Thirteen years ago, Gil Penalosa arrived in Toronto with his wife and three kids, fell in love with the city and adopted it as their home. Formerly the commissioner of parks, sport and recreation in Bogota, Colombia, Gil and his team led the design and development of over 200 parks, including Simon Bolivar Park, a360 hectarepark in the heart of the city. He initiated the “new Ciclovia” in Bogota – car-free Sundays on city roads, which has since inspired cities around the world to do the same.
Now, Gil shares his city- and park-planning expertise through his Toronto-based organization, 8-80 Cities, which gives advice to decision-makers and communities on how to create vibrant cities and healthy communities where people of all ages can walk, bike and take public transit safely and conveniently.
“We think that children and older adults are kind of like indicator species, so if a city is great for an 8-year old and an 80-year old, it’ll be good for everyone,” he says, explaining the meaning behind the organization’s name.
In Gil’s opinion, a major priority for the health of a city is the safety of pedestrians and cyclists.
Another priority is the need to embrace density, since continuing a pattern of urban sprawl would make it increasingly difficult to pay for public transit. Density in cities often conjures up images of poorly maintained high-rises that were popular in the ’60s and ’70s, but Gil says that this does not have to be the case.
“There are more humane ways to densify. Most cities with the highest density in the world, like Barcelona, Parisor Copenhagen, have mid-rise density – buildings of four, five, six storeys next to each other,” Gil says. “In comparison, most suburbs in the GTA have a lot of sprawl and low density. Through development charges, it was simple to build roads and sidewalks initially, but now that the city is 20 to 30 years old, they’re having difficulties paying for road maintenance.”
Density also enables the existence of communities where residents can have many amenities within walking distance, such as schools, public transit, grocery stores and parks. Some benefits of this would be that children would be able to walk to school instead of being driven by their parents, and parks would be within walking distance to residents, which is shown to encourage physical activity.
While thoughtful infrastructure and design are part of what make public places successful, another major part of a community’s success lies in the activities held in them – details such as movie nights, Halloween pumpkin carving, busker festivals and tables on which people can play chess.
A true sign that Gil loves our city is that although much of his work is national and international and he could have chosen any city in the world as his home base, he chose Toronto. In the past five years he has worked in over 130 cities and from observing them, he believes we have the potential to be even better – not only within existing communities, but for people who will move to the extended GTA in the next 20 years, which he says is projected to increase by 50 per cent.
“We’re growing faster than any city in the developed world, but nevertheless, we have decision-makers saying, ‘We have to think about it, evaluate and conduct studies.’ We don’t have time! We need a sense of urgency,” Gil says.
“Sometimes people say, ‘But we’re number one in this ranking’, and yes, if we think of cities that are worse than Toronto, we can find a thousand,” he says. “If we only compare ourselves with cities that are worse, it may be good for our ego in the short-term, but harmful in the long-term because we’ll start to look like them. Instead, Toronto should be benchmarking itself with the world’s best cities – with the best public transit, health and education systems, parks, waterfronts and cultural activity – and eventually we’ll look like those cities.”
- Become an engaged citizen, leader and doer in your community by organizing and participating in community events, local politics and neighbourhood associations.
- Be vocal about your desire for healthy communities by contacting your local radio station, newspaper or city councillor.
- Visit the 8-80 Cities website at www.8-80cities.org/
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