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  • Writer's pictureJorn Wemmenhove

Towards a happy city with Gil Peñalosa

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

“The bicycle is a symbol of democracy, and equality. It’s about freedom, joy and happiness for everybody.” – Gil Peñalosa

How friendly is Rotterdam for cyclists and pedestrians? Together with Gil Peñalosa, a delegation of the City of Rotterdam and the Dutch Cyclists’ Union, local entrepreneurs and city lovers, we cycled with this question in our heads through the city. Colombian-born Gil Peñalosa is one of the most influential urban planners specialized on the livability of cities. He currently resides in Canada where he founded 8-80 Cities; an NGO that promotes livable cities for all citizens no matter their age or social background. Invited by the Dutch Cylists’ Union, Peñalosa gave a presentation on the Dutch Cycling Congress, and cycled with policy makers in Amersfoort, Utrecht and Rotterdam to learn from each other.

A fresh view

And a lot can be learned from Peñalosa. In Bogotá he revitalized 200 public parks and initiated the ‘Ciclovia’- initiative closing down a big part of the city for cars on Sundays. Every week 1.3 million people reclaim the streets to walk, cycle, skate and run and the initiative has been copied in many other cities around the world. In several new cycling countries the infrastructure and modal split may not be at the same level as in The Netherlands, their vision on cycling however is often fresh and innovative. Peñalosa states that cycling is just a more efficient way of walking, there is no real difference. In The Netherlands they are often seen as different means of transport. Bicycle parking in The Netherlands is great, but because of the huge amounts of bicycles on street level there is some work to do. And why not creating spaces that protect bicycles from rain and sun? “We need to treat our bikes with love”, Peñalosa says. Many Dutch policy makers may consider this an unnecessary proposal, but it’s a nice, different and probably efficient vision.

From car city to bicycle city?

Fresh ideas and an outsider’s view are important to improve the city of Rotterdam and make it future-proof. Rotterdam is a city in transition and the urgency is clear. Because of the growth of the city, the increasing problem of obesity, shrunken city budgets, climate change and aging populations, waiting is not an option. For Dutch standards, Rotterdam is city very friendly to cars. Aerial bombardments during World War II destroyed its city center and when rebuilding the city cars seemed the way to go. The current municipal executive board member’s ambition is to change this and winds of change are blowing. Peñalosa is impressed by the ‘car city’ in which 25% of the daily commutes are made by bicycle. Of course, compared to other Dutch cities there is room to improve, but according to Peñalosa Rotterdam is an inspiration to many cities in the world.

From good to great! 

The city structure of Rotterdam differs from many other Dutch cities. Maybe comparisons with cycling capitals like Groningen, Utrecht and Amsterdam are therefore not very useful. Rotterdam should follow its own course, not copying other cities and pursue excellence. It’s the own vision and ambition that counts. Comparison is fine, but Peñalosa urges the city to become the example. Like other big cities around the world, Rotterdam is looking for ways to create qualitative public spaces. The city increasingly understands that cycling and walking should get the full attention, and the position of the private car is changing.

Public space for young and old 

With his organization 8-80 Cities Peñalosa promotes public spaces in which people feel happy and safe no matter their age. Too many cities seem to be designed for 30 years-olds with athletic bodies. The biggest public space in a city with between 15 and 25% of the total surface are the streets. And streets are between 70 and 90% of the total public space. The fact that the biggest part of this space is used by private cars, moving around relatively small amounts of people, is strange. Cities become alive by public spaces like parks, where all kinds of people can meet. This creates a city on a social scale which moves people towards each other, by walking, skating, cycling, etc.

Cycling on Rotterdam’s South Bank: a new cycling culture 

This city is an inclusive city, in which everybody is equal and can take part. Cycling, walking and attractive publics space are the means. Successful cities with healthy and happy people are the result. Because and the Dutch Cylists’ Union have been asked by the City of Rotterdam to develop a program to increase the use of the bicycle on the city’s South Bank. Compared to the rest of the city not too many people use the bicycle for their daily commutes. Rotterdam Zuid is facing many social challenges. But this part of the city’s population is very young and buzzing with creativity too. Increasing the use of the bicycle isn’t a goal on itself. We believe it is a means to improve the livability, accessibility, competitiveness and sustainable development. During the bike ride with Gil Peñalosa we stopped at the Hefpark, on the South Bank, where kids learn how to cycle with a new approach using BMX-bikes. Peñalosa shared our vision.

“The bicycle is a symbol of democracy and equality. It’s about freedom, joy and happiness for everybody.”

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