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June 16-18 | 2021

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  /  Built Environment & Architecture   /  Making Cities Work for Everyone

Making Cities Work for Everyone

Ask Gil Penalosa – one of our most enthusiastic speakers at UFGC’18 – what it takes to be a CityChanger and he is quick to observe it’s not just about great ideas.

“I tell mayors and decision makers that if they want to change things for the better, it’s also about having a sense of urgency. But it has to be both. Some city leaders have vision but they don’t have action. And with some cities it’s the other way around, they have action, but no vision.”

That pretty much sums up the mandate of 8 80 Cities, the Toronto based non-profit organization founded by Penalosa, which has worked with over 300 communities around the world with the common goal of creating healthier, more vibrant cities.

The 8 80 Cities name is tied to the concept that communities should be built around the needs of everyone, whether rich or poor, eight or 80 years old. To accomplish that, Penalosa observes “you have to look after the city’s most vulnerable citizens. The children, older adults and the poor.” And that means doing everything from making cities more walkable and bike friendly, to promoting and making better use of transit, parks and other public spaces.

Prior to emigrating to Toronto and establishing 8 80 Cities, Penalosa was the public commissioner in charge of parks and recreation in Bogota, Columbia. His accomplishments included fast-tracking the creation of 220 parks; and based at least in part on that experience, he’s convinced that cities need to not only embrace parks, but ensure they have parks of varying sizes. “People need smaller, local parks where they build a sense of belonging. But they also need medium size parks to go play soccer and larger parks where there’s an opportunity to do such things as go canoeing.” But even more important than the size of the parks or their amenities observes Penalosa, is for cities to ensure they are creating public spaces that encourage people to connect.

Under Penalosa’s direction, 8 80 Cities has been involved in hundreds of community improvement initiatives around the world. Initiatives that have varied from workshops and presentations in cities such as Detroit, that focussed on ways to improve mobility and create more vibrant public spaces… to taking city employees and business leaders on study tours to places such as Copenhagen. The common thread of all these 8 80 Cities initiatives, has been to educate and empower communities on how to become healthier and more vibrant.

“People go to parks and public spaces, so they can walk, bike, run or skate, but more than anything, people enjoy the presence of each other. And when you have places like that, all of a sudden you can end up having a guy who works for a Fortune 500 company sharing the same space as someone who might be working for minimum wage.”

Penalosa believes the key for any city that wants to improve, is to look at what other cities of comparable size are doing well. “If you compare a major city like Toronto to cities that aren’t doing as well, you can come up with a list of 1,000 cities in just 10 minutes. So, for Toronto, they need to look at what bigger, more successful cities are doing. Maybe what Copenhagen is doing to promote cycling. Or what Melbourne has done to improve air quality.”

Penalosa’s ongoing sense of urgency is tied to the fact that he feels now more than ever, cities need to begin making substantial changes in anticipation of the reality that the world’s urban population is expected to double by 2050. “If you look at what we’ve done over the last 30 years, if we had been doing a good job, then it would simply be a case of saying let’s do more of the same. But the reality is that what we’ve been doing in cities the last 30 years has been horrible. We’ve been building cities based more on cars than people’s happiness. And it’s totally unsustainable both environmentally and financially. We need to do much better.”

Fortunately for communities that do want to do better, they have individuals such as Penalosa and organizations like 8 80 Cities to turn to



Everyone can live more sustainably by being the change that you want the world to be. By being more consistent with what we think, say and do.
Every city should have a law of two words: pedestrians first.
I am an enthusiastic proponent of cities for all people, with a strong emphasis on helping the most vulnerable.
Looking back, what has been the most exciting accomplishment for me, has been raising awareness in over 300 cities that the way you measure success, is how well you treat the children, older adults and the poor.
Looking forward, I want to put all my energy and capacity into continuing to do more of the same.




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