June 20, 2019

Preparing Cities for the Future: An Interview with MOBILIZE Keynote Speaker, Gil Peñalosa

Gil Penalosa Headshot

Gil is the founder and chair of the internationally recognized Canadian non-profit organization 8 80 Cities. He is also first Ambassador of World Urban Parks. He holds an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, where he recently was selected as one of the “100 Most Inspirational Alumni” in the school’s history. In 2015 Gil received a Doctorate Honoris Causa from the Faculty of Urban Planning at the prominent University in Sweden, SLU. Last year Gil was listed in Planetizen’s Top 100 Most Influential Urbanists.

What would you consider the state of the world’s cities today?

Not sustainable. What we have done in the last 40 years is mostly bad in terms of urban design. The cities we have created are not financially, environmentally sustainable or positive health-wise because they are so segregated, spread out, and not focused on public and non-motorized transit. People live far apart; we have built cities focused on cars and not on people’s happiness. These cities are not good for people’s physical or mental health because they make so many things, including walking as a form of transportation, perilous or impossible. Cities are so often segregated by race, income, social status, the rich are separated from the poor, making integration and equality even more difficult.

What we do have now is a huge opportunity to do something that will impact billions of people for hundreds of years. Based on the UN Findings on Climate Change we are in big trouble if we don’t make major changes that will lower carbon emissions and make cities more sustainable. As cities and their populations grow, we have to make sure that they are built in ways that support public transportation and are safe for pedestrians and cyclists. The world’s urban population is going to double in the next 40 years; half of the homes that will exist within the lifetime of our children, do not exist today. We have a magnificent opportunity to create cities for people, radically different from the recent past. With sustainable mobility for all, walking, riding bicycles, using public transit, having parks within a short walk, more compact cities and less sprawl.  Cities are able to be part of the solution to climate change if we build them that way. Gil Penalosa with bike in Wroclaw, Poland

How can cities make transportation better?

This starts with how we design cities. Mobility and land use are two sides of the same coin. The only way to have public transit is to get cities densified – transit oriented development – making sure that buildings and places are closer so that people can move around more easily.

As an example of recent growth, in the largest 90 cities in Mexico during the last 30 years the population has over doubled in size. The ‘footprint’ of land used by these cities has increased 11 times! So there is 2.5 more people but 11x more land that’s being used. How can you make this sustainable? If we don’t stop the sprawl, if we don’t stop the physical growth of cities, then we will never have sustainable cities. Land use and mobility are completely interwoven. Luckily, Mexico City is doing good work in land use and parking reform to combat much of this sprawl.


Gil Peñalosa is a sought after speaker seen here giving a presentation at a UNICEF conference in Albania

What are the first steps should cities be taking?

In our organization, 8 80 Cities, our philosophy is simple but powerful. What if everything we did in our cities, sidewalks, crosswalks, parks, building, all, had to be great for an 8-year-old and for an 80-year-old as indicator species, then it’d be good for all, from 0 to over 100 years old. We must stop building cities as if everyone was 30 years old and athletic, and build cities for all.

When we evaluate cities – we need to evaluate based on how we treat our most vulnerable people. Those are children, the elderly, people with disabilities, minorities. We must prioritize the most vulnerable in street design. For example, on a street the people walking are most vulnerable, so it should be built for them, then cyclists, then public transit, then cars – walkers should get priority over drivers.

This is so essential because the most vulnerable groups are also the most invisible. A few months ago, an airplane crashed, and the world came to a standstill. Nations halted all of the 737 jets in a crisis of safety. Yet, every day the number of pedestrians who die from traffic incidents is equivalent to five 737 planes. This is a real crisis, yet we don’t treat it as such. We call them accidents, which implies that it’s unavoidable, but it isn’t. 1.3 million people die every year from traffic incidents. Pedestrians, especially children and elderly, are the ones most in need of protection.

We know how to stop this. Lowering the speed limit is a huge thing; all residential areas should have speed limits of 30 km/hour (20 mph). If a driver strikes a person at 30 km/hour, the person has 5% probability of dying; if someone is struck at 50 km/hour they have an 85% chance of dying. When cities lower speeds, fewer people are killed and more people walk because it’s safer and more enjoyable.

What low cost interventions can cities take on?

Gil performs workshops with groups of all ages including high school students here from Charlotte North Carolina

A lot of cities use the excuse of money to not build infrastructure to support non-motorized transport. For example, so often roads are elevated and widened without building bike lanes along them. How can you afford to widen and elevate roads if you can’t afford bike lanes and sidewalks? Look at elevated highways – we know that they don’t work. Why are we still making them? Why is the World Bank lending money to emerging countries to create elevated highways? Why are they investing billions of dollars to build elevated highways in India when only 10% of the people in that country have cars? In many countries they build roads without sidewalks and bikeways, claiming they don’t have money for them, but at the same time they create six lane roads for cars.

Why? This is not technical or financial issue, its political. It costs nothing to lower the speed, its changing signs and putting bumps but people are afraid because throughout the world, powerful people are often those with cars.  City leaders must be consistent in what they think, say and do.

What are some best practices cities can look to for guidance?

When I was commissioner in Bogotá, we took a small program called Ciclovia where we open streets to people and close them to car and magic happens. This turned the city streets into the largest pop up park in the world – every single Sunday and holidays – ¼ citizens come out to walk, bike, skate. It has been like this good virus, spreading to multiple cities around the world everywhere and impacting many millions. Open Streets as it’s called in North America don’t work 1-3 times a year – it needs to be regular. Open streets are important because they open minds and help people meet each other. In Bogotá – the wealthiest people meet with the poorest people as equals –they do not live in the same buildings and kids do not go to the same schools, but in the Ciclovia or Open Streets programs they meet as equals. This is important for the point of view of community building – by bringing together so many people from different social, economic and ethnic backgrounds, it allows them to build a community.

Look at some other examples worldwide. 10 years ago people laughed at you if you said Times Square would become a pedestrian zone but look at it today! In New York, this pedestrian space in a major intersection has now become accepted. Times Square happened because New York’s leaders at the time had a vision and took action. You have to have both vision and action to transform cities, to move from talking to doing.

There are some really interesting things being piloted in Toronto, such as Sidewalk Labs. Are projects like these a good way forward for cities?

Toronto used to be great for public transit, but 25 years ago the city stopped investing in it. The investment priority has been for infrastructure built for personal vehicles. That has led to a major mobility crisis because the infrastructure has been underinvested and the city is focusing too much on private cars and not on public transit, bicycles or pedestrians.

Sidewalk Labs’ proposal is innovative and good. They have proposed to build 40% affordable housing and mobility is a major focus of their proposal. They have proposed very little parking, and even less on site. They want the development to focus on walking and cycling, as well as public transit and driverless vehicles. Amongst their ideas, they don’t want those who own cars to use them daily, rather infrequently. They have created few and expensive underground parking, also many for car sharing, and would offer a valet service for the cars that are parked away to incentivize less driving. Many initiatives on safe streets, flexibility, a truly smart community.

Do you think Sidewalk Labs and the city are good partners in this?

I like the metaphor of traveling in a canoe.  The government must do the steering and the private sector should be rowing. The private sector is better at implementing, but the cities need to focus on the direction the boat is traveling in. If the private sector steers, it moves in a direction that benefits the company making the money and not necessarily all the citizens and if the government rows, it’s inefficient at implementing important changes. This is because their focuses are different. Politicians and government must focus on the wellbeing of all citizens whereas private companies focus on satisfying their shareholders. In this case, the government is represented by Waterfront Toronto, a crown corporation with 3 partners: the city of Toronto, the province of Ontario, and the federal government of Canada.

Alphabet (the parent company of Google and Sidewalk Labs), as a private company, wants to make money whereas government, in this case Waterfront Toronto, needs to focus on all the citizens and their needs. Alphabets high profits and business model allow it to take a big risk, because if they fail, their core business will remain totally intact. Meaning that Alphabet is taking a lot of risk that smaller developers wouldn’t take. The people leading their projects are urbanists – they have a good understanding of what to do and they have incorporated many good local talent at all levels of the organization. I hope that they are successful creating a community that is inclusive, where mobility is mostly sustainable, has great public spaces as they could provide innovative ways for other governments and developers around the world. Obviously, some issues must be solved first, such as those around privacy, which is not exclusive to this project but something that affects all cities; this is another area that could innovate by searching for solutions to problems.

Finally, what are you most excited about seeing or learning at MOBILIZE?

I’m excited for the opportunities to learn from each other to become better.

We look forward to hearing Gil’s keynote address at MOBILIZE Fortaleza in June 2019.


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