If you’re lucky enough to catch him on a day off, you might find Gil Penalosa riding his bike through Toronto’s Roncesvalles Village – “the best neighbourhood I’ve ever lived in,” he says.
Which is saying a lot. Because when he’s not on a day off, Mr. Penalosa is likely to be in one of the hundred-plus cities he visits for work. In San Francisco speaking to Google about innovations in transportation technology, for example. Or in Bangalore sweet-talking planners into installing better sidewalks. Or in Copenhagen lunching with the minister of environment before flying to South Korea to transform an entire neighbourhood into a car-free zone for 30 days.
“I think of Gil as the Pied Piper for sustainable transportation,” says Janette Sadik-Khan, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation. “He travels the world singing that song and pressing that message and he does it in a really compelling way.”
He has also lived his message: Mr. Penalosa, 57, helped to transform Bogota when he served as the Colombian capital’s commissioner of parks and recreation in the late 1990s. He has since become an evangelist for livable cities that put people, not cars, at the centre of planning. As the executive director of Toronto-based non-profit 8-80 Cities, he has worked with more than 150 cities on every continent, convincing them that rapid improvements to mass transit, bike lanes and pedestrian walkways are not as impossible as they may think.
“The biggest challenge is that change is hard,” he says. “Anywhere. And the better the city, the harder it is.”
Many politicians are also “timid,” he adds. “The minute they’re elected, they’re thinking about how to get re-elected, and the way to get re-elected is to do more of the same. Maybe a little bit better but more of the same. But unfortunately now we not only have to focus on doing things right, but also we need to focus on doing the right things.”
The name of Mr. Penalosa’s non-profit – 8-80 Cities – echoes his central message. “If you build a city that is great for an eight-year-old and for an 80-year-old, then you build a city that is going to be great for everybody. They’re like an indicator species,” he says. “We need to stop building cities as if everybody in them is 30 years old and athletic.”
By cities, Mr. Penalosa doesn’t just mean massive centres: One is just as likely to find him on the ground rethinking the town centre of Timmins, Ont., as in Los Angeles, Paris or New York. 8-80 Cities recently partnered with the Ontario government to bring Open Streets – events that close roads to cars and open them to cyclists, joggers, pedestrians and the like for recreation – to Kingston, Toronto, Thunder Bay and Windsor.
“It’s not about walking or cycling or parks or sidewalks,” he says. “Those are the means. The end goal is how to create a vibrant city with healthy communities, where the citizens are going to be happier.”
Mr. Penalosa – who uses the word fantastic (emphasis on the “ta”) in every other sentence and seldom wastes time taking a breath when he speaks – got his introduction to urban issues early.
His father was a Colombian government official who later served as secretary-general of the pioneering 1976 United Nations Habitat Conference on Human Settlement in Vancouver, the world’s first international meeting on housing and homelessness. Mr. Penalosa and his brother Enrique tagged along, meeting the likes of Pierre Trudeau and other leaders from around of the world.
In Bogota, Gil Penalosa served first under former mayor Antanas Mockus, developing more than 200 parks – a Herculean feat in a city previously bereft of quality public spaces. He also developed Ciclovia: 120 kilometres of road closed to cars every Sunday and on holidays for more than one million cyclists, rollerbladers, runners and strollers. Ciclovia has since been emulated in hundreds of cities around the world.
When his brother Enrique (currently the presidential candidate for the Colombian green party) took over as mayor in the next election, Mr. Penalosa continued to work on the car-clogged city, turning it into a poster child for urban change and sustainable transportation.
He eventually left Colombia, including a brief stint as the country’s trade commissioner in Canada – which led him to a job with the City of Mississauga. He founded 8-80 Cities in 2005, and later moved to Roncesvalles.
His three children have grown up and moved on, so today he and his wife Claudia, who works for a bank, live on their own next to “a great park.” He loves the farmer’s market, the restaurants and shops of their neighbourhood, and getting around by bike, which is his main form of transportation as he doesn’t own a car.
“The kind of work that I do, I could live anywhere,” says Mr. Penalosa. “But I love [Toronto]. It’s so multicultural that I feel at home. I never really have felt like that in any other city.”
There are, of course, a few things he’d fix. The city could use a new mayor, for instance. “[Rob] Ford has been more damaging than anyone could have imagined,” he says. “Great mayors need two elements: to have a clear vision of what needs to be done and the political and managerial capacity to do it, and he has none.”
The city is lacking something else: a ciclovia. But that, says Mr. Penalosa, is soon to come. It would be unwise to bet against it.
Christine McLaren is a Vancouver-based freelance writer who focuses on urban affairs.