10 tough questions city expert Gil Penalosa posed to Charlotte leaders during breakfast

10 tough questions city expert Gil Penalosa posed to Charlotte leaders during breakfast
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Gil Penalosa is the executive director of Toronto’s 8-80 Cities and the world-renowned former commissioner of parks, sport and recreation in Bogota, Colombia. Gil consults with city leaders around the world on “how to create vibrant cities and healthy communities for everyone regardless of social, economic, or ethnic background.” He gave a Ted Talk with 10,000+ views, so you know he’s legit.

As city leaders ate french toast sticks (delicious by the way), Gil dropped some serious city knowledge.

I go to a good amount of these talks in Charlotte and I can honestly tell you that this one felt different – I think Charlotte’s yearning for a strong vision grounded in experience.


Another thing that I loved about this Knight Foundation Leadership Breakfast was the mix of city leaders in the audience – establishment like Hyong Yi, Susan Patterson, Michael Smith, David Howard AND emerging leaders like Johnny Wakefield, Amy Chiou, Varian Shrum and David Jessup.

Also, Johnny was wearing a straight brim Hornets cap – loved seeing this amongst the Charlotte suits.


Here are 9 questions Gil posed to the captivated audience…

(Note: Gil’s thoughts are paraphrased and not exact, but you’ll get the point)

(1) How do you want to live?

Gil’s thoughts: As a city, you need clarity on this and a shared vision. If not, you’ll waste a lot of energy.

My personal reflection: Geez, I was just thinking about the last time I had a french toast stick and now this guy is making me think about some heavy stuff, where’s the coffee…

(2) What % of income do you want our citizens to spend on mobility?

Gil’s thoughts: People spend roughly 25% of their income on mobility (cars, etc). Walkable cities and public transportation are economic issues.

My personal reflection: My wife and I each own Toyota 4Runners. I’d love for our family to have one car (no car just feels unrealistic). Paying for a car, insurance, gas, etc., stinks. Will this ever happen?

(3) How do you get rich people to use public transportation?

Gil’s thoughts: We’d have a more elegant system if decision makers rode public transit everyday. Charlotte hasn’t done enough for their public transportation system until you see rich people riding public transit.

My personal reflection: I think this is an elephant in the room.


(4) Is bike sharing good?

Gil’s thoughts: Sure, bike sharing makes you guys feel good – but, it’s like investing in a saddle before you have a horse. Only 1 percent of your population rides bikes – in a city like Copenhagen, it’s 45 percent. You need to think about lowering speed limits (go down to 20 mph around all neighborhoods) and creating a physical separation for bike lanes (not just a line). If people don’t feel safe, they’re not going to bike. You need a “Minimum Bicycle Grid.”

My personal reflection: I don’t bike because (a) it seems dangerous and (b) it seems logistically difficult to decide how to secure my bike at different locations. Thinking about my son biking around the city makes me incredibly uncomfortable.

(5) Will Charlotteans be able to age in place?

Gil’s thoughts: Charlotte currently has 90,000 people over the age of 65 and this number will grow to 204,000 by 2030 (126 percent growth). It’s an important part of your city’s population. You need to stop designing city’s for healthy, athletic 30-year-olds. How we treat our most vulnerable citizens (children and old people) defines a city’s greatness.

My personal reflection: I can only remember one time in the past six months that I had a meaningful conversation with somebody over the age of 65. It was at Christ Church Parish Day as I ate fried chicken at a picnic table – we talked about the history of Christ Church and why they still live in Plaza Midwood (great conversation). To be honest, I rarely even encounter anybody over the age of 65 unless I’m at a grocery store. Weird.

(5) Is it a street or is it a public space?

Gil’s thoughts: The answer is not more streets or more lanes on your streets. Why doesn’t Charlotte shut down streets more often? Look at the transformation of Madison Square Garden. It takes political courage, but it’s the right thing to do. Streets are our biggest shared public spaces and occupy 15 percent to 25 percent of cities – why use them 24/7 for cars?

My personal reflection: I had never considered streets as “public spaces” and had always considered them as “places to drive cars.” Interesting. Maybe Camden Road (street with Price’s Chicken Coop in South End) and certain parts of Uptown should be walking only (no cars). Seriously.


(6) How important are your sidewalks and bike lanes?

Gil’s thoughts: Nothing is as sacred as a sidewalk. It’s a signal of democracy. We need to dignify pedestrians and cyclists. Also, walking is how we were created – birds fly, fish swim and humans walk. You need to make it safe for people to have individual mobility.

My personal reflection: I had never though of sidewalks like this.


(7) Do you really understand why parks are so important?

Gil’s thoughts: Parks are where people meet their neighbors. This creates a community so that neighbors are there for each other. Parks give humans a sense of belonging and it’s a rare opportunity to go meet people as equals. Also, you need to rethink playgrounds. Every child should have a park or play area within 1/4 of a mile of their house by 2020. Children need to play.

My personal reflection: I want this for my son. Gil’s point about parks being class-blind also fascinated me.

(8) As Charlotte grows, will you choose quality over quantity?

Gil’s thoughts: In a globalized world, the best people can live anywhere. What do the most talented people in the world want in their hometown city? Are you going to get other city’s leftovers or will you design a city that can attract and retain the world’s most talented people?

My personal reflection: Raleigh and Atlanta can have our city’s leftovers.

(9) How can your city learn more from old people?

Gil’s thoughts: Biggest wasted resource is your 65+ population. They’re not dead yet, yet you likely treat them as such. They’re a smart, fantastic resource. You need to be thinking about city programing where they can share their wisdom.

My personal reflection: I need to be around old people more. Why is it that I’m not?

(10) Why do you not like buses?

Gil’s thoughts: Buses are the most cost effective way to transport people. By far. You need to embrace them – some cities are even painting their buses to look like rail for marketing purposes. You should be thinking about dedicated bus lanes as 40 people on a bus should have 40x the rights of a single person in a car.

My personal reflection: I don’t know enough about buses. Media is important and I think about the coverage we give to the trolley situation and the lack of coverage we give to buses.

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