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5 Questions for Gil Penalosa

The globe-trotting creator of ciclovias and open streets explains why people ages 8 and 80 are "the indicator species" for good places to live

Portrait, Outdoors, Buildings In Background, Trees, Man, Gil Penalosa, Interview, Livable Communities

Photo provided by Gil Penalosa

"The annual cost of owning a car is about $8,700," notes Gil Penalosa. "So if a person can live without a car, or a household can live with one less car, it's like winning the lottery."


Gil Penalosa has traveled to more than 200 communities across the globe scouting for the best ideas to improve life for people of all ages. He believes the measure of a good place is whether we'd feel comfortable with an 8-year-old biking alone to the neighborhood park or someone in their 80s walking to the grocery store. 

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That's why he founded and is board chair of 8 80 Cities, which works internationally to make it easier and safer for people of all ages to walk, bike and enjoy parks, trails and public spaces. From his travels and research, Penalosa has distilled five essential ingredients for a great city or town:

1. lively public spaces and parks

2. streets that are safe for everyone who uses them

3. comfortable options for bikers and walkers

4. convenient, speedy public transportation

5. public officials willing to collaborate with neighborhood residents

The one-time parks commissioner of Bogotá, Colombia, Penalosa dashes around North and South America spreading the message that public health, environmental protection, social connections and economic vitality all increase in communities where everyone's needs are taken into account. 

"He's the pied piper of sustainable transportation," declares Janette Sadik-Khan, the former New York City transportation commissioner who transformed the city with new bike lanes, pedestrian plazas and street safety improvements. Penalosa, 58, lives in Toronto, where he gets around by bike, foot or transit.

1. Much of your work fits with that of the AARP Network of Age-Friendly Communities. How can towns and cities better serve their older residents?

There are 43 million older adults in the U.S. now — by 2050 it's going to be 85 million. That's a doubling in the next 35 years, which means huge changes for our society that we urgently need to start planning for right now. As the Chinese proverb says, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now."

Older adults I talk to are scared of losing their driver's license. It's not because they love their cars, it's because they love mobility. They want to be able to continue going to the places they want — to the grocery store, to see their friends. They want to have the same lifestyle they enjoy now. In a lot of communities the only way to do that is to drive everywhere — and not all of us will be able to keep driving as much when we get older, even if that's what we want to do.

Today's growing numbers of older people want to have a variety of ways to get around. That's why it is so important for communities to have walking, transit and biking that's safe and convenient. When older people have transportation options they can age in place and not depend on others to drive them everywhere.

Community-based transportation improvements have economic benefits, too. According to AAA, the annual cost of owning a car is about $8,700. So if a person can live without a car, or a household can live with one less car, it's like winning the lottery. People are living longer now so they may have less money for their later years. Access to more transportation options can help.

In fact, there is nothing that government could do that would have a higher impact on middle-class families than to enable them to switch from two cars to one, and for poor families to switch from one car to none. In many American communities, two-car suburban families spend about 25 percent of their income on transportation.

2. How are baby boomers different from older generations in the past, and how does this affect policies and planning in our communities? 

Older adults are healthier, wealthier and more active than older people of previous generations — this is very important to understand. Fifty years ago, 14 percent of Americans were poor and 29 percent of older Americans were poor. Now the level of poverty is still about 14 percent, but the rate among older adults is 8 percent.

Baby boomers have a lot of social conscience — they were the young generation of the '60s and '70s. That's why I am so hopeful that we can enlist an army of older people to transform our towns and cities. For example, everyone should have a park within a 10-minute walk from his or her home. We need better connected grids of sidewalks, bike paths and urban trails so people can get where they need to go on foot or bike. We need better transit.

An estimated 40 million new homes (the equivalent of all existing homes in the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, Belgium and Chile) will be built by 2050, which is when the U.S. population is expected to level off. Will these new homes be built with parks nearby? Will they be near schools kids can walk to? Will these homes be located with access to public transit? Will it be easy for people to bike and walk?

There's a sense of urgency that we do these things right. We need to improve the communities we have today, but we also need to be creating great communities for what will be 100 million more people.

In the U.S., 75,000 people are hit by cars every year and at least 4,500 die. Two out of three people killed in crosswalks are older adults — that's four times as many as they should be in proportion to the population. What if millions of older American became champions of Vision Zero, the new idea now taking hold in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and other places that we should not tolerate any traffic deaths — not to pedestrians, bicyclists or motorists? We need to upgrade our streets to keep everyone safe. Someday we may look back at our tolerance for traffic fatalities in the same way we do now about women not being able to vote 100 years ago.

And remember that anything we do for older adults helps everyone else. People who are 8 and 80 are the indicator species for good places to live. Redesign our cities to keep them safe, healthy and happy, and we'll have a place that works well for everyone, even those younger than 8 and older than 80.

Baby boomers are very engaged in their communities. They go to public meetings. That's why they are so transformative and valuable. Politicians listen to them. Older adults can get better results for society, for everyone.

Also, boomers are doing different activities than in the past. In the most recent London marathon, there were 5,000 runners over age 60. Many older Americans are doing the same activities they always have. The stereotype of people going to Florida and playing shuffleboard is all wrong.

Featured Video

Get a taste of the weekly Bogotá Ciclovia, which was founded in 1976 by Open Streets pioneer Gil Penalosa. (See an interview with Penalosa in a video that appears on the next page.)

Note: The following video is in Spanish

Livability advocate Gil Penalosa rides a bicycle in Toronto

Photo by Nancy Paiva

Livability advocate Gil Penalosa poses in a Toronto park. (When he's bicycling for real he wears a helmet.)


3. Making great communities is a big theme of your work.  What are the ingredients that separate a great place from a merely OK one? 

It's important for a city to view walking and biking as a basic human right, which should be safe, easy and pleasurable for everyone. Walking adds the spice to a city, and we don't like a spice-less city any more than we like pasta without sauce.

Clean, attractive places to walk dignify pedestrians so they don't feel like second-class citizens. Everybody walks and every trip starts on foot. Start by lowering traffic speeds, giving walkers a five-second head start at traffic lights and building crosswalks with "safety islands" in the middle of the street. We need to have good benches added to the streets so older adults can walk further by being able to take breaks along the way. People will walk if they know that when they get tired, they can sit for a while and watch the world go past.

A study of 950 parks by the Rand Corporation found that older Americans use parks the least of anyone in the U.S. — they are 16 percent of the population but only 4 percent of park users. That's because there is nothing for them to do in the park. We should make sure that all public spaces have places for older adults, that all walking paths are clearly marked for uses and distances. Even playgrounds need comfortable places to sit.

The measure of a great city is how it treats its most vulnerable residents, the young, the old, the disabled and the poor. One way to measure this is by looking at the amount of transportation options and the availability of parks and other public spaces for everyone to use.

Transformations can happen very fast in a city. Thirty years ago no one would have ranked Melbourne, Australia, as one of the top 400 cities in the world. Even the local newspaper described its downtown as an "empty, useless city center." Now many think of Melbourne as one of the top four or five cities in the world. What happened? A concerted effort across the community to enliven the downtown, add more parks and more public spaces. 

4. You are a big advocate of Open Streets events, in which certain streets are closed to cars for a day. This is obviously fun and beneficial for young people. Please explain how Open Streets are beneficial — and important — for older adults, too?

In Bogotá, we have done ciclovias [the Spanish word for Open Streets] since the 1970s. When I was parks commissioner, we took a program with just a few miles of streets and a few thousand participants and expanded it to 70 miles of streets with 1.3 million people outside and participating every Sunday and holiday. We opened streets to people and closed them to cars, and everyone came out to bike, walk, run, skate, do yoga, do aerobics, hear music, have fun. People of all ages are there. From Bogota, the idea soon spread to other Colombian cities, and then all over South and North America.

The magic of open streets is public participation. Older adults want a place where they can walk in a safe environment, the same as anyone. So Open Streets is like heaven. It's not just for ultra-athletes. You can walk for just five or 10 minutes. It's also for people who use walkers or are in wheelchairs. The happiness and joy that children experience by playing outdoors can be shared by everyone.

It's very important to include programming for older adults at Open Streets. In Guadalajara, Mexico, they have arts and crafts classes for grandchildren and grandparents. In Portland and other places they have moderate aerobics classes for older adults. But no matter what they do in Open Streets, older adults show up.

5. Some of your early work was in Colombia, when the country suffered widely publicized safety problems. How did this affect use of public spaces and how did better public spaces affect crime and safety?

Anywhere you go in any era under any conditions it's always true that public spaces are safe when they are well-used by all, and not safe when they are not. When they are empty, you need a lot of police to keep things in order and keep delinquents from taking them over.  So the point is to make these places fun and interesting so everyone wants to go there.

When I was parks commissioner in Bogota, we did a lot of activities for older adults, generating a multiplier effect. But we realized we couldn't do it alone. So we trained older adults to run activities for other older adults. We'd have a ceremony and give them a diploma — and they would dress in their best clothes and bring the family. Then they would go to work doing everything from organizing bingo games to starting bands and orchestras of older adults. 

Here's some of what we did to make things safe:

  • We cut back all the tree branches that were lower than six feet, so no one could jump out of the foliage

  • We installed proper lighting in parks and public spaces

  • We hosted events that attracted all kinds of people. We invited The Three Tenors — Placido Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti — to perform because it brought different people to the park, people who were then surprised by how beautiful and safe and clean it was. We wanted the parks to welcome everyone — young and old, rich and poor, black and white, from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book, writes, speaks and consults about how to make our communities healthier and happier. His website is JayWalljasper.com.

Learn more about Gil Penalosa's 8 80 Cities and its Healthiest Practice Open Streets initiative.

Published July 2015


Featured Video

Get a taste of the weekly Via RecreActiva in Guadalajara, Mexico, and hear from Gil Penalosa, father of the Bogotá Cicolvia and founder of 8-80 Cities. Also, read a blog post by AARP transportation policy expert Jana Lynott about the Via RecreActiva and the overall benefits of open streets programs.