Creating an Inclusive City for All Ages with Gil Penalosa

Gil Penalosa is the founder and Board Chair of 8 80 Cities, a nonprofit organization that works with cities all around the world to create inclusive cities for all residents – from 8 to 80 years old! (Think about it like this, would you let an eighty year old or an eight year old – or both of them, together – walk to the park together in your neighborhood?) Gil is a community designer, having worked in cities across the globe, he’s helped to advise and create vibrant, healthy communities that are designed with all people in mind.

In town to give the keynote address at this weeks APA-PA Conference (look out for a blog exclusively on the conference next week), Gil stopped by the WESA Community Broadcast Center in the South Side for an open-to-the-public community discussion, hosted by The Green Building Alliance and The Design Center. Below are some of our favorite quotes:

“Quality of life has become the most important tool for economic development.”

There was a time when quality of life was sacrificed to economic development – as evidenced by the grueling lives of this city’s steel workers.  Nowadays, quite the opposite is true.  We are more mobile today than ever, many of us capable of living wherever we please.  If people see Pittsburgh as a desirable place to live – as a city that takes residents’ needs to heart, with engaged neighborhoods, fast, cheap and convenient public transportation, flourishing public spaces and vibrant parks – then we can both attract and retain the best people in the world.

“The nice thing about cars is that they have a small rearview mirror, and a big windshield to look forward. We have to look forward.”

During his tenure as Bogota, Columbia’s Commissioner of Parks, Gil led the establishment of a program called Ciclovía.  For this increasingly popular event, which takes place from 7:00 am to 2:00 pm every Sunday and holidays, the main roads of the city are closed to cars, freeing up a citywide circuit over 121 kilometers (70 miles) long for bikes, pedestrians, and play.  He insists that the mantra of urban planners everywhere ought to be “pedestrians first,” and prompts us to look forward, out of the car, and into the street.

“Nothing replaces the face to face.”

We at GTECH have definitely experienced this through our work. A knock on a neighbor’s door means way more than an email!  And a comment takes on much more meaning when coupled with the tones and gestures of the person making it.  Gil impressed upon the audience the importance of really listening.  We really listened.

“If you want change to be unanimous, you have to water down change so much that it’s not going to be change.”

While always being mindful of the imperative to listen to the community, it’s important to remember that change won’t necessarily seem positive to everyone, and backlash is inevitable.  Compromise is always the right answer, especially when it negates the change that you’re trying to make.

“It’s not about copy/paste. It’s about adapt and improve.”

There are a lot of cities out there that are doing great things. We don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel, but what works in one place doesn’t always work in another, at least not without some alteration.  Gil pointed to the huge number of municipalities in Allegheny County (130, to be precise) – a cookie cutter approach won’t be successful, especially here. Though looking at ways that other cities or municipalities have started to address these issues is critical, as is adapting and improving their strategies according to place.

“For children, playing is learning.”

Gil echoed our very own Mr. Rogers, who said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”  Our Green Playces champions this idea, fusing play space with learning space at six sites throughout the city and surrounding municipalities.

“We need to reconnect with nature.”

Ultimately, Gil left us with this imperative, insisting we make sure play becomes a normal part of our everyday lives. It’ll make us healthier and happier.  He suggests, as many others have, that we should aspire to have a park or play area within a quarter mile of every child.  That doesn’t mean the city has to spend extravagant sums acquiring new park land; rather, almost any public space can become play space, and streets can be intermingled with nature (he specifically mentioned the connective value of linear parks).  During his tenure as Commissioner of parks in Bogota, Colombia, Gil led the design and development of over 200 parks (!), emphasizing the feasibility of such projects if we think about land use and reuse creatively.  Our Ambassador projects are a great example of this sort of effort.

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