Gustavo Petro and Politics in Urban Planning

Power relationships exist and it is impossible to plan a city while pretending that political reality does not matter.

In November 2013, I attended a lecture by Gustavo Petro titled “Bogotá: the political struggle for a sustainable and inclusive city.” At this time, Mr. Petro, the Mayor of Bogotá, was in the middle of a political battle over his proposed zoning/land use plan that focused on adapting the city to climate change, overcoming social segregation, and consolidating political power.

Mr. Petro pointed out that the city’s unique geography made it completely dependent on the health of Páramo de Sumapaz, the world’s largest alpine tundra ecosystem and the main biodiversity hotspot and source of water for densely populated Bogotá Savannah. He also indicated that failure to prepare for, or mitigate, the effects of climate change could lead to one of two outcomes: Reduced rainfall could reduce the verdant land to a desert, or increased rainfall could convert the region to a highland lake (close to what it was in the Pre-Columbian era).

However, the city’s sociopolitical issues hindered Mr. Petro’s plans. The nature of the city’s urban expansion over the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries led to significant social segregation that Mr. Petro compared to a caste system. One effect of social segregation in Bogotá is that the poorer residents of the city have been forced to reside in peripheral areas of the city, which are at higher risk of flooding. Wealthy landowners benefitted from the expansion by seizing control of the hollowed out center and portions of the region that are potential sources of mining revenue.

Mr. Petro’s proposed land use plan put climate change adaptation through re-zoning, conservation, and multi-mode transit development ahead of the priorities of Bogotá’s wealthy landowners (mining and real estate profits). As an outsider, I was excited about his plan for social reform and climate change adaptation, but after speaking with colleagues in my academic program, I became concerned about the difficult challenge of making people accept drastic changes to the character of their city and dealing with the furious landowners.

Barely a month after his presentation at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Mr. Petro was impeached. He had attempted to overhaul the trash collection system by moving from a private system to a public system that employed indigent families who survive on earnings from reclaimed trash. I suspect that in addition to providing increased economic security for these families, Mr. Petro wanted to reduce the power the private sector held over the city government.

Unfortunately, a bumpy transition resulted in streets lined with uncollected trash for the first three days. Mr. Petro’s opponents now had an excuse to go after him. Both the Inspector General of Colombia, Alejandro Ordóñez, and the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos (who disagrees with Petro’s opposition to mining in Bogotá) supported his removal from office.

Mr. Petro’s case demonstrates that political issues can hinder well-intentioned urban planning efforts. Mr. Petro himself acknowledged this during his presentation. He asserted that Bogotá’s problems were not just technical and scientific issues, but also political issues dealing with power and wealth. Power relationships exist and it is impossible to plan a city while pretending that political reality does not matter.

Fortunately, the combined efforts of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and a magistrate from the Superior Tribunal of Bogota helped him regain his power as mayor earlier this year. I truly hope that he can pursue his dream of a compact and inclusive city in the remainder of his time in office.

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