Ottawa Moves – part 1/3 – Gil Peñolosa: 8-80 cities

a screenshot of 8-80cities website
Reading Time: 4 minutes
a screenshot of 8-80cities website

On November 2 and 3, the City of Ottawa organised a two day series of speakers and work shop on DOMO, the Downtown Ottawa Mobility Overlay. As DOMO is a bit of non-descriptive acronym, it is now called “Downtown Moves”. And moving it will. With the new Light Rail eventually in place, thousands of people will appear above ground at the same time, only to find three feet side walks in many places. It is hard to believe that a complete tunnel and underground track, including stations, will be ready before the 150th anniversary of Canada in 2017, when turning a traffic circle into a roundabout at Prince of Wales takes about four months.

Nelson Edwards, a very amicable City of Ottawa employee who works in the community planning and urban design department of our city, was in charge of the two days. He invited no less than three speakers to inspire city staff, the public and the city councillors to think about 21st century solutions for a 19th century downtown.

Gil Peñolosa – 8-80 Cities

First out on November 2 was Gil Peñolosa. Gil is the executive director of Toronto based 8-80 cities, a non-profit organisation (which used to be called “Walk and Bike for Life”) with a goal:

to contribute to the creation of vibrant cities and healthy communities, where residents live happier and enjoy great public places. We promote walking and bicycling as activities and urban parks, trails and public spaces as a way to fulfill our goal.

Gil markets himself as a “liveable city advisor and social marketing strategist” and as “Inspirational Keynotes and Consulting”. 8-80cities partners are Guadalajara, International Sports and Culture Association, Project for Public Spaces, W.H.O., American Trails, American City Parks, Gehl Architects and Alta Planning. The only Canadian partners appear to be the Ontario Ministry of Health and Green Communities.

I have heard Gil speaking before. He gives a meticulously well timed rapid fire presentation, laced with no less than about 300 PowerPoint slides in 1 hour and 15 minutes with examples from all over the world. Gil must have done this hundreds of times as his words match his slides down to the second; I admire him for staying so excited. He appears to fly all over the world as an inspirational speaker, and this time he just returned from Australia.

To drive his message home, Gil uses the EARTH acronym, where E =Environment, A = (economic) Activity, R=Recreation, T=Transportation and H=Health. He talks about climate change, transporation and pollution, our car based society, the need for people in public space, bicycling and walking for everybody, leadership and vision and many other aspects of life that we should change in order to keep our cities liveable. Gil brings back wonderful examples of what cities have been doing over the last 20-30 years. But…

Two hats

…what is never really clear to me is which hat Gil is wearing. He shows lots of images from all over the world: Australia, Korea, Vietnam, Mexico, US, France, Columbia and Denmark to name but a few, but fails to mention the number one cycling country in the world: the Netherlands, which is an omission that shouldn’t happen. Copenhagen is brought forward in a special part of his presentation, as a great example (which it is) but Gil is also a senior advisor of Gehl architects, a Danish architecture firm in Copenhagen (which he doesn’t hide by the way).

Sitting in the public, I don’t know if I am listening to Gil the non-profit executive director who should show an objective view of what is going on in the world of walking and cycling and public space, or Gil the sales rep, who is getting business in for Copenhagen based Gehl architects by showing great Danish examples and being paid by local governments to come and talk. That is a bit unfortunate, as he has a good message. In my own presentations, I find that local Canadian examples resonate more than ideas from the other side of the planet.

Working on different continents, 8-80 Cities and Gehl Architects are united by a simple and shared idea about public places –places should be built for people. If you are interested in a project in your community, you should take a look at Make a Place for People. The community chips in as well as 8-80 cities, Gehl and the Ministry of Health of Ontario.

More examples

If Gil is talking as 8-80 cities, I would have liked to see much more examples of his work in Ontario. Gil barely touches on the improvements (how does council react, are there ideas that are implemented, how was the public response, how do planners accept his ideas?) that 8-80 cities has worked on, so in that sense the talk was a bit disappointing for those who are a bit more involved in this topic already, know the Denmark, Portland, New York stories and expected an 8-80 cities talk. Those who heard Gil for the first time did enjoy it.

At home I checked what 8-80 cities actually does and discovered 33 studies, which are hard to find on the site. There is some interesting material on the website that he really should talk about too and advertise all over the home page of his web site. It is a bit too much Gil on the home page currently. Interesting, that under the heading ‘cycling’ the San Francisco Bay cycling association is mentioned, but not our own Ottawa CfSC or Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition. The website needs a bit of a refresh I am afraid.

UPDATE: In June 2012 the organisation redesigned the website. It looks a lot better now with projects, services and videos on the front page. The stuff that you really want to know.

I won’t summarise his talk, as it is simply a lot he touches on, but here is Gil’s speech in Vancouver in 2008, which carries the same message. There was not much Ottawa related content, someone mentioned afterwards, but with so much travelling across the planet, one has to standardise one’s talk a bit.

Everything is related to everything

Gil concludes his talk in Ottawa that: “everything is related to everything”. Who can disagree with that? OK, that is not fair, he also told us that you need leaders with a vision and do-ers, who take the bull by the horn and get things going. In Gil’s words: “We need hundreds and hundreds of Janette Sadik-Kahns“, which segways neatly into the next speaker, as Janette is a Commissioner at DOT in New York and the next speaker’s boss.

Next blog on Ottawa Moves later in the week, with Andrew Wiley-Schwarz from NY, NY.

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  1. NCC evening: of Post-It Notes and Tapestries « Urban Commuter – Ottawa's Bike Blog
  2. Ottawa Moves – part 3/3 – Ken Greenberg « Urban Commuter – Ottawa's Bike Blog

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