Talking with Gil Penalosa - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Talking with Gil Penalosa

Internationally renowned expert in Placemaking speaks at MPC’s Placemaking Workshops.

This article was written by Meg MacIver, a University of Chicago undergraduate and freelance writer for MPC.


“How can we do more with less?”

It’s a question we would all do well to ask in this uncertain economy – and one that stands at the center of Gil Penalosa’s acclaimed approach to making active public spaces in cities around the world.

An internationally recognized expert in Placemaking, Guillermo “Gil” Penalosa came toChicago this October for the Placemaking Workshops hosted by MPC and Project for Public Spaces. The workshops were part of MPC and PPS's efforts to launch a citywide campaign to create more great public spaces in Chicago by using Placemaking techniques.

Penalosa came to share his Placemaking expertise and describe his experiences in building active public spaces.  As the former commissioner of parks and recreation in Bogotà, Columbia, he opened nearly 60 miles of car-free city roads every Sunday for Ciclovia, a weekly festival that draws almost 1.5 million people to run, skate, walk, and bike the city streets.

“When I was commissioner in Bogotà,” Penalosa said, “I asked the mayor; ‘How else are you going to get 1,500,000 people out and active in our city?  Are you going to have them all play soccer?  With 22 players per field you are going to have to build a lot of stadiums!’”

Activities like Ciclovia use city roads and parking lots that otherwise would be quiet and empty.  They do not require money and resources to build costly new structures. Penalosa encourages cities like Chicago to think about how to bring existing spaces to life using program and activities; in other words, to think about how to do more with less.

Chicago already has begun to put some of these changes in action, and is introducing creative new ways to bring its streets and places to life.  The Active Transportation Alliance started “Sunday Parkways,” which closes off a continuous north-south stretch of various city streets from Fullerton to 24th Street through Garfield Park, North Lawndale and Little Village to automobile traffic on selected dates from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.  Like Ciclovia, which started with just eight miles, activity stations along the way provide participants with opportunities to dance, play and exercise throughout the morning.


Gil said activities like Ciclovia and Sunday Parkways improve life in a city in many different ways.  He uses the acronym E.A.R.T.H. to outline their benefits:






By providing easy ways for residents to incorporate movement and exercise into their routines, activities such as Ciclovia and Sunday Parkways also have an enormous potential to improve public health, according to Penalosa.

“In many states, more than one in three people are obese,” explained Penalosa, “not just overweight, but obese.”  Healthier lifestyle choices can help combat obesity and related illnesses such as heart disease, which not only threaten quality of life, but life itself. For activities such as walking and cycling to have the greatest health benefits, they “must be a normal part of everyday life,” said Penalosa. “To think of them in terms of recreation does not work because with recreation there are always excuses: ‘I’m too tired, I’ll do it tomorrow, I don’t have time.’  But if it’s normal, activity is simply part of life.”

“There is no [quality] health system in the world that’s only curative.  It has to be preventative.”  Placemaking initiatives that encourage activity and movement in a city’s public space can become an integral part of a larger health care system.

To accomplish this, cities “must have a sense of urgency,” said Penalosa, and start now by putting small Placemaking measures in place to improve spaces in every neighborhood and encourage frequent physical activity.  “As a community, you cannot say that a playground is part of your 10-year plan for your children,” Penalosa explained. “In 10 years, that kid is going to need a skate park.  You can’t wait!” 

Though Penalosa is one of Placemaking’s greatest champions, he acknowledged, “change is hard.”  It’s common to run up against initial resistance to Placemaking, especially when communities encounter uncommon ideas that may seem to threaten the status quo.

“Every time someone tries to make a pedestrian street, everyone fights it. In the U.S. the excuse is, ‘Oh, Europe was just built that way.  It’s better suited for it.’ But, in fact, implementing pedestrian streets only came about in the last 30 or 40 years. This is relatively recent.  In Copenhagen, they complained at first.  They said, ‘Pedestrian streets are not our culture. It’s for the Italians; they love their streets.   It’s too cold here.’ And now, of course, the most successful retail in all of Denmark is along the pedestrian streets!”

Of course Placemaking techniques are not limited to revitalizing a city’s commercial quarters.  They are meant to improve all parts of the city and to make every neighborhood more beautiful, more enjoyable, and more alive.  In fact, Penalosa believes because Placemaking techniques can do so much with so little, their greatest potential for transformation may be in a city’s lowest-income areas.

“When I was commissioner in Bogotà, people would ask me why, when there are so many other problems like poverty, crime and education, the local government would choose to focus its energies and scarce resources on revitalizing public spaces,” said Penalosa. “I would always tell them that public spaces, in low-income areas especially, and when the poor are feeling desperate, have to be beautiful and vibrant because they are the only refuge for the poor when they are not working.  The poor never have the options to escape, like the rich do, to their country clubs and big estates: they always stay in the city.  We have to make great places for them to enjoy.”

Placemaking for active public spaces has a huge potential for improving emotional and physical well being. For Penalosa, Placemaking is about “[helping] communities develop vibrant cities and healthy communities.  When we have great places, we are going to have happier, healthier residents.”

For more information on Placemaking Chicago, please visit , or contact Karin Sommer at (312) 863-6044 or


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