This week, Colombia will go to the polls in a new presidential election that will determine the type of policies the country will apply for the next four years.
In the race towards the House of Nariño there are competitors from diverse political origins: the current president, Juan Manuel Santos, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, the main opposition candidate and ideological ally of controversial ex-president Álvaro Uribe, Enrique Peñalosa of the Green Alliance, or the Conservative and Left wing parties.
Sadly, only one of them, Enrique Peñalosa, has been addressing the issue of urban development in Colombia, leaving the debate scarce with proposals for the urban future of the country. Peñalosa’s prominence on the issue is warranted, given that he was the mastermind of Bogotá’s urban renewal.
Urban planning has been treated at the national level like more of a market issue than a public interest one, and urban sprawl into slums has marked the growth of Colombian cities during the last fifty years.
Markets and private property do not work properly with urban development planning. Developable land is finite and its supply does not increase when prices rise, as is usual in the case of goods and services. This results in a higher cost of living in the city and a scarce supply of housing stock. The unavoidable result is that the poor have to seek housing in unsuitable areas, such as hills or slopes in slums and substandard neighborhoods. All the while, we see speculators and suburban land owners get rich without doing anything.
It is unfortunate that national governments of Colombia have historically abandoned urban policy to the municipalities. That may have worked fine in the cases of Medellín and Bogotá, but in most cases municipalities do not have the technical and financial capacity to meet the challenge of properly designed cities and towns.
That’s why, for example, Peñalosa’s proposal of a nation-wide land bank is essential to give new vigor to urban policy. In this land bank the government will decide when and where to further develop and support the proper design of urban expansion and renewal.
Territorial planning must be addressed with technical bases and vision, so that cities and towns grow in an orderly and sustainable fashion. Their view should not be limited to one government, but must help people live better in the next 100 or 200 years. But yet again, urban issues are not in the main political agenda of Colombia as they should be and the debate is lacking. Peñalosa can’t be the only voice in the political spectrum talking about an issue affecting 45 million Colombians.
Are urban matters a key issue in your country? Do these issues have proper public exposure?
Credits: Images by Luis Lozano-Paredes. Data linked to sources.