Dignity in and equal access to the urban space

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By Ramon Dacawi

Benchwarmer

Friday, November 23, 2012


I MOURN the sudden loss of that sidewalk along the national road to Pacdal under the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Works and Highways. Heavy equipment had just scraped it off, from after the Teachers Camp bridge towards the Botanical Garden. The road, a national highway, used to be Leonard Wood Rd., in honor of the American governor general of the Philippines during Baguio’s formative, colonial era. For reasons beyond my capacity to comprehend, the highway was renamed Romulo Drive.

Unlike other national road projects(of the DPWH that irritatingly take time to complete, the replacement of the scraped sidewalk was done almost overnight, as if by the stroke of a fairy godmother’s magic wand. In no time, the former sidewalks was re-concreted, but to the level of the road, effectively converting the walkers’ path as additional space for passing vehicles - at the expense of pedestrians.

My eldest brother Joe must be turning in his grave. He used to walk that now erased sidewalk on his way to and from office, almost on a daily consistency. The sidewalk that stretches down to Session Road (including the inclined portion near Mabini Elementary School that has been turned into a hotel parking space) was there as far as I could remember. It was part of the design of the American colonial government to make Baguio, the country’s summer capital, as livable and accessible for both the rich and the poor, the car passenger and the walker.

It’s now gone. For solace, I turn to Pete St. John, the Irish journeyman who composed a dirge, “(Dublin in the) Rare Old Times,” to grip and hold on to after he came home, shocked to find how “the grey, unyielding concrete makes a city of my town.”

To cope, I also turn to an opinion piece I composed seven years back. It’s about Dr. Enrique Penalosa’s urban landscape. It’s his native city of Bogota, Colombia, high up in the mountains. That’s where the pedestrian or bicycle rider has equal, if not better, access to public space as one aboard a private car. To him, those who have to walk or pedal a bike should have as much mobility as those who can afford cars and limousines.

“I would honor a forty-dollar bicycle as I would a four (or forty) thousand-dollar car,” he told an international forum on the urban planning he keynoted in 2005 in Gothenburg, Sweden.

To him, parks are more important than commercial malls. To him, bicycle lanes and sidewalks are as important as roads. “In public spaces, we meet as equal, regardless of hierarchies,” said the bearded visiting scholar on urban planning of New York University.

During his single, four-year term as mayor of Bogota, Penalosa adopted car-less days. He banned vehicles from being parked on sidewalks and pedestrian walkways. Forced to walk, pedal, or ride the bus during car-less days, car owners moved for a referendum. In a capital city of 6.9 million souls where majority does not have cars, 83 percent voted for more car-free days.

“Getting people out of their cars is a means of social integration,” he pointed out. “You have the upper-income person sitting next to the cleaning lady on the bus.”

Now and then, he would stress, “A city is made for people, not for cars”. He observed that “throughout history, more people were killed by cars than by wild animals in the forest”.

On the giant conference screen, he flashed photos of Mercedes Benzes and other expensive cars negotiating unpaved, pock-marked streets for private vehicles in Bogota, alongside well-paved pedestrian and bicycle lanes.
“We chose not to improve the streets for the sake of cars, but instead to have wonderful spaces for pedestrians,” he explained in an article with communications consultant Susan Ives.

Delegates from all over roared with laughter over the juxtaposition at his keynote address in the “Life in the Urban Landscape” international conference. The applause he received took some time to subside, for a presentation so refreshing and different from those normally being dished out by car and highway-oriented urban planners in the Third World.

The conference program briefly summed up his amazing accomplishments: “During his administration, the City of Bogota developed from scratch a bus rapid transit system, Transmilenio, a highly efficient mass transportation system which cost is 1/10 of a metro system. He also developed high quality pedestrian public space and a 300-kilometer long bicycle network. During his administration, 52 new schools were built in the poorest neighborhoods of Bogota as well as nurseries. Three major libraries were built creating a network with 11 new small ones, and 1,000 parks were built or rebuilt.”

Bogota’s bicycle network that time was the longest in Latin America. Its bus system is world class. Its 17-kilometer walkway is the world’s longest, outside of its numerous sidewalks spanning hundreds of kilometers that cut through the poorest neighborhoods. Its parks are some of the best you can find.

Penalosa initiated these projects to maximize mobility and common access to open spaces, especially to the poor, elderly and handicapped. He admitted he wanted to erase a feeling that “the worst thing that happened to (the poor and challenged) was to live in Bogota”.

To Dr. Penalosa, walkways and bicycle lanes, libraries and parks are monuments to respect for human dignity.

“When shopping malls replace parks as meeting space, the city is sick,” he observed. “Parks are as important as schools for they provide leisure time when income differences are felt.”

Common access meant taking into account t the disabled, children and the elderly. “If a city is good for children and the elderly, it is good for everybody.”

An economics and history graduate from Duke University and a doctorate degree holder in management and public administration from the University of Paris, Penalosa has been sharing his experience in urban reform with other cities in the world. (e-mail: mondaxbench@yahoo.com for comments).

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on November 24, 2012.

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