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January 28, 2022

PaRx People: A Conversation with Gil Peñalosa

Gil Peñalosa is the founder and chair of the board of the successful Canadian non-profit organization 8 80 Cities. He was twice elected chair of World Urban Parks, the international representative body for the city parks, open space and recreation sector, and now serves as its first ambassador. He has worked in over 300 different cities in all continents.

Gil is passionate about cities for all people. He is a strong advocate for improving city parks, first making his mark in the late 1990s, when he led the design and development of over 200 parks including Simón Bolívar, a 113-hectare park in the heart of Bogotá, Colombia, where he was Parks Commissioner. His team also initiated the "new Ciclovia"/ Open Streets—a program that sees over 1.7 million people walk, run, skate and bike along 121 kilometres of Bogotá's city roads every Sunday, and today is internationally recognized and emulated.

Gil holds an MBA from UCLA's Anderson School of Management, where he recently was selected as one of the "100 Most Inspirational Alumni" in the school's history. In 2015 Gil received a Doctorate Honoris Causa from the Faculty of Urban Planning at the prominent University of Sweden, SLU. In 2017 Gil was listed in Planetizen's Top 100 Most Influential Urbanists.

We sat down with Gil to learn all about his inspirational life path and career, how his Open Streets idea sparked a movement that spread worldwide, why cities must be designed for people of all ages, and how health professionals can work with city planners to fill urban landscapes with nature.

Tell me about your experiences outdoors, from childhood through your education and career. Did your early nature experiences influence your career today?

I was born in Bogotá, Colombia. We were a middle-class family, and I was very lucky that our house happened to be across from a public park. So almost every time of the day when I was not at school, I was either outside on the street or in the park. And a beautiful creek went right through the park, and it came from the mountains—we used to climb and go up to the mountains, which were quite high. We would go with our neighbourhood friends when we were little, and then eventually with Boy Scouts and other organizations.

Gil in Bogotá at 1 year old. Photo supplied.

My father was in the government; he had been in politics, and later on he worked for the United Nations. Our mother was a landscape gardener. Her business was to create gardens for public places, private universities and neighbourhoods, or people’s homes. She had her own nursery, where she would get a lot of the plants, and she worked on and walked in the garden at her house, which was spectacular, until her last day. So we also spent many, many hours and days at a time in in the nursery and in the garden—so my contact with nature was very clear from day one.

Gil’s father Enrique with former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and mother Cecilia in her garden. Photos supplied.

In some emerging countries, many rich people are members of country clubs, or private clubs, but we never belonged to any club, and never had a farm. So our nature was really the public park, and the mountains near our neighbourhood.

My older brother really liked insects. He had this big board with all kinds of insects that he had dissected, with their names, in his room.

Also in this public park was the only public tennis court. I used to play a lot of tennis, and was number two in the country. I had a fight with my father because I wanted to quit school when I was ten years old and become a pro. But the interesting thing is that all of the tennis courts other than that in Bogotá were in private, elite clubs. So I used to enjoy going to tournaments and beating them. When I was Commissioner of Parks I built dozens of tennis courts in some of the poorest neighbourhoods, even though people said tennis was for wealthy people. And since I built those, some of the best players in the country now come out of the public tennis courts, not from the private clubs.

Gil playing tennis in Bogotá, and in a park with his brother Enrique. Photos supplied.

When I finished my undergrad I went to grad school in California, at UCLA. I had never been to Europe, and I had the opportunity to go for about six months. We ended up jumping around to about 25 different cities, and 90 per cent of the time we were camping, in parks all over Europe. I never thought that someday I would end up becoming a parks commissioner.

You were the Parks Commissioner in Bogotá, Colombia in the 1990s. Can you tell us about your experiences creating and designing parks worldwide that support people’s health and wellbeing?

We did something really amazing when I was Commissioner of Parks in Bogotá. We designed and built over 200 parks in one term. And the following term one of my brothers became mayor, and he created another 800. So in two terms we created 1,000 really good-quality parks. And I mention this because people say, We don’t have money, but Bogotá is poorer than any city in Canada—it has a fraction of the per capita income. Creating parks has nothing to do with being rich or poor—it’s about having it as a priority.

I built most of these parks in very low-income areas. And many people asked me, “Gil, why are you doing these parks when poor people have so many other needs?” When people live in a 350-square-foot home, they sleep there—but they live outside. So they need better sidewalks and bike paths, better parks, trees and nature. When you fly over almost any city on the planet, you can easily see where the wealthy people live, because there are lots of trees and parks. So from the point of view of tree equity, and in emerging countries like Colombia, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is even greater.

With everything we do in cities, we should have equity in mind. And it really transformed people’s quality of life. The issue of parks wasn’t even on the political radar before, and afterwards no one could be elected in the city without making parks an important part.

Gil facilitating a workshop in Detroit. Photo supplied.

I also think the users and activities in parks are really critical. I’ve been lucky to work in more than 350 different cities, and in many of those cities it seems easier to find a million dollars to create a space than a few thousand to make it work. Parks are not only about the infrastructure—it’s about the uses, and the programs and activities. Not events that happen once a year, like Canada Day or the Fourth of July—it’s about daily and weekly programs.

When people have a walking group, for example, it’s about walking and socializing, about wanting to be where other people are, because they want to chat about politics, their family or sports. If there’s a group waiting for you on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 10 am, you go even if it’s too sunny, rainy or cloudy, because of the psychology of being part of the group. We can use nature to socialize in a lot of ways. I think the biggest problem that parks have in Canada, and in most places in the world, is that there are not enough programs or activities for users.

In a city like Toronto, Parks and Recreation think parks are a summer activity. They haven’t realized that there are 52 weeks in the year. This morning I went for a run in High Park, and it was minus 20 degrees, and there were hundreds and hundreds of people doing all kinds of activities—some were running, others were walking, skating and cross-country skiing. But almost all of the restrooms were shut down for the season, and stay closed for six months. And the people who suffer the most are little children, and people who need to use the restroom more often. People don’t want to go for just 20 minutes—they want to go for two to three hours. We’re a winter city, we’re a winter country, so we need to have infrastructure that is open.

I tell cities, Don’t invest any money in parks in July, because people are going to go there anyway. We need to invest money in the winter months, put up nicer lights and music, and run programs and fireplaces and all kinds of activities that motivate people to go, because we need people to go to the park 52 weeks of the year.

Gil out for a winter run along the Humber River near High Park, Toronto. Photo credit Gil Peñalosa.

When I was working in Gothenburg in Sweden, I went to a park. And it was raining really hard, but there were about 150 children playing outside in rubber boots. Last November they opened a new park in Gothenburg called Rain Park, where it rains 24/7, for citizens to celebrate the rain.

Now winter clothing is so good—a few years ago you would look like the Michelin Man, putting on so many layers—but now winter clothes are thin, and nice, and fantastic. I really like how the people in Scandinavia say, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”

8 80 Cities, the non-profit organization you founded in 2007, seeks to make cities safe and enjoyable for everyone. Can you tell us more about the concept behind 8 80 Cities, and how nature plays a role in increasing the liveability of cities?

Initially 8 80 Cities’ name was Walk and Bike for Life. I do think that in many ways the magic pill that everybody’s looking for is physical activity. But the only way we can have people being physically active is if people walk or bike as a normal part of everyday life. There’s no city in the world where we have large segments of the population physically active without it. But some people felt that our work was doing master plans on cycling, so the name was misunderstood.

At that time, I was also talking about equity. If cities are good for an eight year old and an 80 year old, they’re going to be good for everybody from zero to over 100. Basically the concept is about equity—how to create cities that are really good for everybody. People loved the concept of 8 80 Cities.  So then we switched the name from Walk and Bike for Life to 8 80 Cities.

The reality is that in the last 70 years we’ve been thinking more about building cities for cars, not people’s happiness. We also need to stop building cities as if everybody was 30 years old and athletic. We need to build cities for all. The overwhelming majority of cities that we have built in the past few decades are not good for physical, mental, and emotional health; they are also not environmentally or financially sustainable. We have a great opportunity and responsibility, as over a third of the homes that we’ll have in Canadian cities in 2050 do not exist today. We must create and manage cities radically differently.

Gil giving a TED Talk in Chengdu, China. Photo supplied.

The population of the world is going to grow for another 40 or 50 years, and all of the growth is going to go into cities. So I think we need to do cities so much better. The GTA has 5 million people right now, but in 30 years we’re going to have 7.5 million people. The Greater Vancouver area, Greater Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Halifax—all of them are going to grow by around 50 per cent in the next 30 years. So we should have very, very clear ideas about where we want people to live, and how they’re going to move. Where they’re going to shop and go to school. What a fantastic opportunity to do it right, but also what a huge responsibility. Because whatever we do, or don’t do, people are going to live for hundreds of years in these cities.

When I think of an ideal city, it should have nature everywhere.

The ideal city should have over 30 to 40 per cent tree canopy city-wide in every single neighbourhood. Cities should have a really, really good park system with a network of small, medium and large parks, with active, passive and contemplative recreation. The US is the wealthiest country in the world, but one in three people in the US living in cities does not have a park within walking distance. We need those neighbourhood parks because that is where we develop a sense of belonging, where we meet our neighbours.

People should also be able to meet their basic needs within walking distance in every neighbourhood. When people talk about soccer moms, it’s horrible. I love that parents support their kids and attend their activities, but it shouldn’t be because they’re the drivers. There should be public transit, as well as walkability and bikeability so a 10 year old can go everywhere. I mean, it doesn’t make sense that in almost all of the suburbs in Canada if you’re a 8 or 15 year old, and you depend on someone with a car to take you everywhere—you become dependent on someone with a car to just go get an ice cream.

Trinity Bellwoods Park in downtown Toronto. Photo credit Scott Webb on Pexels.

So we really need a good tree canopy, park system and sustainable mobility everywhere—that’s really a great equalizer. It doesn’t matter if you have a house that is 4,000 square feet, or 1,000 square feet. If both of you have access to magnificent parks, access to public transit, schools, libraries, walkability and bikeability to get to museums and the theatre, walks on trails by the rivers, the same good quality of air and the same possibility to socialize, you develop huge equity in that scenario. Everything “public” must be great.

Every single city project should be evaluated on the basis of its impact on public health, equitability and sustainability. We should only do projects if those three elements are there.

Lately you’ve been working on projects to create vibrant and healthy cities for older adults. Tell us about the inspiration behind this, and more about this work.

This is very, very important, because we’ve doubled our life expectancy in only 150 years—just 150 years ago we didn’t have any country with a life expectancy over 45. Now, every country’s expectancy is over 45. The years over 60 are one-third of our life. It’s amazing. And we could live so much healthier and happier than we do now, but we’re not doing enough for that one third.

Whenever I talk to mayors across the world and Canada, almost everyone says, Gil we have a problem—we have too many old people. And I say it’s not a problem. One of the things people don’t understand is that older people are not takers—they’re givers. They’re assets to the community. Imagine if we got all the older people to be advocates for trees and nature. When you talk to people in their 60s, 70s and 80s they want to leave a legacy. They want to leave a better world than they found, and they want to have a purpose. So cities need to create outdoor programs for people over 60 the same way we do for children and youth.

What achievement or project are you most proud of?

When I was Commissioner in Bogotá, we found a small program with just a few kilometres of street and a few thousand people. And we turned it into the world’s largest pop-up park. On Sundays, we open 121 km of streets to people, and close them to cars. People come out to walk and bike, and skate and run, but more than anything people come to be with other people. And I connected the poorest neighbourhoods of the city with the wealthiest areas, so everybody was interconnected.

People enjoying Ciclovia/Open Streets, in Bogotá. Photo supplied.

It’s the only place in the city where the presidents and CEOs of big corporations and their spouses and children meet with their minimum-wage workers and their families, as equals. And I think that is powerful, because they don’t live in the same buildings, their children don’t go to the same schools—they don’t even go to the same restaurants—but they meet here as equals.

We call it Open Streets. I’ve promoted it in more than 350 cities, and many of them are doing it—Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Guadalajara, San Francisco, Berkeley, small cities, big cities. When I first went to India to talk about it there were none, and now there are more than 50 cities in India doing it. This is great because the infrastructure is there; it’s the streets. When we look at a city from the air, between 25 and 40 per cent is our streets—by far the largest public space in any city. And it’s so inexpensive.

Every year the World Health Organization celebrates World Health Day with a specific theme, and about ten years ago they decided the theme was going to be Open Streets. They hired me as an advisor to promote it, and we created videos in all the official languages of the United Nations, and we had 1,000 cities doing it on one day. It was amazing because they saw all the physical, mental and social health benefits for everybody. A big part of the joy is the joy that you get from everybody being there.

I think that a place like Toronto would be ideal for it. The National Capital Commission (Ottawa) does it really nicely and closes about 30 km, but in Toronto we have only been able to do it about two Sundays per year. People keep saying Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world, and yes, we are diverse, but we are not integrated. Imagine if on Sundays, May to September, the city was completely interconnected by kilometres of open streets. Today I want to go to Little Italy, next Sunday I’m going to go to Little India, or High Park, or the Beaches. And then people will really get the flavour of the city. A sense of belonging. Sustainable happiness.

I mean, it’s not only the obvious physical health and social benefits of getting people out. It also reduces air and noise pollution. At the same place, on the same corner, the noise and quality of the air is radically different from Sunday to Monday.

Gil speaking to mayor Erion Veliaj, his team and civic leaders  in Tirana, Albania. Photo supplied.

One of the things we should also do is transform a lot of roads into parks. Each car parking takes green space away, and the community subsidizes those spaces—free parking is not equitable in any way because it prioritizes car owners. We could transform some of the major avenues, and also hundreds and hundreds of smaller neighbourhood streets. Here in Toronto, University Avenue is so wide that we could make half of it a linear park with trees and green spaces, and we could still have the same four lanes for cars. And it would also be good for public health, because there are a lot of hospitals on University Avenue.

I do think there will be a bigger and bigger movement to turn streets into parks, entirely or even small pieces, because it’s easy and inexpensive. It’s already public. It belongs to all of us.

Your career could have led you almost anywhere in the world. Why and how did you end up making Toronto your home?

I first came to Canada for two years because I wanted my children to learn English. Initially I started my Canadian experience working in Mississauga, as a low-level business analyst. And at some point I started getting a lot of calls from different cities around the world for advice. So then I left the job, and decided to create 8 80 Cities.

And then I fell in love with the country and with Toronto. A big part of why I fell in love was how much green space and nature there is. Seventeen per cent of the city area in Toronto is ravines. Seventeen! I also love that immediately I felt a sense of belonging—I felt more welcomed than in any other country. Over half of the people living in Toronto were born in a different country. We’re from everywhere.

Gil on a parks walk with City Councillors and senior staff from Parks and Urban Planning in Gothenburg, Sweden. Photo supplied.

How can health-care professionals become involved in the larger work of urban planners to ensure that city dwellers have access to nature?

Involving health-care professionals in this larger work to bring nature to cities is critical because doctors have credibility. We need Public Health to have a voice in everything. There is no health system that will survive if its focus is on reactive care—we need to focus on health promotion.

Many city planners think that children are born at five years old, because you go to a park and everything in the park is for children five to twelve and thirteen to eighteen—there’s almost nothing for children zero to four. And as you know, zero to four is the most important time in the life of a person, because that’s when the brain is forming sociability, and a sense of belonging. If their brain is not formed properly their potential is going to be diminished for life. And so Public Health has to say, come on, Parks and Rec and urban planners, you need to have something really special for those who are zero to four. And a nice cozy place for their parents and grandparents to sit and have a coffee and socialize, so we can have three or four generations at the same time in the park.

Everything we do in cities is about public health, sooner or later. So I would love to hear doctors—all kinds of doctors—nurses, everyone involved in public health, having a very loud voice in all decisions related to creating cities, including mobility, public spaces and density. The goal is to create equitable and sustainable cities, where all—repeat—all people live healthier and happier. Public health must be everywhere.

Simón Bolívar Park in Bogotá, one of the many parks Gil designed and developed. Photo supplied.

Find out more about Gil’s life and work here.

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