human projects – and the most expensive to fix if not built right the first time.

Peñalosa believes the key obstacle to happiness is citizens being made to feel inferior. Capitalism, the favored economic model for democracies around the world, is supposed to provide equal opportunities to all citizens. Equal opportunities do not promise equal outcomes, however, and capitalism inevitably leads to inequality by its very nature – some people wind up with more than others. That doesn’t mean that public spaces should be allowed to succumb to the rules of the markets; Peñalosa argues that public spaces where rich and poor meet as equals are fundamental to a successful democracy. To make sure that public spaces are democratic, they need to be designed that way. Democratic spaces can provide a quality of life for all citizens, regardless of how they fare in the capitalistic economic system.

Protected bike lanes in Bogotá, Colombia

Unlike the rest of the capitalistic system, in which increased demand results in increased supply to keep up with that demand, land supply in cities cannot be increased – land area is finite. Because of this, Peñalosa states that democratic governments should use eminent domain to guarantee equality in public space. Limited natural resources such as coastlines and beaches should all be kept public, he argues, because access to them increases happiness for the largest number of people.

In regard to transportation infrastructure, one of the areas in which Peñalosa gained the most international acclaim, Peñalosa’s philosophy is that in a democracy, everyone is equal before the law - therefore each person has the right to use the same amount of public road space whether they are on a bike or in a Rolls Royce. A bus carrying 80 people has a right to 80x the road space as a car. To have a bus sitting in traffic (as opposed to having a dedicated, divided lane) is as undemocratic as women not having the right to vote, the Mayor argues.

Sunday Ciclovía in Bogotá, when streets are closed to car traffic

The key indicator of a healthy, democratic transportation system according to Peñalosa is not when the poor are all able to own cars, but when the wealthy use public transportation. People who use public transportation should be honored. The best way to honor them is with low-cost, fast transportation options that are clean and soaked in sunlight; people belong above ground – cars belong underground. For these reasons, Peñalosa prefers Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems, like the Transmilenio system he founded in the year 2000. These systems carve out special lanes for busses, so they never have to sit in traffic with cars. Not only are BRT systems better for the environment than cars, they are more cost efficient than even subway systems, with an average cost of $0.80 per person per trip on BRTs versus $7 per person per trip on a subway (of which, only a couple dollars are generally recouped from ticketing fees).

The Transmilenio Rapid Bus Transit system in operation. Note the protected lanes which keep cars out and busses moving

The Mayor closed his talk with a peek into his newest initiative: to better connect the city of Bogota with the stunning mountains and natural resources which surround the city, which are mostly inaccessible at the moment. Much like the goal of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the 2018 Better Philadelphia Challenge, Peñalosa believes there is great value in connecting citizens with nearby natural and cultural resources, not just economic value, but in the democratic value of equalizing access. He summed up by restating that a well-designed city should promote happiness. To him that means the questions about what kinds of cities we should be creating are not questions for engineers, technology developers, or even designers – they are philosophical questions which require us all to look beyond what is considered possible to what is ideal.

Bogotá, Colombia, ringed by lush, forested mountains