Bogotá steps into the future with Walk21

Before the age of the horse and cart, bicycle and automobile, we have walked. In fact, walking not just gets us from one place to the next, but it is good for us, keeping us mentally and physically active. At five kilometers an hour – average walking speed of humans – the benefits of taking one step after another extend far beyond ourselves to our communities, the environment and economy. By walking we are more social, which ultimately helps prevent crime, and we also save money by not burning gasoline.

As cities continue to grow, cars still take precedence over people, despite many large urban centers adopting environment-friendly solutions to mobility. This is the powerful message Bogotá wants to communicate when it hosts next month Walk21 (short for Walking in the 21st century), a conference that aims to offer real solutions to the city as a people-first place.

As a pioneer in South America for its articulated mass-transit network TransMilenio, Sunday Ciclovía and over 500 kilometers of designated bicycle paths, Bogotá wants to keep its distinction as an innovative city for clean transportation and walkability.

Beginning October 15, and lasting four days, Walk21 will host 1,800 delegates from around the world. The program includes plenary sessions, “walkshops,” academic talks, and as to be expected, plenty of outdoor engagements.

The event has 250 keynote speakers from 40 countries ready to share their knowledge on far-ranging topics, from how to liberate congested urban areas to non-motorized activities, or a session on “Why do we walk?” that delves into what motivates people to move about on foot, rather than sit inside a car. The high-level plenary sessions will also discuss issues relating to social integration, policymaking, participative infrastructure, and tactical urbanism – umbrella term to describe short-term, low-cost, scalable interventions.

Walk21 comes to Bogotá at a time of pressing urban challenges for the conference’s host, mayor Enrique Peñalosa. As a city of more than nine million inhabitants must grapple with traffic congestion, deteriorating air quality, and contentious issues surrounding the proposed extension of TransMilenio, attendees will also get to see a city that takes great pride in socially inclusive culture, from a vibrant street art scene to the once derelict El Bronx as Colombia’s first Creative District.

As walkable cities must include the elderly, youngsters and those with dis- abilities, Walk21 will host a “Streets for Kids Walkshop” to foster discussion on how to design urban projects that are child-friendly. The walkshop “Citizenship Index of Walking” will be directed by the Brazilian organization SampaPé! that works to empower citizens and neighbourhood organizations to make cities more fun, humanized and pedestrian-friendly. Among other organizations attending this 19th edition are America Walks, Cómo Anda and the International Federation of Pedestrians.

Walk21 offers the general public a host of opportunities to learn from internationally renowned experts such as Skye Duncan and Fabrizio Prati of NACTO’s Global Designing Cities Initiative, Australian engineer and urban strategist Steven Burgess, and Daniel Sauter of the Measuring Walking Team. The event also provides an opportunity to step outside the conference room and see how research is being applied in the real world, and around the world.

Representing the international organizations that increasingly consider support for walking as a valuable and essential strategy to deal with contemporary urban challenges are Claudia Adriazola from the World Resources Institute and Carly Koinange of the UN Environment’s Share the Road Programme.

Despite a large proportion of populations in developing countries walking or cycling to their homes and work places, infrastructure remains largely inadequate, and priority is given in urban planning circles to political, rather than social interests. Ironically, as cities become more prosperous, mobility deteriorates, more money in an economy translates as more purchasing power. Bogotá is witnessing a huge transformation in the way people are moving around, including the inauguration in December of the first air-borne system of TransMilenio – the TransMiCable gondola. But despite strict measures to limit the number of cars circulating on our streets with the Pico y Placa license plate restriction, many homes still opt for a second car.

A younger generation, however, is seeing the benefit to a work-life balance that’s near impossible to achieve when dealing with a two-hour commute, a reality for many who work in the capital and live in the suburbs.

Being able to walk to one’s workplace is the best possible scenario for health and wallet. But, in order to encourage more time spent on the street rather than behind a wheel, cities must invest in sidewalks, lighting in public parks, and CCTV monitoring at bridges and intersections. Walk21 is a great opportunity to understand what can make cities more sustainable, but above all, it’s a conference of empowering people to build a sense of belonging. And Bogotá, for too long, has had a severe shortage of this.

The event is open to all with registration online. The profiles of guest speakers and complete schedule of events is available at: www.walk21.com