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Thought Leader: Enrique Penalosa

By Enrique Penalosa, Devin T. Stewart | Thought Leaders Forum, July 24, 2012


DEVIN STEWART: The first question is, what's unique about the time we live in today?

ENRIQUE PEÑALOSA: There are many unique things. Almost everything is unique. Perhaps we have more information about our situation in the universe. For the first time, we really see that we are only passengers in this self-sufficient spaceship, Spaceship Earth, which floats with an unknown destination. Then we can really see how we all share a destiny—Chinese, Russians, Americans, Colombians. We see how vulnerable and ephemeral we are and how fragile our Spaceship Earth is and how we have to keep it well and have a wonderful relationship with our fellow passengers.

DEVIN STEWART: What led to this realization of being on this vulnerable planet? Is it because of the photographs from space?

ENRIQUE PEÑALOSA: Clearly, photographs from space have helped a lot. When you see the photographs from the Hubble Telescope, it's even more impressive. The Earth looks like a minuscule little dot in space. Once we see the Earth from space, it seems how close we are with all the other inhabitants on the planet, how we share it, how we are fellow passengers on this fragile spaceship.

However, once we come down, we realize we're not so close. For example, for us Colombians, it's very difficult for us to go to most places on Earth. You have to ask permission. Many, many Colombians are denied visas. So we realize we only have a right to be in our country, out of the whole planet.

But even if we come to our country, we realize that most of it is private. If we enter private property, we may even get killed. So we come to our cities. Even in our cities we have private buildings. If we enter them, we might also get killed. If we go to the street, we may also get killed by cars.

The only microscopic piece of Earth to which we have access is public pedestrian space in our cities. We should take very special care of that piece of the planet.

This is something that has always been very appealing to me as an idea, because we realize that the only microscopic piece of Earth to which we have access is public pedestrian space in our city, public pedestrian space on sidewalks, in plazas, in parks, in waterfronts. To me, this is extremely important, to try to understand how we should take very special care of that piece of the planet which is the one to which we really have access.

DEVIN STEWART: This realization that we're sharing this planet, what does it mean for our responsibilities to one another? What does it mean from a moral perspective?

ENRIQUE PEÑALOSA: It means that we are almost like a family. This is an old story. As the quote from Hemingway's book For Whom the Bell Tolls says, "We cannot be indifferent to other people's suffering because we are not an island."

Since we are very small, we realize that our happiness is not independent to the happiness of those around us. If our mother is in pain with cancer or our brother or sister is ill, our happiness is not independent of their suffering. Then we realize that our family is not just our family, but it's a broader family, and maybe a whole city, maybe a whole planet.

I think most religious leaders throughout history have told us that what makes us really happy is to work for other people's happiness somehow.

As an ethical concept, I also think we have a special responsibility to those most vulnerable human beings. It's almost ingrained in our ethical DNA or something. We feel a special tenderness for children. We feel we have to take care of them, and the elderly and the poor. I think this is also something that is an ethical imperative. I think ethical imperatives always have to do with—for us Judeo-Christians anyway, the ethics are mixed with punishment, hell, things like this. But I will say, turning it the other way around, on the contrary, to do these things are the things that will lead to happiness.

DEVIN STEWART: Are things getting better or worse in the world today?

ENRIQUE PEÑALOSA: Clearly, I think they are getting much better. Of course, there is damage to the environment from economic development, but at the same time, there are the scientific and technical developments that allow us to tackle those problems that have been created. There is less poverty than ever. There are more possibilities for people realizing their potential through education and material means. Technology now I think is absolutely amazing. I think we are only beginning to glimpse what can be done with electronic media, with computers, for learning.

Finally, happiness, to me, is a strong realization of human potential. It's linked to knowledge. Even if somebody has talent—to paint or to cook—you have to learn the basics of how to mix colors, what colors to use. Even somebody who has a talent for music has to be able to learn. Clearly, we appreciate the world more if we have more knowledge. We appreciate the sky more if we know a little bit about the storm. We appreciate the butterflies or the jungles more. We appreciate an engine more if we understand a little bit more how it works.

Knowledge, intelligence, is one of the great attributes that humans have. We may have others. We may walk and we may do physical work, but what we can do with our heads, what we can learn, is extremely important to be happy. I think, for example, the new communications will help us be much more educated and appreciate life more and be happier.

When communism collapsed many people assumed that we could forget about equality. I don't think we can just forget about equality. The issue is, what kind of equality can we hope for today?

So, in general, I think the world is getting better. But we still have many atavistic, irrational sources for hate, for people who are different, because they are of a different race or a different religion, of a different nationality. Most of these hatreds derive from irrational preconceptions. I think knowledge helps to lower these irrational sources of hate.

There is something—I don't know what the order of this is, but when I was reading these questions, to me, the great challenge for humans—we humans are different from animals. We have some interesting differences from other beings on the planet. For one, we don't have to accept the world as it is. We can dream different realities and create them. On the other hand, also animals know how to live. I think most animals know how to live, what they have to do in life, and they do it right.

Instead, for us it's not so clear. The great challenge is to learn how to live better. For example, in Colombia, one out of two children is not wished for at the moment of conception. One out of four is not wished for at the moment of birth. The least we can do is to achieve a situation where every child that is born is wished for—hugged, loved, desired. We have to learn to live and learn how to drink or not to drink.

We still have a lot to learn. We have a lot to learn in order to live a better life, in terms of living a healthy life, without eating too much, with doing the right exercise, reading, developing our potentials. Clearly, there are some activities which destroy us, like alcohol in certain ways or smoking or drugs or eating in the wrong way.

Even though it sounds very obvious, the great challenge is to learn to live in a more civilized way, we could call it. To me, and the principle for which I have worked in my life, that has moved me in my life mostly is the issue of equality. There are many activities which can move people. Some scientists can be moved because they want to discover the way the universe works. In my case, in my life, what has really moved me is equality.

Clearly, happiness is very difficult to define. It is impossible to measure. But it's the only thing that really matters. That's what we try to do every day of our lives, to be happy, and everything we do should contribute to that. One of the obstacles to happiness is feeling inferior, feeling excluded. Equality is extremely important for happiness and for a harmonious world.

When communism collapsed and failed, many people assumed that we could forget about equality, because it has been a failure. Most people on the planet—almost everybody today—believe that the best way to manage most of society's resources is through private property and the market. But clearly that necessitates inequality. Some companies must make money. Some others must go broke. Some people must make more money.

People said we can forget about this equality thing; it's a thing of the past. However, I think there we made a slip; we made a mistake. For more than 2,000 years, humanity has been seeking more equality, from the Greeks, the Romans. The great message of the Judeo-Christian revolution was that all citizens were equal. That is almost at the root of capitalism, the essence of private property. Over the last 300 years, all kinds of wars, revolutions, millions of people died to achieve more happiness. We advance in equality of political rights and social rights.

So I don't think we can just forget about equality. The issue is, what kind of equality can we hope for today, which cannot, clearly, be economic equality? I would say there are some very powerful principles of democracy. This is one of the great ethical challenges of our lives.

If all citizens are equal before the law, a bus with 100 passengers has a right to 100 times more road space than a car with one.

The first article of all constitutions says all citizens are equal before the law. It sounds like just poetry, a little bit irrelevant. But, in fact, if all citizens are equal before the law, for example, a bus with 100 passengers has a right to 100 times more road space than a car with one.

As urban issues are my interest, I will give more examples about this issue. Democracy is that all citizens are equal before the law, but there is a consequence of that also, which is that public good prevails over private interests. Anything that should augment public good, even if it should affect some private interests, should be implemented. This is democracy. This is not communism. Democracy is not just the fact that people go vote. This is just one ingredient of democracy. Democracy is that we actually apply those principles that all citizens are equal and that public good prevails over private interests.

What does it mean in practice, for example? In practice it means that, for example, God gave human beings waterfronts that make them so happy—just to see a waterfront, to have access to a waterfront.

For example, Long Island Sound, with all these fancy houses on the water which exclude other people from access to the water—in my opinion, this is not democratic. Millions of people would be much happier if, instead, we had a public waterfront with a walkway, where millions could have access to the waterfront. First of all, this is not democratic and this is immoral.

This is not an attack against private property or the market or things like this. On the contrary. We adopted private property and the market, not because it's good for the rich, but because it's good for everybody, even for the poorest people in society. Everybody is better off if most goods in society are managed through private property and the market.

But in some cases it doesn't work. In developing countries, there are millions, billions of people living in slums. What does a slum prove? A slum proves that once people have gotten hold of a piece of land, they are able to build their home. That's what it proves. It proves that the obstacle to solving the needs of housing is land. The market does not work in the case of land around growing cities.

The essence of the market, the beauty of capitalism, the beauty of private property and the market, is that prices tend to approach cost. If prices go above cost, then supply increases, and the contrary. If the price of tomatoes goes up, then people will grow more tomatoes and the price of tomatoes will go down. In the case of land around growing cities, we can increase the price all we want, and the supply of land which is accessible to water supply, to transport, to education, to jobs does not increase. So there is no justification whatsoever for this land around cities being privately owned.

In Sweden or Finland, since 1900, the land around cities belongs to government, to local governments.

This has tremendous cost to the environment. For example, I just saw a story of what happened in Mexico between 1980 and 2010. The population in most Mexican cities grew, about doubled, and the area increased by six or seven times. As land around cities was expensive, they were forced to seek land much, much farther away. It has tremendous quality-of-life costs, for the happiness of people who will spend millions of hours in transportation.

This has enormous environmental costs, because it's impossible to have low-cost/high-frequency public transport, so they are totally car-dependent environments. Huge amounts of fuel will be spent—social, economic, environmental costs—again because we are not applying this basic democratic principle that public good prevails over private interests.

There are a million more things. We could design cities where people could be much happier. But inequality is at the root of most problems in developing countries—gated communities, shopping malls, which are almost clubs, because in expensive shopping malls low-income people feel uncomfortable, country clubs in the middle of densely populated areas without parks. If public good prevailed over private interests, they should be parks.

This is just to say that equality, to me, is one great issue over time, and to create cities which are more humane and happier. It cannot be normal that today we tell any child, anywhere in the world, "Watch out, a car!" and the child jumps in fright, and with a good reason, because there are tens of thousands of children who are killed by cars every year in the world.

But what is more shocking is that we think this is normal. Why don't we change this urban design for a design where people could be much happier? I think this is a very important ethical issue.

DEVIN STEWART: If we don't address this problem of inequality, what's at stake? What do we risk? What could happen?

ENRIQUE PEÑALOSA: There are all kinds of inequality—inequality between countries, inequality between people.

I got to know the United States in the early 1970s, when I came here for school. My family moved here. It seemed to me that it was a more democratic society, in the following sense. Even the rich children would go to work in McDonald's or in a gas station. The rich people would mow their own lawns. There was much less of this extravagant spending and big yachts and private planes and things. Some of this, maybe, Protestant ethic of austerity still prevailed.

Now the rich children just go to violin classes because this will help them get into Princeton or Harvard. They hire some Colombian or Mexican to mow their lawn, which is fine. It gives jobs to Mexicans and to Colombians.

But when we begin to assume that the success in life is extravagant material consumption, then, almost, corruption becomes justified. For example, in countries such as Colombia and other Latin American countries affected by drug trafficking and this kind of corruption, I believe wealthy businessmen have a particular responsibility to lead an austere life. The message has to be sent to citizens that they are important because they have knowledge, because they know how to run an organization that produces well-being for society, because they create jobs, and not because they have big planes or yachts.

Drug dealers can also buy the big planes or the big yachts or the big jewels. I would say the first thing to combat the corruption and the drug traffickers is to show—here I need a word in English—desprecio, disdain, but even stronger.

The first thing to combat the corruption and the drug dealers is that we disdain, we look down upon the uneducated, material, gross consumption, and what we respect is art and we respect knowledge and we respect professors and we respect libraries.

For example, when I was mayor, we built some beautiful libraries. We were conscious that maybe, instead of building one of these big beautiful libraries in these poor neighborhoods, giant libraries—we built three and we got a donation for our fourth one, and many small ones, too—we were conscious that maybe it's more practical functionally to have 10 small libraries and not one big one. But we wanted to create symbols, a temple, a building that is more beautiful than the shopping mall, that shows that knowledge is what we respect.

That is more important—a scientist or a professor—than a drug dealer with fancy cars and a yacht. We want the young man in the neighborhood—the one who is respected is not the one who is riding the fancy motorcycle and has gold chains and brand-name clothes, but the one that goes on an old bicycle and plays sports and reads and plays music, perhaps.

I think we have at this time the wealthy, who have created wealth, contributing to society. They also have another responsibility, and it's to have a certain degree of austerity, to show that they are admired and respected, not because they have material wealth, but because of their contribution to society.

DEVIN STEWART: Global ethic, what does it mean to you?

ENRIQUE PEÑALOSA: Recently I learned about this cave discovered at the end of the 1990s in France, in Chauvet. I was very impressed, because there are these absolutely beautiful drawings. Clearly, whoever made them was sensitive, bright, had the capacity of abstraction. It was exactly like a human being today, and it was 32,000 years ago, when there weren't glaciations; there was not even water between England and France.

Who is responsible to do all of these things? Everybody who has some power is responsible. We are all responsible. Clearly, whatever we define as a leader has a little bit more of a responsibility.

My work is to advise cities all around the world. I have been to very different cities, from Mumbai to Guatemala City, to Ulan Bator, to São Paulo. What is surprising is not how people are different, or how the issues or the processes are different, but how they are the same. They are very, very similar. Again, the root of problems in urban design is inequality. Inequality is what makes upper-income people in developing countries not want to use public transport. Inequality is what makes people want to have private waterfronts in Long Island Sound. Inequality is what makes people prefer going to country clubs rather than to public parks. Inequality is what makes shopping malls replace public space as a meeting place for people.

So I think people are very similar, and ethics are similar everywhere in the world. I think we feel responsibility to our family, to our children, to more vulnerable citizens in society. In some societies, of course, at some times in history, some things were accepted as right which later they realized were wrong, such as slavery. Today when we see what happened during the French Revolution, we say, "Big deal. It was obvious that it had to change." But it was not so obvious, because thousands of years have gone by and they have not changed.

I believe that today, before our noses, we have huge inequalities. We are so used to them that we do not realize they are wrong. In the way we design cities, not to go any farther, such as some I mentioned with private waterfronts, with these country clubs in the middle of urban areas.

We are doing this in Manhattan. We have these cars parked in the streets. The street space is the most valuable resource in a city. Even if they were to find diamonds or oil under Manhattan, it would not be so valuable. It belongs to all citizens the same, not to those who have cars. It belongs to children. It belongs to people who don't have cars, to the elderly, to the poor. Who decided that this space should be given to cars and not to bigger sidewalks or to protected bikeways?

I think whenever we have a traffic jam, without exclusive lanes for buses, anywhere in the world, it's clearly a symbol of insufficient democracy. A bus with 50 or 100 or 150 passengers should have exclusive lanes. It's a symbol of irrationality. The more technically efficient way to use scarce road space is with exclusive lanes for buses. It's obvious. Why isn't it done? Because the upper middle-class people who have cars control all the power in society. They don't want to give anything up, any privilege up.

This is similar in India or in Colombia. In general, I think irrationality—many of these values—when we have not constructed some principles of rationality and respect for human dignity, for human life, people end up in violence, in Colombia because of drug trafficking, in other places because of religious or national hatreds.

A lot of this stems, to a large degree, from insufficient equality. If we really saw all citizens as equal, rich and poor, those with one religion or another religion, with one nationality or other nationalities, I'm sure there would be also a lot less violence.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned nation-states. Did you want to say something about that?

ENRIQUE PEÑALOSA: Yes. I believe that nation-states are completely irrational. Nation-states are not based on reason or any scientific logic. They do not respond to any reason or scientific logic. There are some very interesting contradictions.

For example, if a woman has half her body in the United States—if she is giving birth lying on the border between the United States and Mexico, if her body is in the United States side, this child will be born to a $50,000 per-capita income. If she turns around and half her body is in Mexico, this baby will be much poorer.

Babies who are born on this planet—why are some babies more entitled to the Kansas plains? Do the babies born in the United States have more right to the Kansas plains than those born in Bangladesh? Do the babies born in Bangladesh have less right to the oilfields of Saudi Arabia? I don't know.

But the fact is that political organization of the world into nation-states is a recent phenomenon, in historical terms. Feudal states became obstacles to economic progress. Feudal states as political organizations became obstacles to economic progress, because, first of all, there were not guarantees to private property. Private property is only a function of the government decision to protect it. So if the neighbor would invade a nation-state, the neighboring state's private property would disappear in a day. It was not possible to develop private property and enterprise and economic development if there were not enough guarantees to private property. Feudal states were not a strong enough guarantee.

Commerce—you had hundreds of tolls all over the rivers. On the Rhine, there were more than 500 tolls. There could be no commerce.

It was not possible to have a national currency if there were a lot of little states, much less to do great infrastructure projects, such as roads or drainage projects.

Nation-states are almost as obsolete as feudal states were 500 or 600 years ago. They have become an obstacle to progress. They make it difficult to solve environmental issues. Nation-states create the risk of nuclear annihilation. They will become weaker and weaker, and the faster they disappear, the better.

As a political organization, the feudal organization became an obstacle to the evolving economic reality. It was like the clothes that are getting too small for a growing child. In other words, the feudal political organization became an obstacle progress, and whenever a political organization becomes an obstacle to progress, it disappears. The economic reality and the technical reality wins.

So the feudal state organization disappeared and nation-states appeared. The nation-state had what was needed for economic progress at the time. They were able to guarantee private property so that economic progress could happen. They were able to have national currencies. They were able to have white markets without tolls every two blocks. They were able to do the infrastructure building that was necessary. So the world progressed enormously through nation-states and capitalism.

But now we have reached another point, where nation-states are almost as obsolete as feudal states were 500 or 600 years ago. Nation-states have become an obstacle to progress. Nation-states make it difficult to solve the environmental issues, which are international, clearly. Nation-states create the risk of nuclear annihilation. How more crazy can we be, to create an organization which alongside brings this risk?

How are we going to exploit the sea resources, for example? The United States goes to the moon and they put a flag on the moon and they say it belongs to them. It's like they think we're still in the age of conquest, like Christopher Columbus or something. But I think there is a little bit of difference in the world today.

I believe nation-states will become weaker and weaker, and the faster they disappear, the better, because they create hatreds and they create inequality and they create environmental degradation. We already see the European Union and some free trade agreements and things. But I think we have to advance much more into this new kind of organization.

I don't know exactly what the shape of this would be, but what is clear today is that it's a very similar situation to what it was 500 or 600 years ago with the feudal states, how they became an obstacle to progress. Today, nation-states are an obstacle to progress. The bright young people from Latin America cannot come and work in the United States. The United States cannot invest in other countries.

The sooner, the better, that we do away with the nation-state. I don't know exactly what shape will be the world governments that will come after, with some councils or the United Nations. I don't know exactly, but clearly, I think it's an obsolete organization for human society.


Is war obsolete? Is world peace possible?

ENRIQUE PEÑALOSA: There are two kinds of wars. All wars have in common very irrational beliefs. They have in common the nationalistic, the ethnic, the religious—all kinds of irrational ways humans have invented to hate each other. I think as reason progresses, more education, these kinds of causes for war should wither away. Once we behave like a giant family, like we really are, like fellow passengers of Spaceship Earth—very fragile, self-sufficient spaceship floating with unknown destination.

DEVIN STEWART: Last question. Who's accountable for all the things we talked about?

ENRIQUE PEÑALOSA: Clearly, an adult is more responsible than a child. Somebody who is the head of a corporation is more responsible than the last employee. A president is more responsible than the last citizen. A teacher is more responsible than the student.

We all are, of course, but this is a little bit of a generality. In fact, leaders are more responsible. I think, in the more dynamic areas of society, leaders behave—the scientists today, people who are passionate about these—it's interesting. I read somewhere that when religion was a more dynamic aspect of society, national religion—at that time, it was not even national—cultural religion did not matter. You would have somebody from Italy in a monastery in Ireland. Later, when nation-states were consolidating, also it would not really matter, because you would have a Dutchman as a king of Spain, or even Napoleon, who was more Italian, perhaps, than French, in a certain way.

Now maybe in science also you see that scientists from all over the world couldn't care less about this national issue. They come to the best universities in the world, the research centers. Maybe that is an example of the world to come.

Who is responsible to do all of these things? Everybody who has some power is responsible—governments, academics. We are all responsible. Clearly, whatever we define as a leader has a little bit more of a responsibility.

DEVIN STEWART: Perfect, Enrique. Thank you. Thank you so much. Fantastic. I only asked a few questions, but you knew the questions. You did your homework.

ENRIQUE PEÑALOSA: I had to talk a lot so you wouldn't ask more questions.

DEVIN STEWART: That's great.

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