Could Panama City be made attractive?

Through British newspaper The Guardian, we came across the above video from The School of Life, an educational institution founded by author Alain de Botton. It talks about what makes cities — which is where most people live — attractive and what doesn’t. So we thought it would be interesting to look at how well or not Panama holds up against the six fundamentals that a city should have in order to be an attractive place to live in or to visit.

  1. Balance of order and variety. People like order, but not boring. Panama is a nightmare in this respect: Skyscrapers tossed around seemingly randomly, no city planning at all, and on the other hand there is the deadening monotony of suburban developments, or the so-called “multis” of Chorillo and Calidonia.
  2. Visible life. The nicest parts of town are where you see human activity, work or leisure. Casco Viejo definitely qualifies, and so does the pedestrian area of the Avenida Central, the street markets of Calidonia and sometimes the Cinta Costera. But Panama has created entire areas as well that seem dead, where human activity is hidden in towers that are divided by wide roads — like Punta Pacifica, Paitilla, parts of San Francisco and so on. It’s not nice to walk around in any of these areas because they seem dead. Not to mention Costa del Este. Or public life has been locked away in shopping malls.
  3. Compactness. Panama City is a sprawling city, with new areas built farther and farther away. It isolates people instead of forging connection. Why do we like Casco Viejo? Because everything is close together, you know your neighbors, you can walk the streets. You don’t have that in newer areas, or in the housing developments in the suburbs. With that comes that nice compact cities have squares, where people hang out. Panama has not built one single square that has that function since the Spaniards built Casco Viejo with its Plaza Bolivar etc. Cinco de Mayo? Ruined by cars and flyover highways. Plaza Porras? Too big, lacks intimacy.
  4. Orientation and mystery. Cities are big by definition, but we love the ones that have small streets, alleyways and hidden passages where you can get a kind of lost. Panama hardly has any of that, because developers think that cars are the most important things in the world, instead of people.
  5. Scale. Joseph Campbell once said: “If you want to see what a society really believes in, look at what the biggest buildings on the horizon are dedicated to.” The biggest buildings in Panama are banks, followed by half-empty residential towers funded by money laundering. Humans feel much more comfortable in cities that are at the most five stories high, with bigger buildings dedicated to common causes or beliefs, like churches, or theaters or museums. Panama City has entirely been hijacked by greedy developers who only worship money.
  6. Local feel. Why fly for hours, only to see the same buildings and the same streets they have in Dubai or London or Miami? There is hardly anything distinctly Panamanian about Panama City. Is copying designs from abroad really the best our architects can do?

The video then gives two reasons why we aren’t building cities that we actually like. It’s not money. Billions have been spent on construction over the past decades, so there is clearly plenty of money around. The first reason is confusion over what is beauty. Saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is to give greedy developers free reign to build ugly things. Most people will agree that the new tower of the National Assembly is ugly, or at the very least not aesthetically interesting. So why did we allow such an eyesore to be built?

The other reason is lack of political will. Politicians give in to developers’ demands and ideas, and in Panama they may even be corrupt. That leads to ugly towers, ugly roads around Casco Viejo, and to Punta Pacifica.

In any case, watch the video. Have anything to add? Leave it in the comments!