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Government / Local politics

Bogotá: The 476 year-old teenager

In a country boasting outstanding economic growth after the 2008 crisis, the Colombian capital Bogotá seems to be making headlines for the wrong reasons: high-profile corruption scandals, discontent among citizens, pollution and transport issues. Founded 476 years ago and with a population of almost 8m, this city located in the middle of Colombia seems to be more like an adolescent: complex, bold, ruthless, chaotic and prone to new experiences.

Back in the 1990s, Bogotá was an inspiration for other cities. Thanks to the TransMilenio – at the time, the world’s first large scale Bus Rapid Transit system– the Bogotános were able to move quickly across the city, and citizens’ engagement grew with initiatives such as using mimes to teach respect for traffic rules. But by 2011, when the mayor and his brother were jailed for bribery charges related to public works contracts, Bogotá’s future seemed much less positive.

Today the TransMilenio, once symbol of the city’s progress, is over-crowded and plagued by poor service, as demonstrated by the increasingly frequent protests of its 2m daily users. Combo 2600, a collective that promotes urban development policies in the city, argues that the issues with transport and public spaces in Bogotá are not due to policy planning alone. They’re also down to poor management in public projects: by November 2014, for example, the Institute for Urban Development (IDU) had invested only 33 percent of its total budget for the year. Worse, it had spent just 2 per cent of the budget destined for parks.

If that wasn’t enough, Bogotá’s eternal economic rival Medellín has been able to overcome its bleak past as “murder capital of the world”. It’s now globally considered a “beacon for cities across the world”, and held up as a shining example of urban regeneration.

At first glance, one could be forgiven to think that Bogotá has its back to the wall. But there are areas where the capital has experienced considerable progress, demonstrating not only its efforts to be inclusive for all, but also that its citizens are active and engaged.

Firstly, Bogotá’s current administration knows the importance of inclusivity and quality when it comes to education policy. Historically, Colombia’s state-funded schools have operated for six hours a day, compared to eight hour days in privately-funded schools. To make up the difference, the city has rolled out a programme that aims at adding two hours of study each day in public schools to all the city’s schools. It’s already having positive impacts in student’s test results.

Secondly, public health services have improved thanks to the prioritisation of health in the city’s budget, the effort dedicated to preventive medicine and the schemes that increase access via domestic visits. According to the mayor’s office, the city’s infant mortality rate has dropped to a single digit number for the first time in history: less than ten out of 100,000 infants under one year die every year.

Thirdly, according to National Police statistics, the city achieved the lowest murder rate in the last 30 years: 16.4 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants. According to La Silla Vacía, a Colombian news and politics website, the close work between the mayor’s office and the police, and the ban on carrying weapons in public spaces, have both helped reducing homicides. The national government is also sending out positive messages: on the 1 December, President Juan Manuel Santos travelled in Transmilenio to attend the police’s security plan for Christmas. There, he urged improvements in security and citizen’s perception of security.

Fourthly, engaged and active citizens can hugely contribute to improve the city from the bottom up. For example, many people have turned to bicycles to save time when travelling across the city, thanks to the work of think tanks and young activist organisations such as Mejor en Bici (literally, “Better by Bike”), Combo 2600 and La Ciudad Verde (“The Green City”). Coupled with traditional government initiatives such as closing 120km of the city’s streets to cars every Sunday – the Ciclovía – cycling has seen a substantial increase in popularity.

Bogotá’s trajectory in the last three decades generates many questions on how to steer major city’s development towards liveable and sustainable living conditions. As the city adds around 100,000 new inhabitants a year, managing it has become more complex. Moreover, the processes that steer its development depend not only on sensible policies and governance, but also on the citizens’ capacity to engage and act collectively. Next year, the campaign for city mayor will incentive Bogotános to debate once again how to build on past successes, in realms such as mobility and citizen culture, and how to strengthen more recent achievements on health, security, and social inclusion.  

Next week, academics, policymakers and future leaders will gather in Oxford to discuss the future of cities. Bogotá’s lesson is one of cooperation between government and citizens: the only way a city can develop to be prosperous and inclusive.

Juan D. Gutiérrez-Rodríguez was born and raised in Bogotá. He is a DPhil student at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, which exists to inspire and support better public policy and government around the world.

The Challenges of Government Conference – “Flourishing Cities” will take place in Oxford on 11-12 December. It’s open for registration now.

Photographs of Bogotá courtesy of the author.
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