January 01, 2003

People Power: The Citizens Behind Bogotá‘s Urban Revolution

As the story of Bogotá‘s makeover captivates more and more decision-makers around the world, another story is emerging: Bogotá’s social triumph. The transformation in urban structure is mirrored by a transformation of the collective psyche of city. For every new busway, bike path, and Car Free Sunday, there are thousands helping commuters make the most of them.

Their Mission Is Bogotá

Few initiatives demonstrate the personal and social change taking place alongside the physical reordering of infrastructure as well as Mission Bogotá. Through this innovative program, individuals develop skills and confidence by serving as information resources and agents of social change in public spaces.

These Civic Guides answer questions about using public transport and bicycle lanes, providing a visible and familiar presence while they help commuters, many of whom are new to transit and bicycling.

Mission Bogotá‘s greatest success, though, is its empowerment of disenfranchised groups. The program offers an opportunity for former drug addicts, sexual workers and others not readily accepted by the majority to reintegrate with society by working as Civic Guides. In the process, they learn new skills and receive two meals each day, individual therapy, group sessions and an all-important paycheck.

All the work of Mission Bogotá revolves around a common objective: to create civic harmony through public security and services. The improvements achieved by the TransMilenio bus system (one of the organization’s major projects); the reclamation of sidewalks and public spaces; the success of the cycleways; and the dramatic reductions in crime all came as a result of these inspirational public resources.

Ciclov&iacutea Volunteers: How to Manage 2 Million People

Bogotá‘s Sunday Ciclov&iacuteas constitute the world’s largest weekly mobilization of cyclists. Every Sunday, 153 km of principal streets become “Bicycle Streets” and are closed to vehicular traffic to give space to 2 million pedestrians, cyclists and skaters. A group of young volunteers completing social service required of all Colombian students, known as “alfabetizadores” (scholars), play a central role in making the Sunday Ciclov&iacuteas function.

These 1,400 young men and women, whose ages range from 15 to 17, are there to direct the huge volume of non-motorized traffic on Sundays, protecting participants from the points where the motorized world crosses the festive non-motorized path.

There is a popular saying in the city: “Bogotá does not have a beach, but it does have the Ciclov&iacutea.” These young Ciclov&iacutea volunteers are thus the crucial lifeguards for a beach 2.6 km above sea level.

Eco-Leaders: Cyclists With a Message

Recognizing the power of its highly involved citizens, the municipality of Bogotá has decided to further mobilize through the creation of a new initiative called Eco-Neighborhoods, which seeks to create local models of sustainable development through active demonstrations and social marketing. At the center of this effort is a group of young environmental leaders called Eco-Lideres (Eco-Leaders).

Young people between the ages of 15 and 25, living in some 59 different Eco-Neighborhoods, will take responsibility for educating and aiding their communities on leading greener lifestyles and adapting simple, voluntary behaviors that can lead to major cumulative environmental benefits.

Bogotá‘s Departments on the Environment and Community Action have placed the Eco-Leaders initiative in the hands of the Fundación Ciudad Humana (Human City Foundation). The Human City Foundation, a local non-profit organization, is also responsible for designing and managing the city’s expansive Integrated Bicycle Promotion Campaign.

Human City Foundation will provide 120 Eco-Leaders with bicycles to make their daily community rounds. Most of all, the visible use of bicycles will help promote the use of Bogotá‘s extensive cycleways.

People Power and the Transformation of a Megacity

Perhaps the greatest lesson learned from Bogotá‘s experience is that engaged citizens, as much as changes to urban form, can drive the metamorphosis of a city. Infrastructure alone is not sufficient to transform a city; only through the active engagement of the public can change be ingrained and ultimately sustained. Bogotá proves the adage that “people make the city.”

This news item has been edited for length.  Read the complete story in Sustainable Transport magazine #14.


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