Seven pearls of wisdom from the man who knows how to create a great city for all

Last month, we were honored to bring Gil Penalosa, pioneer of the “open streets” movement to Tucson, just days before our 14th Cyclovia Tucson event. Over the course of two days, Gil shared his vision for creating great cities with a variety of audiences, including his main event, a free talk at The Rialto Theatre entitled From Complete Streets to Thriving Communities: An Evening with Gil Penalosa. (If you missed it, you can watch a recording of it here.)

So what makes a great city? According to Gil it’s simple: a great city is one where you sleep inside, but you want to live outside. In other words, public life and public space is so welcoming and delightful that everyone wants to be in it during their waking hours. Seems simple right?!?

As it turns out, creating a great city is not easy, but it IS doable. Here are some of the takeaways from his talk that we should all keep in mind as we strive to become a great Tucson:

  1. Change is hard. Everywhere. Great cities didn’t get to where they are without effort. It’s hard to change in every city in the world; what made those cities great is that leaders there made the decision to change for the better, and stuck with it, even when that meant doing things that were challenging and different.
  2. Change is not unanimous. Instead, the common good should prevail over the particular interest. If something is going to be healthier for the whole community, it should take priority over a particular interest.
  3. When you say “no” to something, you say “yes” to something else. This is especially important because there are so many hidden costs to decisions. We need to commit as a community to always examine the trade-offs of public decisions. We need to make sure that if we’re saying “no” to housing density, we’re saying “yes” to sprawl, or that if we say “no” to a bike lane on our street, we’re saying “yes” to air pollution.
  4. Creating a great city is not a technical or financial issue; it’s an issue of political will. We need to put our money where our mouths are. There is no shortage of money; there is a lack of political will to bring it into alignment with our values and vision for our community. This is key.
  5. We need to stop building our cities as if everyone was 30 years old and athletic. Many people can’t afford to drive, others don’t want to drive. Some people are too young to drive, others are too old to drive. We need to create our public spaces – our streets – in a way that makes it possible for people of all ages to live their daily lives fully, at all stages of their lives. This is more than just assuring that they can get to where they need to go safely; it’s about creating street life so that people have spaces for spontaneous social interaction right outside their front door.
  6. Think of an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old that you love; build the city for them. “8-80” was the overarching theme of Gil’s presentations. The concept is simple, if an 8-year-old can’t safely do something as simple as get an ice cream down the street, by themselves, then our city is failing them. If an 80-year-old has to be on the defense to get across the street safely, our city is failing them. If we’re keeping them in mind as we develop and build our city, they and everyone else (of all ages) will benefit.
  7. We must be guardian angels of the gentle majority. Everyone uses the city, but very few voices/opinions actually go into designing and planning for it. This is partially due to the fact that not everyone has time to attend public meetings, even if they want to; some people have more privilege than others. We need to constantly be thinking of the needs and voices of youth and children when making decisions; of the single parents who don’t have the bandwidth to weigh in because they’re working 2-3 jobs to make ends meet. We need to be vigilant about bringing their voice and their needs to the table.


Thank you again to the wonderful partners and sponsors who helped make his visit possible:

AARP Arizona
American Society of Landscape Architects (Southern Arizona Chapter)
Psomas Engineering
Tucson Medical Center
Technicians for Sustainability
The Rialto Theatre
Zocalo Magazine
National Institute for Transportation & Communities
YMCA of Southern Arizona
City of Tucson Department of Transportation
Wheat Design Group
UofA College of Architecture, Planning & Landscape Architecture

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