The battle for Bogotá
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The battle for Bogotá

Years ago, I took a five-hour walk through the heart of New York City, along Broadway. At Columbus Circle, where Broadway meets the green pastures of Central Park, I took a break, stretching out on a lawn, reading parts of the newspaper, people-watching and marveling at this incredible space of nature bordered by iconic landmarks and architecture. I remember thinking, what if? What if this had instead been given over to construction firms for luxury high-rises and condominiums?

Perhaps my musings regarding New York are a far-fetched example of what is currently taking place in Bogotá, but the fact is that one of the Colombian capital’s identifying natural features is in danger of becoming a brick-laden monument to the outrageous value of land per square meter in the most desirable sections of the city. At the same time, there’s a severe outbreak of NIMBY-ism (Not In My Back Yard) in response to a municipal plan to make Bogota more inclusive by providing affordable housing to the city’s most needy in upmarket areas.

Given that Colombia’s long-running conflict bears decades-old scars generated by the demand for the right – or lack of access — to land ownership and the oppressive practices of some of the country’s elites, it may come as no surprise that these issues are once more at the fore of discussions about Bogotá’s future.

I rejoice in the tall cerros (hills) that border the eastern edge of the Colombian capital. Visible from my office, for me they represent another opportunity to enjoy my version of the urban hike and the possibility of escaping the belching fumes of the city’s heavy traffic.

Just as I revel in taking my bicycle out on a Sunday during the ciclovía, I treasure my Saturday morning ascent of the Cerros Orientales. The hills are home to a maze of sign-posted pathways that allow hikers to enjoy a forested area of about 14,000 hectares, touching the city’s diverse regions and neighborhoods of Usaquén, Chapinero, Santafé, San Cristóbal and Usme. You can get almost anywhere up there, if you know how.

So different from Broadway, at times on the hike up the Quebrada de la Vieja, one can feel boxed in by the narrowness and perilously slippery ascent. On Saturday, though, good luck finding a moment of pure solitude on the trail, such is its popularity. I have seen students hiking off their guayabo (hangover), a former president trying to get in shape while appearing as if he might keel over and collapse at any instance, hard core trail runners, couples and of course the ubiquitous Bogotanas of a certain age sporting their distictive hairstyle.

In short, there’s a true cross section of Bogotá society to be found on a Saturday morning hiking up the Cerros Orientales. Surely, this is the ideal social panorama for a city in a state of flux, so long called “a city for everyone and no one,” seemingly in a constant search for a contemporary identity. One would think that this would be a solid — albeit radical — reason as to why Bogota’s long-suffering citizens voted in a former M19 guerrilla as mayor? Some might argue that the decision to elect the combative and pedantic Gustavo Petro to the country’s second most important position could be lauded as an overwhelming success for transitional justice, reconciliation and, indeed, forgiveness.

Read more: Bogotá and Buenos Aires mayors: Transformative, or just trouble?

Who would have thought then that these mountain slopes and the property that falls within their long shadows would be the battle lines mobilizing all sectors of Colombian society, from the wealthy elite to demobilized and reintegrated guerrilla members?

Development at odds

There are two plans drawn up, one given the misnomer of Cerro Verde due to the environmental damage that will be inflicted upon the mountains from a vast luxury development project that includes 16 residential towers containing more than 200 apartments and an estimated 120 townhouses, executed by the alarmingly named Megaterra firm.

The other, equally controversial but for completely different reasons, is Mayor Gustavo Petro’s POT (Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial), designed to create a socially inclusive and environmentally aware urban center where people of all social strata can coexist. Once again, class lines and land rights are at loggerheads in Colombia.

“The Eastern Mountains are to Bogotá what Central Park is to New York,” says journalist and Bogotá resident Jorge Bela Kindelan, “an essential place in a city with precious few green or high quality public areas. They were formerly off-limits due to a lack of security, but now, thanks to organizations like Amigos de la Montaña, these small areas such as the Quebrada la Vieja have been rescued.”

Looking ahead

From above the ills of Bogotá are distant, with freedom from the sound of car horns, buses careening along the Avenida Septima and the accelerated feel of city living. Yet one glance south brings home the stark reality of the city’s socioeconomic divide and the invasiones of Colombia’s displaced population, neighborhoods that look as if they were poured onto the hills, stretching out as far as the eye can see.

If one is to look at the reasons for creating a POT, the norms of which are designed to define the use of the land and outline protected areas, the overarching aim is to improve quality of life for city residents by offering opportunities and benefits through development. According to the POT, each citizen has the right to road access, parks, schools, hospitals and more. Perhaps most importantly, the POT states implicitly that land usage must be organized thinking of the common good, environmental sustainability and the preservation of Colombia’s heritage, both natural and otherwise.

So what includes the public’s best interest as a core value: a desire to renovate some of downtown Bogotá’s most ramshackle yet historic districts, improve collapsed transport links and provide access to basic needs like running water as well as protecting the environment or building luxury subdivisions on the city’s pine-clad Cerros Orientales?

Bogotá’s mayoral elections are set for 2015 and early commentary suggests that the struggle between the politics of exclusion versus elitism will once again be at the fore. The battle for ownership of the Cerros Orientales and the intricacies of the POT are just the beginning.

Photo: Shutterstock