Thursday, November 1, 2012

Petro's Bogotá to Grow Taller, More Mixed

Children play basketball with downtown Bogotá in
the background. Soon, the towers will be taller.

Mayor Petro made two policy decisions this week, which, if carried out, will mark the city's future permanently.

And they'll make for a better city - if they're implemented well. This means no hectares or even square kilometers of uninterrupted houses. Instead, Petro's Bogotá is to be built of mixed use neighborhoods - streets with businesses on street level and housing above, or at least with business streets and residential ones side-by-side.

A mixed-use street in La Candelaria, with shops,
apartments, restaurants and a university.
Why is mixed-use better? It's good for human, health and even environmental reasons. Mixed use neighborhoods also tend to be more mixed in income and ethnicity, it seems to me. Having shops, services and entertainment next door or a block away is also more practical, and saves time. Such neighborhoods also seem more vital, with more street life and contact between neighbors.

Traffic congestion in front of the construction site of
BD Bacata tower. If traffic is this bad now, what will happen
when the tower's completed?
And, believe it or not, mixed use is also better for the environment and for residents' health. I grew up in a residential suburb in Northern California. Sure, it was pleasant and low-crime. But it was also very monochrome and monotonous. My mother used to repeat proudly that it was the first neighborhood in the region to be racially integrated. But when we lived there there were only two black families, amongst hundreds, or even thousands of houses. And, like all suburbs, ours was so supremely car dependent that people only had to look - out of their car window as they drove past - to see whether someone's car was in their driveway to know whether they were home or not. Want a beer or a liter of milk? That meant driving a mile or more to the supermarket and back. Certainly, the fuel burnt - not to mention the time wasted - was far more than the cost of the milk or beer. And, such an auto-addicted culture is terrible for the environment and for people's health. It's no coincidence that the U.S. has soaring rates of obesity, heart ailments and diabetes- many people never get out of their cars and walk.

The Torre Bicentenario on Plaza del Periodista
is almost finished. 
Mixed-use neighborhoods also build more community spirit. You stop and talk to neighbors on the sidewalk, which seems to me much more like quality time than exchanging honks as while driving past at 30 kph. And you know Doña Julia at the corner store and Don Julio in the chicken restaurant on the next block. A supermarket miles away just isn't the same.

Shops on Ave. 19. Across the street are
 hotels and apartments.
Of course, few people want to live above a bar or beside a nightclub. That's why multi-use neighborhoods also require wise planning policies and intelligent, uncorrupted decisions. Neighborhood codes and residents' participation are fundamental.

A street in La Candelaria, with shops, restaurants,
a dance studio, hostels and apartments. 
Petro's other policy decision, to remove height limits is also potentially positive, if well implemented. Higher buildings increase land values, and, by increasing density, make for a more vital city and make transit and other services more efficient. But too many big buildings and inefficient transit are a formula for urban chaos. That's why growth needs to be wise, carefully-planned growth.

A case in point is the BD Bacata hotel/office/shopping tower being built on 19th Avenue in downtown Bogotá. If completed as planned, it'll be Colombia's tallest building. But the traffic nearby is already chaotic. Such a mammoth building will make traffic a nightmare unless the city takes action, such as building the light rail line planned for Ave. Septima and putting a TransMilenio line or other rational transit on 19th. A subway station would also be great - but Bogotá's first subway line is still at least a decade and billions of dollars in the future.

Fortunately, they still have time - the Bacata's foundation is still being laid.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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