January 2, 2009

Better community design makes happier citizens

Public spaces that bring people together in congenial activity produce happier citizens than those – like traffic jams – that spur animosity and aggression, says [University of British Columbia professor emeritus John Helliwell, who studies economics and human well-being.] . . .

That's just one of many fascinating nuggets of info in an article about the transformation of Bogota, Columbia: From Living Hell to Living Well. The city's former mayor realized that improving people's economic standard of living was a difficult, long-term prospect. So, he looked at ways to improve other factors in their quality of life.

Bogota mayor Enrique Peñalosa
"increased gas taxes and prohibited car owners from driving during rush hour more than three times per week. He also handed over prime space on the city's main arteries to the Transmilenio, a bus rapid-transit system based on that of Curitiba, Brazil.

"Bogotans almost impeached their new mayor. Business owners were outraged. Yet by the end of his three-year term, Mr. Peñalosa was immensely popular and his reforms were being lauded for making Bogota remarkably fairer, more tolerable and more efficient."

The mayor's overall results? Rush hour traffic moves three times faster than before. The murder rate plunged 40%. Traffic deaths are down. There are 1,200 new parks.
" 'A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can't be both,' the new mayor announced. He shelved the highway plans and poured the billions saved into parks, schools, libraries, bike routes and the world's longest "pedestrian freeway." . . .

" 'Before Peñalosa, mayors were terrified to take on the issue of auto-dominated public space, for fear that motorists would rebel politically,' says Walter Hook of New York's Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). 'But he not only challenged auto dependency, he succeeded politically. He's given other politicians the courage to follow. And other mayors have realized that they can't build their way out of congestion.' '

Despite economic challenges, Bogota's mayor helped "to transform a city once infamous for narco-terrorism, pollution and chaos into a globally lauded model of livability and urban renewal."

We may not be living in the Third World, but there are good lessons here about what local officials can do in an era of constrained finances. Here in Framingham, sadly, we're heading the wrong direction, with an announcement that one of the first things to be cut back is sidewalk plowing.

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