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What makes a city great? Success is closely tied to a city’s ability to promote the happiness, health, and overall well-being of its residents, Toronto urbanist Gil Penalosa said Thursday at the kickoff event for the Rivard Report‘s inaugural San Antonio CityFest.
Penalosa is the founder and chair of 8 80 Cities, a Canadian nonprofit with a mission to improve sustainable mobility, parks, and public spaces to transform urban areas into cities that are great for both 8-year-olds and 80-year olds. The organization has worked with over 250 communities across six continents to promote investing in multimodal transportation to improve residents’ physical and mental health.
Penalosa gave the keynote address at the Pearl Stable to open CityFest, an event bringing together civic leaders and creatives for three days of programming that explores San Antonio’s opportunities and challenges as a city on the rise. A former commissioner of parks and recreation in Bogotá, Colombia, Penalosa created Ciclovía, the car-free streets event that San Antonio and hundreds of cities worldwide have adopted.
“The city development we have been doing around the world has been mediocre. We have been thinking about car mobility – not people’s happiness,” Penalosa said. “[Sustainable mobility] is about more than people being active on their way to work. It’s about promoting things that people can do on their own, environmental health,” and building a community.
San Antonio has seen some recent growth in access and safety when it comes to multimodal transportation, including the addition of bike lanes, sidewalk improvement projects, and the arrival of electric scooters. But Penalosa said cities have to create a sense of urgency for addressing multimodal transportation access and safety, and that starts with residents.
“Citizens are responsible for whether San Antonio and Bexar County grow, and the cities are responsible for the ‘how,’” Penalosa said. “Go bold, and don’t take no for an answer.”
In his time as Bogotá’s parks commissioner, Penalosa went bold by championing the creation or revitalization of more than 200 parks, including the 988-acre Simón Bolívar Park. Bogotá’s Ciclovía is a weekly event that takes place on 75 miles of closed streets and sees 1.3 million participants each Sunday. Penalosa also supported the installation of 174 miles of protected bike lanes, which helped bring bicycling’s mode share from .5 to 5 percent.
“The reality is that we have to have vision if we want to get anything accomplished,” Penalosa said. For San Antonio, where the population is expected to grow by more than one million by the year 2040, “the time to push for change is now,” he said.
The payoff, he said, is lower rates of obesity and depression in a populace better able to attract and contribute to economic activity.
Implementing infrastructure that not only works for children on bikes and seniors with walkers but also is attractive and inviting is another key to improving residents’ health and happiness, Penalosa said. Examples include lowering the speed limits for cars to 20 miles per hour on residential streets, sidewalks free of obstructions, tree-lined streets, more local parks, and a connected network of protected bike lanes.
“We need to dignify the pedestrians and dignify the cyclists with sidewalks and protected bike lanes,” he said. “When a woman is walking to work along the street because there is no sidewalk, we are telling this woman every day that [she] is a second-class citizen.”
For his first visit to San Antonio, Penalosa spent time in walkable parts of the city (the River Walk, downtown), but pointed out that 30 percent of the city’s surface area is devoted to roads and streets.
“We have to stop building cities for people who are 30 and athletic. This is critical, especially for a city growing as fast as [San Antonio,]” he said.
Penalosa’s push for transportation reform in San Antonio set the stage for CityFest, which includes panel discussions on the future of school finance, city management in Texas, and arts and culture and its impact on the community. The intention is to bring together San Antonio residents to spark conversations that will lead to growth and change.
“You have to find solutions to the problems taking place here, not problems with the solutions,” Penalosa said.