Our imagined ‘atmospheres’

View of the Catedral Primada of Bogotá.
View of the Catedral Primada of Bogotá.

With eight million inhabitants, Bogotá’s status continues to grow from an Andean capital to global metropolis, admired by international entities for being able to move more than two million people each day along its articulated mass transit bus system, and with an offering of parks and cultural activities. But what differentiates cities, aren’t so much buildings and spaces, but the inner landscape of its peoples, their habits and traditions. Sociologist, Armando Silva, studies people and how they relate to specific spaces, and express themselves in relation to cultural trends.

The professor of sociology at Los Andes University and respected columnist’s most recent book is entitled ‘Atmósferas ciudadanas’ and studies the graffiti movement from its early street days, to more contemporary manifestations of social opinion and political commentary.

According to Silva, there is a “territorial” element to living in a metropolis; an invisible “emotional” connection to specific places which, in turn, trigger memories of certain episodes in one’s life. “Atmosphere is urban and relates to how you live the city,” states Silva. Hence, the sociologist claims, that many of the decisions we make everyday regarding how we go about the city, are based on past experiences with these ephemeral “atmospheres.” Take a bad experience with a mugging, as an example. Long after you have moved on from the experience, you harbor a negative interpretation of that space, and most likely, will avoid that specific street, in the future.

The same theory applies for our positive memories. We are more likely to revisit a specific “atmosphere,” if pining for a lost love, or associate it with a rewarding, personal life episode. The city generates these “atmospheres” constantly believes Silva, and whose most recognized work, Urban Imaginaries (Imaginarios Urbanos) delves into the collective psyche of those who inhabit a city. His studies of urban trends has won him prestigious awards and has been replicated by sociologists studying other cities, such as New York, London and Delhi.

According to Silva, Bogotá is a city rife with street aesthetics and connections to symbols rooted in the past. While there is a popular perception that Bogotá is a “cold” and “rainy” place (populated by ruana-wearing campesinos and cachacos sipping scotch in private clubs), the reality is more often than not, different. Bogotanos have taken to the seasons, dressing for summer and winter, despite the fact, that everyday the capital experiences a similar climate.

For the researcher, Bogotá embodies an ‘E-R’ (exists in reality) and ‘E-I’ (exists in the imaginary) theory. Take the city’s centro, as an example: Bogotanos have a perception that crime tends to occur more frequently downtown, than in other parts of the city. Statistics have shown that as a result of policing, neighborhoods such as Santa Fe and Ciudad Bolivar may not be as threatening – or dangerous – as taking a taxi near the 93 Park. Former mayor Antanas Mockus, during his first term worked closely with Silva and his investigations to devise a security plan for the capital and which would restore confidence among the public, based upon founded( and unfounded), fears.

A recent report sponsored by Bogotá’s Chamber of Commerce titled Encuesta de Percepción de Inseguridad y Victimización (Perception of Insecurity and Victimization), revealed that Bogotanos perceive that insecurity is worse on public transport (55 %), followed by the streets (45 %)  and parks (43 %).

While Mockus took back the streets, Peñalosa converted broken sidewalks into bicycle paths and the Caracas Avenue, considered one of the most dangerous in the city, into a major corridor of TransMilenio. The public transport network helped change a perception of insecurity given the massive numbers of passengers who assued the daily commute. For the 10,000 polled for the CCB’s study, 83% now consider TransMilenio to be an unsafe method of public transport, despite efforts of the corporation to boost police presence at stations.

And despite the prevalence of cars in the city, Bogotá was a pioneer back in 1976 when it first started closing roads on Sundays for pedestrians and bicycles. Today, Bogotá counts with over 121 kilometres of Cicloruta and an “eco” institution which has been copied in other world capitals. Even measures, which generated mistrust among Bogotanos, such as the Pico y Placa license plate restriction, will be put into place, next year, in Madrid.

So while negative perceptions may be hard to shake off, Bogotá, has made important strides to position itself as a world-class city, welcoming to outsiders and with a cultural engine in full gear. While congestion today is the norm, we must learn how to deal with space, and the appreciate the “atmospheres” which surround us.




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