Cities, at least in the global South, seem to share something with adolescents; the potential for transformation is real and it drives a profound sense of power and ownership. However, very much like in our teenage years, change is only long-lasting if enough discipline and commitment are in place over the years.
I am currently visiting Bogota where I spent my childhood and early teenage years. As it happens, every time I visit I am faced with many of the unresolved issues from back then. This time around, I am also finding the city is still struggling with some of its own adolescence issues.
I was in my teens when the concept of a “citizenship culture” was born. It was a programme the then mayor of Bogota, Antanas Mockus, had created in his mission to inspire Bogota’s citizens to respect and own their city by challenging themselves to be “better citizens”. This included a large number of mimes at traffic intersections showing people how to safely and respectfully follow traffic signs; the symbolism of painted stars on streets in memory of those who perished in traffic crashes; voluntary curfews to keep people safe at night and the endless number of TV commercials in which Mockus demonstrated ways to safe water and electricity.
Twenty years later, the programme is returning, with Mockus as an adviser to the incumbent mayor. As I read the news in a recent article, my heart skipped a beat. The memories I carry from those years are tainted by the inconspicuous violence and conflict of the 1980s and 1990s; but a sense of comic relief and imagination also permeate the remembrance of those years. So much so that for the past few years the concept of the “super citizen” has inspired some of my own work in Cape Town (check out Streetiquette for instance).
The newspaper article seemed indeed good news; but it also raised an important question: does the return of this programme illustrate its failure 20 years ago? If, as many of us believe, citizenship culture became embedded in the minds and behaviours of most Bogota residents, why are people littering and disobeying traffic signals these days? Are the endless traffic jams a signal of the city’s failure to provide a real choice with public transport or people’s return to a “bad” citizenship culture? Does the current state of affairs illustrate people simply can’t change? And can we expect such a programme to have a different result this time around?
My mind returns to adolescence and the habits we acquire at that age which don’t always last, luckily in some cases, but unfortunately in others; notice our diminished sense of adventure and hope for the future. Unless of course, we continue to feed those ideas well into adulthood and make a sustained habit of them. In my experience, those who continue to travel for instance, tend to manage situations that require new adjustments better than those who don’t and also seem more open to accepting new ways of living. They are likely to show their children a similar way of living by providing them exposure to other parts of the world but unless their children take up travel on their own when they grow up that “culture” will simply not be passed on. Similarly, interventions of social nature require sustained implementation. The mimes who attempted to teach better manners on the street may have influenced a large number of people but the impact may not have surpassed the generation gap; and so it’s time to inject the populace with a new dose of imagination and hope.
This idea of teaching people or showing a way of being better citizens is a type of “tactical urbanism” for the minds. Rather than enforcing laws, deploying policing forces and using coercion to effect change, which can not only be expensive but also less likely to be accepted; local government can engage people through interactive, fun and positive activities. This approach is not only “lighter, quicker and cheaper”, similar to our most impressionable years, the latter is certainly more likely to make a dent in behaviour.
Bogota had a good run for its money 20 years ago and it is now embarking on a second mission to relive some of those successful initiatives. I suspect a lot of people will be able to connect the dots and reignite those early ideals of optimism and hope. Perhaps it will be a bit like returning to the city symbolically, as in the way that I have returned. If in that process people are able to reignite some of the magic of that programme, it might be like picking up where we left off. Hopefully, in that process those who are younger can have enough exposure to a new way of living that they will make it into their own habit and as they grow will ensure the habit is sustained and not implemented as a once-off policy.