The rise and fall of great cities

by Charles Montgomery on

Bogota, Colombia, is one of those cities that is either making headlines for murder, kidnapping and chaos, or wildly optimistic and inventive urbanism.

A decade ago, Bogota was on a high. The iconoclastic mayor, Antanas Mockus, was still sending clowns into the streets to tease citizens towards good behaviour. His predecessor, Enrique Peñalosa, had just finished a massive transformation of city streets in the name of equity and happiness. The city spent on parks, schools, and space for pedestrians, cyclists and busses, instead of freeways.

But when I visited Bogota back in 2007, the smile was already beginning to fade from the city’s face. A future mayor was proposing a costly subway line, which would effectively keep poor people underground. The Transmilenio bus system, which helped poor people cross the city as fast as the wealthy, was becoming crowded again. The public space campaign had ground to a halt.

Now, writes the Economist, the city has fallen into a deep funk:

“The bright-red articulated buses of Bogotá’s TransMilenio, with their dedicated lanes and station-style stops, were once the symbol of a city that had been transformed from chaos and corruption in the 1980s into a model of enlightened management admired and imitated across Latin America. Today the chaos and corruption seem to be back.”

The Bogota story matters, because it contains a distillation of the history of every city.  They all have eras of wondrous change and optimism. They all experience times of fallow, and if they are unlucky, chaos and deep depression that shows on the sidewalks, in crime stats, and on people’s faces.  No city is a finished product. They are all being reborn, all the time.

There’s a civic election coming up. Enrique Penalosa, who once rebuilt the city in the name of happiness, is taking a fourth run at the Mayor’s seat. This time he’s got the support of fellow Green Party member, former Mayor Antanas Mockus. This may be Bogota’s chance to rise, yet again.