- Learning from Bogotá: Pedagogical Urbanism and the Reshaping of Public Space by Rachel Berney
Learning from Bogotá: Pedagogical Urbanism and the Reshaping of Public Space.
Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2017. xiv + 174. Maps, photographs, illustrations, notes, references, index. $40.00 cloth (ISBN 978-1-4773-1104-2).
For some time, geographers have noted important global trends in urban development. These trends include the increasing importance of the scale of the city as a space of governance, the intensifying urbanization of the Global South, and the increasingly rapid international circulation of urban policy models. Rachel Berney’s Learning from Bogotá is situated at the intersection of these three trends. Berney sets out to explain what happened in the Colombian capital going back to the mid-1990s to make it a globally-referenced model of urban governance today. Writing mainly for an urban planning audience, Berney positions the book at “the intersection between design, public policy and urban studies” (p. xii), thus combining considerations of planning and design with analysis of policy goals and principles, as well as socio-historical context. Learning from Bogotá focuses on public space, which Berney positions as crucial for the city’s transformation. By approaching this transformation as a political process, the book is a welcome departure from scholarship that frames public space planning as just a series of technical interventions. While Learning from Bogotá helps us understand the political nature and contradictions of Bogotá’s urban planning process, the book is often too centered on celebrating the achievements of particular mayors, losing sight of the larger political context.
The book focuses on the years between the mid-1990s and early 2000s, with Enrique Peñalosa and Antanas Mockus—”the public space mayors,” as Berney calls them—playing the leading roles. She follows their interventions in public spaces by analyzing a series of projects illustrative of the mayors’ overall approach to public spaces. Berney argues that these “public space” administrations advanced a set of principles that give political coherence to their interventions. She uses the concept of “pedagogical urbanism” to understand their approach. While this concept is not formally defined in the book, Berney suggests that what sets the public space mayors apart is how they highlighted public space as key for social interaction as well as a policy instrument. Public space is pedagogical as citizens learn about each other and internalize messages from the local state about proper behavior. The book argues that [End Page 217] pedagogical urbanism in Bogotá also serves to showcase governmental competency and bolster civic pride about a beautiful, functioning city.
In the first chapter, Berney describes a pre-1990s dystopian scenario that sets up Bogotá’s subsequent transformation. Berney does well in the first and third chapters to contextualize Bogotá’s story but rarely departs from the celebratory trope of a city rescued from despair and mismanagement by effective, efficient, and visionary leaders. In this way, she runs the risk of presenting a teleological story that exaggerates the difficulties leading to an inevitable crisis, which is then solved by the fateful intervention of the public space mayors.
The emphasis on the visionary “super-mayor” and the inspired designer is much more prevalent in architectural and urban planning literatures. But this does not make it any less frustrating for geographers. Learning from Bogotá promises to frame design or planning interventions as part of a larger political project. However, the argument advanced in chapter 2 implies that the success of the public space mayors was to be found in their independence from political party structures. In highlighting mayoral detachment from politics, the book seems to endorse a type of technocratic intervention inspired by the leaders’ “moral authority … vision, sense of responsibility [and] skills” (p. 139). In stressing this story, these chapters distract from the goal of clearly delineating and critically assessing the substance of Bogotá’s “pedagogical urbanism” and its concrete effects on the ground. Indeed, an opportunity is lost to assess the political nature of the public space mayors’ purported technocratic independence. In fact, such characterization of Bogotá’s public space mayors, and Peñalosa in particular, is misleading at best. Pe...