From plazas to parques, Latin American settlements hold the key to her people’s once inexplicable happiness. What can we learn from this?
Plaza Bolivar, Pereira, Colombia (c)Fiyin Kolawole, Sept. 2016

Sit down, breathe deep, close your eyes and take a trip to an Utopian city somewhere on the face of the earth. The bus ride into the city makes you feel like you are floating in the air- mountains stand in ovation to bid you welcome home. The birds sing the city’s anthem in green astute trees. The palms are as straight as lines drawn by God.You look around and can’t but think- is this heaven already? You look down and realise the streets aren’t made of gold. Instead of angels with halos and harps flying around, pigeons and other birds ride with the cloud up above. Unlike the golden city, the sun and the moon are the light down here- and man-made electric street lights too.

Beyond the trump that welcomes you here, you take a walk into the city centre- just one of them, you’ll soon realise. The city is built as though around leisure. Parks and squares and green and open space- to your carnal mind- this is potential for development.

Until you watch her people come walking- sitting, standing, playing, singing, dancing, talking. As though they had nothing to do. Rather, sinking-in the air that the grasses give, watching the dynamics of their own city, feeding on the stillness of being still- as cattle grazing on green pastures by distilled rivers- enjoying the free as much as the unleashed dogs taking a walk in the park.

Call me biased, but a graduate of urban planning can find no other reason why Colombia consistently remains around the top of the Top 10 countries to visit, and most happiest countries of the world; than the way the settlements are organised. While her cities are not as perfect as the Utopian city you imagined, I’d say they are really close. If crime, theft and drugs are purged out, they’ll be nothing short of Utopia.

From plazas to parques, Latin American settlements hold the key to her people’s once inexplicable happiness. Here listed are 6 things I didn’t learn from studying Urban and Regional Planning for 5 years; but learnt from 11 months of living in Colombia.

Medellin is trying to creat a culture around the ‘Metro’ train system
  1. Theme, Theme, Theme: Coffee, metro, business, butterflies, flowers, beaches, arts, salsa, jungles, universities- you name it. Every city seems to have a theme, an image- better still- a brand. Something they are known for and something around which each element of the city is built. Take Armenia- the city is built around the culture of coffee, jeep Wiley, farming and the folkloric stuff associated with them. Medellin- providing 11% of the economy of Colombia– is known for both business and the Integrated Transport System surrounding the Metro. Urban Planners in Africa and elsewhere need to realise that if our cities will make sense, the ‘why’ is more important than the ‘what’.

Urban Planners in Africa and elsewhere need to realise that if our cities will make sense, the ‘why’ is more important than the ‘what’.

2. Music, Arts and Culture: Taking a walk in a typical parque in Colombia, it is unusual not to see a band playing- an old man singing and his wife dancing, a group of veterans striking the strings or some young men showing their skills. Music fills everywhere- if the birds aren’t singing, why shouldn’t the men? Just a minute walk from there, an artist makes an impression- on paper, wood clothe or you! The beauty of deliberately designed open spaces is a magnet that the people cannot resist. Their cultural respect for music and arts makes the scene even more beautiful. Dear Urban Planner, open spaces aren’t what you think of when there’s a badly shaped plot of land unfit for residential use; Open Spaces should indeed be at the centre of Urban Design. They should be the source of the pull force to a better life.

Dear Urban Planner, open spaces aren’t what you think of when there’s a badly shaped plot of land unfit for residential use; Open Spaces should indeed be at the centre of Urban Design. They should be the source of the pull forces to a better life.

3. Skill, Knowledge and Education: Real cities take advantage of a natural phenomenon- in every society, there are only 3 group of people who can really rise from zero to hero- the skilled, the knowledgeable and the educated. This theme is a little bit controversial as modern schooling could make the line between skill, knowledge and education; thinner than a spider’s web. Basically, Skill is the ability to do something, Knowledge is the possession of information and Education is a training on the use of knowledge. It is an age-long axiom that “a man’s gift makes room for him and brings him before the great” (Proverbs 18:16).

in every society, there are only 3 group of people who can really rise from zero to hero- the skilled, the knowledgeable and the educated.

Skill is the ability to do something, Knowledge is the possession of information and Education is a training on the use of knowledge

It is true what World Economic Forum pointed out- that the future of work will be based on things relating to skill, knowledge and education. The question is- can the goals outlined by the UnitedNations get us to Utopia or are they mere pawns in the game of global power balance?

…Read Part 2 here

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