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Gil Penalosa in Poland.

July 20, 2018

Raising the importance of public space: Q&A with Gil Penalosa

Gil Penalosa is the founder and chair of the board of Canadian non-profit 8 80 Cities. Its creation was centred on a simple but powerful philosophy; if you create a great city for an 8 year old and an 80 year old, you will create a successful city for all people.

Gil has been a strong supporter and advocate for improving city parks. He first made his mark in the late 1990s in Bogotá, Colombia, when he led the design and development of more than 200 parks. His team also initiated the “new Ciclovia”/Open Streets — a program that sees more than 1.7 million people walk, run, skate and bike along 121 kilometres of the city’s roads every Sunday.

Read more from Gil about the importance of public space in our cities and making our communities healthier for all people.

FCC: What was the moment that ignited your passion for creating cities built for ages 8-80?

GP: I think I’ve had the passion for a long time.  When Canada hosted the UN-HABITAT Conference in Vancouver in 1976, I attended with my father who was working at the United Nations at the time, responsible for organizing this world event. I was only in my late teens, but I learned so much about cities spending that time in Vancouver. I met people from all over the world and discovered more about cities and the issues they were dealing with.

When I went back to Colombia, I worked in places of extreme poverty. I felt very clear that all cities should be evaluated by how they treat their most vulnerable – the youngest, the eldest and the poorest. 
 

FCC: What can Canadian cities offer as a source of inspiration on how to transform cities for the benefit of all?

GP: Most Canadians are welcoming people that feel Canada plays a role in the world, and that others can learn from us and how we strive for equity.

Canadian cities can develop peaceful and productive way to live with people from all over the world. No other city outside of Toronto has half of the population born in a different country. And there’s not one dominant culture in Toronto. Not one group that makes up more than 3 per cent of the population. We come from everywhere.

Canadian cities also have an incredible connection to nature. Nature isn’t something that’s a five-hour drive away. It’s woven through and integrated into our cities in a really great way.

FCC: What is the biggest challenge for Canadian cities? 

GP: Complacency. Many leaders have developed a complacency when it comes to our cities. Suddenly you get the Economist saying Canada has the most livable cities, and our leaders say we don’t need to improve – but that’s not true. The Economist doesn’t rank livable cities for everyone, they are ranking the cities best for high income, senior executives.

When one in five children live in poverty, 200,000 are on the wait list for affordable housing and 150,000 don’t have access to recreation programs – that’s not a livable city.

We need to stop comparing Canadian cities to those that are worse off. We need to be asking: What cities of similar size have the most transportation, the best mobility? Who is the best in public health? We need to constantly strive to be better. Canadian cities may be better than most, but we can’t become complacent. We must benchmark ourselves in every category against the top cities on the global stage.

FCC: What do you think is the future of the civic commons in Canada? Is there a particular city in the world who is doing this well and could be a model for similar success in Canada

GP: We need to really be sustainable when it comes to the public space. This is going to become more and more important. We’re going to need to integrate our libraries, schools, parks and sidewalks with each other. We have to raise the level of importance the public realm brings to everybody in our cities. We need higher standards.

There are many cities that are doing this well, such as Copenhagen, Vienna and Singapore. Everything public in those cities has a higher priority. The commons and our public spaces are an important part in making cities better for everyone.