Penalosa passionate about improving quality of life


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Gil Penalosa, former Commissioner of Parks, Sport and Recreation in Bogota, Columbia, brought his passion for improving quality of life to Grey Bruce Health Unit and Counties on Wednesday [January 19].

Politicians, public health officials and town and county planners gathered together to hear the ideas of guest speaker, Gil Penalosa.

A social marketing strategist with an MBA from  UCLA's Management School, he is passionate about walking and cycling and parks, trails and public spaces to foster healthier communities.

Penalosa has helped design more than 200 parks and the unique concept, 'car-free Sundays' in many cities throughout North and South Americas.

As Executive Director of the Canada-based non-profit, '8-80 Cities' (formerly 'Walk & Bike for Life'), he has traveled across Canada and the United States to further the concept of 8-80.  "Communities have to ask themselves ... is a community with its parks safe for an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old?  It has to answer both.

In his presentations and workshops on creating better communities, Penalosa demonstrates the strong linkages of walking and bicycling with parks and trails with a view to improving personal and public health, enhancing the transportation systems, providing recreation for all, a cleaner environment while also advancing economic development.

He also works as senior consultant for the renowned Danish firm Gehl Architects and as senior advisor to its International Sport and  Culture. Penalosa also serves on the Boards of Directors of American Trails, City Parks Alliance and Ciclovias Recreativas of the Americas.

'Ciclovias Recreativas' is the concept that has introduced 'car-free Sundays' throughout the world, including cities such as  San Francisco, New York, Mexico City, Chicago, and Winnipeg in Canada.  The idea closes  main streets to vehicular traffic and promotes pedestrian-only.  The concept has proved so successful that more countries throughout the world are adopting it.  Each city that has initiated the program has seen an increase in their downtown traffic and economic development.

"We have to design streets for human beings," says Penalosa. "We live in a globalized world where people can work anywhere they want to or retire anywhere they want to.  People want to live in areas that offer the best possible quality of life ... schools, hospitals, recreational facilities, etc.  If you want to attract people and build your economy, then you have to offer all these things."

"I think he is so right," says Jayne Jagelewski, Acting Director of Community Services for Saugeen Shores.  "Some things that are not expensive can be implemented and are easy to do. I think the car-free Sundays is an excellent idea .  I know that some people find change difficult but we can start with small steps.  I think that our new shoreline bike trail and new accessibility playground are two initiatives that may start people thinking in new ways."


One of the major faults of communities, according to Penalosa, is that they are locating large educational and recreational facilities in locations that can be accessed only by car. 

"We are concentrating facilities such as schools and arenas in areas where young people cannot simply walk or cycle to them.  In European countries, governments are moving in the opposite direction and, given our North American obesity and lack of physical activities for young people, we are falling behind other countries in the world."

According to Penalosa, there are key questions that have to be answered by politicians and leaders of communities:

  • How do we want to live

  • What role do streets play in life

  • Do we want to employ outside 'experts' or ask for the expertise within our own communities

  • It is not just about money, it is about leadership

  • What  makes parks great

  • How do we make changes in our way of thinking

"We also have to look at our streets and communities and try to decide through community partnerships what is good for humanity," said Penalosa.  "It isn't about maintenance in our parks, it's about social management.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011