The view over Bogotá on a crisp, clear morning, from high up in the Cerros orientales, reveals a handsome, sprawling metropolis set against the backdrop of imposing hills. It is a privileged viewpoint: one’s favourite buildings can be made out in the distance; thoroughfares which might be nightmareish at close hand look imposing, straight and elegant from afar; planes take off and land at El Dorado, glinting in the morning sun; and, every now again, on an exceptionally clear day, the snow-capped peaks of volcanoes Tolima and Ruíz can be made out, glimmering enigmatically on the distant horizon.
It is a wonderful sight and one which lifts the spirits before the day begins. It is much to be hoped that Bogotanos and foreigners alike continue to ‘take back’ the cerros in the years ahead, and to spend their early mornings wandering their many splendid, secret paths, alongside crystalline streams, changing vegetation and in the breathtaking silence far from the city’s traffic.
Striking, too, as we behold Bogotá from the hills, amidst their scented pines, eucalyptuses and abundant vegetation, the almost constant thick grey cloud of smog which hovers over a hemmed-in metropolis, and which is particularly visible in the morning light. It’s a dispiriting sight: Bogotá might be 2,600 metres closer to the stars, as a city slogan once heralded, but this does not diminish the thick cloud of soot hanging over us, diminishing our lives and contaminating our lungs.
More disturbing still, is the striking absence of trees. With the exception of the Parque Simón Bolívar, the Country Club, and a few other oases of green, the eye strains to find a sustained abundance of trees amid the morass of the city’s red brick and cement build- ings. Thank goodness for the cerros themselves, one is inclined to think on walking back down for breakfast, comparing Bogotá rather wistfully with Mexico City’s abundant green or, of course, the tree-lined avenues and parks of London, New York, Paris and elsewhere.
Walking the streets of Bogotá themselves, however, a different picture emerges, with some greater grounds for hope. Who has not marvelled at the magnificent trees which are to be found across the city, often in the most unexpected places, providing shade at a street corner, upturning pavements, adorning historical buildings and generally lifting the spirits?
Historian Jorge Orlando Melo has written lovingly of Bogotá’s trees, particularly at this, his favourite time of year, when the chirlobirlos, or chicalás, are in full flower, with their bright yellow leaves caught in that extraordinary late afternoon light which sometimes illuminates Bogotá in an epiphanous fashion during the hour or so before dusk.
Melo recounts how Bogotá came to love trees late in life: up until the first half of the twentieth century, the city had fewer trees still, and of course the cerros themselves were barren, as photographs from the time show. But the 1950s saw the flourishing of green spaces in different barrios, and a spate of urban planning which saw the creation of sanctuaries like the Parque Nacional, whose trees continue to provide respite just off the Séptima sixty years on.
Amidst Bogotá’s predominantly non-native species – the urapán, liquidámbar, the weeping willow, and the pines and eucalyptuses of the cerros – one still finds plentiful native trees continuing to flourish: the Colombian pine, an altogether more elegant breed, the splendid yarumo, the rubber tree from the Sabana, and of course the nogal, the city’s emblem.
Over-zealous city planners, in alliance with mayors past and present, have often cut down beautiful old trees in order to lay a road, a Transmilenio track, or – irony of ironies – a new park with new trees. Some 10,000 trees in Bogotá are currently slated to be cut down every month according to the Jardín Botánico (Botanical Gardens) having become a danger due to damage they suffered in recent winters.
An act of such barbarism was played out in the Parque de la Independencia in the town centre, near architect Rogelio Salmona’s Torres del Parque. Much to the chagrin of residents and a host of the city’s authors, actors and thinkers, the clearing of trees was put on hold whilst the case is being looked at in the courts; all power to the proverbial bows of the campaigners. In the Art Deco neighbourhood of Teusaquillo, near the Gernika Park, half century-old trees were felled in July by the city’s Secretaría de Ambiente (Secretary for the Environment), and which must monitor the health of 1’190.517 others.
Martin Luther King once said: “Even if the world were to end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree.” On a hopeful note, the Secretaría de Ambiente, the Jardín Botánico - in alliance with a wide group of civil society organizations and the private sector – have committed themselves to reforesting Bogotá with one million new trees in the years ahead.
It is to be hoped that reforestation campaigns continue, and that the species to be planted are sensitive and in keeping with Bogotá’s arboreal history. While Mayors have expressed their concern for Bogotá’s trees and the urban environment, Bogotá could be an infinitely happier, healthier and lovelier place over the years ahead if it can keep its existing trees and plant many more.