I Found the Perfect Public Space in Bogotá

Take a minute to think about public spaces such as parks, sidewalks or squares in your city — what annoys you most about them? It could be a lack of green space, parking cars obstructing your way, not enough space for more than two or three people to walk next to each other, or a general neglect in combination with waste. While this is too often the case, I want to present a perfect example for a successful public space in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, to show you that the opposite is possible!

As an urban planner, I always tick off a mental checklist when I visit a new city and walk around its public spaces. It goes somewhat like this:

- Am I enjoying the walk?
- Can I see green space?
- Can I sit down and rest and watch people?
- Is there shadow?
- Are there waste bins?
- How is the walkability for the disabled, people pushing a stroller or people in wheelchairs?
- Is the space nicely designed?

This concurs with what the experts say. For example, the Project for Public Space lists the following four key qualities that a good public space needs to have:

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Recently, I was positively surprised by discovering the most perfect public space I have ever seen. I was on my way towards a meeting in Bogotá and walking through city center, when I stopped to admire this space, the Eje Ambiental (“environmental axis”).

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The 2.8 km long pedestrian walkway takes over about 80% of the street. Some taxis and the Bus Rapid Transit system pass on the sides, but the priority is on pedestrians (finally!). In the center of the Eje Ambiental, there is a river, which provides a nice, fresh feeling and invites children, pets and curious adults to play. Palm trees, shrubs and other plants line the wide, pleasant and smooth walking areas for pedestrians. There are enough waste bins and you walk through one of the city’s nicest districts, passing from the university and ending up at the core of Bogotá. You get to see the urban landscape change while you enjoy the walk, and there is a lot of street art, street musicians and interesting shops on the way. Informal vendors, who often take up a lot of space on the sidewalk, have been banned from this walkway, but you can find the occasional vendor offering fresh fruit or dried banana crisps.

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This public space is open to everyone and accessible. I saw countless locals enjoying the shadow, chatting on one of the comfortable benches, strolling with an ice cream in hand, or walking their dogs. You easily reach city center without being bothered by vehicles or traffic lights. Finally, pedestrians have been given complete priority. Imagine if a whole city offered this kind of walking experience! This is at least a first step towards designing better public spaces.

Looking at the history of the Eje Ambiental, you do not need to go back a long time. The project was first conceptualized in 1997 by two Colombian architects and approved in 1999. Bogotá’s Transmilenio Bus Rapid Transit System was planned at the same time on the Avenida Jiménez, one of Bogotá’s busiest roads. Apart from making 2.8 km of this Avenida into a more enjoyable space for walking, the architects also decided to bring the formerly subterranean Río San Francisco back to the light of day. The result resembles a park much more than a sidewalk.

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Apart from that, Bogotá is also active in many other aspects of urban planning, investing heavily in cycle lanes, in the new TransMiCable cable car and in renewing various parks. You can even participate online in urban planning. While most of these projects have touristic value, the priority seems to be on citizen’s needs, which is a nice change. The projects tick all the boxes of the values that the Project for Public Space recommends. Especially the Eje Ambiental has various uses, is very sociable, provides access and a linkage for pedestrians, and contributes to comfort for citizens and tourists alike. Perfect!

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