In Paris, New York, and Mexico City, rich and poor alike escape the summer heat in city parks. But in many places in the developing world, open public spaces are as rare as stable democracies. That may be no accident. If it appears frivolous to write about public space in cities like Bogota, Delhi, and Lima, where poverty and squalor run rampant, consider that the government's subsidy of grass and concrete for pedestrians is a measure of its respect for human dignity and the democratic values.
Public spaces are where poor and rich meet as equals. If governments cannot level the playing field in a global economy, they can at least equalize the enjoyment of a city during leisure time. In the Third World, this means offering residents clean and plentiful public parks and keeping the sidewalks clear for pedestrians. While the latter is taken for granted in the developed world, sidewalks in Latin America are often akin to disputed territory. Pedestrians shouldn't have to compete with cars. City and government officials should ensure that parks and paved paths become as ubiquitous to a city's landcape as parking spaces.
As Mayor of Bogotá, I was almost impeached for insisting that pedestrians win this war with the automobile and commerce. Shop-owners and drivers complained that sidewalks should continue to be shared with parked cars, as they had been for years. We had to explain that although sidewalks live next to roads, they do not belong to the same family. Rather, sidewalks are close relatives of parks and plazas.
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