Bogotá, the Proud Revival of a City

Arcam Amsterdam presents ‘Bogotá, the Proud Revival of City’. The exhibition displays the efforts of Colombia’s capital during the last 15 years to manage problematic spatial, social and economic aspects characterising most Latin-American megalopolises.

The richness and variety of the exhibited initiatives and the presented productivity of the Municipality’s public institutions, poses the question on what is holding all these initiatives together. How can a city like Bogotá, whose population rose four times between the sixties and nowadays (from approximately 1.7 million to 6.8 million inhabitants) progress that much in only fifteen years? Our suggested answer is threefold; one coincidence, one collective ideal and some catalysing consequences.

Let us start with the coincidence. The impressive transformation of the city produced by these efforts is attributed to the direction of a series of charismatic Mayors. Since 1992, Bogotá has enrolled in a productive long-term strategy formed by a sequence of elected Mayors all pointing at different -yet complementary- objectives (1). Accordingly, Mayor Jaime Castro (1992-1994) renewed the city administrative framework giving mayors more independence from the bureaucracy of the City Council. Additionally, his period was also characterised by excellent economic management, which concluded with a surplus of savings for future investment. Subsequent mayors Antanas Mockus (1995-1997) and Enrique Peñalosa (1998-2000) came from non-traditional political parties, and their election reflected the inhabitants’ discontent with traditional politics. Their respective development plans, ‘Formar Ciudad’ (Educating the City) and 'Por la Bogotá que queremos’ (For the Bogotá that we want) marked an attitude change in Bogotá’s management. New energy was injected into the public institutions by appointing working teams mostly composed of young academics and professionals. These personnel did not depend on political parties or coalitions; hence, they brought an ethical, efficient and professional operation which resulted in corruption decrease, increased staff competence and improvement of the quality with the private sector relationships. Mockus promoted education by launching several didactic campaigns aimed at improving citizenship culture, recuperating public space, introducing environmental concerns and social progress. Moreover his administration augmented urban productivity, making institutional legitimacy recognisable to citizens. All the abovementioned administrative, economic and didactic conditions paved the route for Peñalosa to put into operation the most ambitious programme on public space, public transport, recreational green areas and legalisation of informal settlements ever built in Bogotá’s history. The results are evident at the Arcam.

Behind these different and complementary practices, a common argument maintained a certain level of unity. Hence, in relation to the issue of collective ideal, the shared characteristic of these administrations was their capacity to lead, convince and engage other parties in benefit of the city. Bogotá’s population growth feeds from national migration, meaning the sense of identity is generally low. Nevertheless, these administrations succeed in augmenting people’s pride of the city introducing a sense of duty in regular citizens, public employees or private companies. Although many aspects have yet to be improved, the idea of collective wealth still prevails. For instance, current mayor Luis Eduardo Garzón’s (2004-2007) development plan ‘Bogotá sin indiferencia’ (Bogotá without indifference) provided alimentation aid to 700.000 low income families through nutrition programs. In addition, he guided the construction of 22 schools and improved another 200. In turn, with his ‘Bogotá Positiva’ (Positive Bogotá) plan, the recently elected mayor, Samuel Moreno Rojas (2008-2011), intends to follow existing programs and embark in the planning of the city’s subway system.

It is important to highlight that these plans and projects did not appear all at once. Nor, did all citizens share the proposed ideals of education, citizenship and collectiveness. In fact, resistance and discussions developed to a certain extent. But as tangible outcomes began to appear -a park here, a new school in the neighbourhood or a library there- these results became catalysers themselves and promoted even more initiatives. Bogotá’s citizens have learned that common benefits bring individual advantages and therefore are more demanding and conscious on aspects related to the quality of collective assets.

To resume, the relevance in presenting ‘Bogotá, the Proud Revival of a City’ is not to explore urban transformation as a collection of products, but to understand it as a comprehensive process itself. A process involving a productive interaction between a large variety of actors -public institutions and their employees, developers, citizens, independent organisations, etc.- working together for a common sense of belonging. Despite the fact that the city is still far from reaching optimum standards in comparison to other capital cities, this combined process has achieved national and international recognition (2).