Gil PenalosaLast year’s City Center Series, presented by the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs, was such a success, it’s returning this month and will run through April.

Gil Penalosa will kick off the series Jan. 24 at the Richard F. Celeste Theater, Edith Kinney Gaylord Cornerstone Arts Center at Colorado College, 825 N. Cascade Ave. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the presentation will begin at 6 p.m.

“Our kickoff event is a real coup for Colorado Springs,” said Claire Swinford, urban engagement manager with the Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs. “Gil Penalosa is an internationally-sought-after speaker on urban design, and he brings such a wealth of experience from his time as parks administrator for the city of Bogota, Colombia and his later work as founder of the nonprofit 8 80 Cities. He illustrates so clearly how textbook concepts of urbanism ultimately impact crucial social values like health and wellness, accessibility and inclusiveness for everyone regardless of age, gender and social, economic, or ethnic background. His message is all about vibrancy and sustainable growth, which is coming at a perfect time for Colorado Springs.”

Penalosa, a Colombia native, is the founder of the Canada-based nonprofit 8 80 Cities, which has worked in more than 250 cities internationally. The organization helps municipal agencies strategize about topics such as sustainable mobility and parks programs and how they can be used to facilitate and serve citizens of all ages.
“The concept is simple,” he said. “What if everything we did in our cities had to be great for an 8 year old and an 80 year old? Then it would be good for everybody. We need to stop building cities for people who are 30 years old and athletic — we need to build for everyone.”

In his keynote, Gil will advise residents, students and leaders on how to create a vibrant city and a healthy community for everyone regardless of age, gender and social, economic or ethnic background. He will focus on the design and use of parks and streets as great public places, as well as sustainable mobility: walking, riding bicycles, using public transit and the new use of cars.

Penalosa first became interested in these concepts while working for the government in Bogota, Colombia. While there, Penalosa helped kickstart progressive parks programs and helped expand an “open streets” initiative to promote what he calls “social integration.”

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As part of the open streets program, Penalosa helped facilitate the safe closure of roadways each Sunday for pedestrian use. By the time he left the post to go to Canada 18 years ago, the program affected more than 70 miles of road that played host to around 1.5 million people “every Sunday of the year,” according to Penalosa. These are the kinds of programs he said Colorado Springs needs to become a truly great city for citizens of all ages.

“It has taken off like a very positive virus,” he said. “Now we’re starting to see it in many other cities around the world — Portland, New York, El Paso, San Jose and Mexico. … The concept is this: How do we make use of our city streets as the public spaces that they are?”

According to Penalosa, around 35 percent of the average city is composed of roadway, and it doesn’t make much sense (in his opinion) for those areas to be used only for vehicular traffic 24/7.

“A city like Colorado Springs could do it May through September as a pilot project,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, then don’t do it the following year. If it does work, then the following year you may want to do it weekly.”

He said the program would also benefit physical and mental health and the environment.
Penalosa has never been to Colorado Springs but said he plans to spend time in the city before and after his speech. While in town, he also plans to meet with local college students to discuss similar topics. Based on his research, Penalosa said he plans to address challenges unique to Colorado Springs. One major point will be to discuss sustainable mobility as it relates to the local community.

“One of the things I’ve found is that the overwhelming majority of travel in Colorado Springs is done by car,” he said. “That is a big, big challenge. … I think the city should be more walkable, bike-able and have better public transit.”

He also said that Colorado Springs should also make better uses of its parks and public spaces.

“It’s not so much about how the parks are built, but how they’re used,” he said. “Sometimes, it seems easier to find the millions to do the parks than to find the thousands to make them work.”

Penalosa will also address a topic of growing focus and concern for Colorado Springs: the fact that the city’s population is rapidly aging.

“I think that one of the most wasted resources we have in America is the older adults,” he said. “They are oftentimes healthier, and wealthier, and more active, and more engaged and more traveled. They could be fantastic assets to the community.”

He said that he plans to discuss how to better serve these seniors and to better utilize them as unique assets in the community.

“It shouldn’t be a concern, it should be a celebration,” he said. “As long as they are properly engaged.”

Last year’s City Center Series explored the revitalization of Las Vegas’ Fremont North district, walkability and community development. Swinford said last year’s series was well-received.

“Following Jeff Speck’s walkable-city talk, it was heartening to see everyday people begin to really latch on to some of the principles of urbanism — it’s not just for city planners anymore! We’ve heard community members starting to reflect Speck’s idea that modernizing and redesigning city streets for multiple kinds of users makes neighborhoods safer and friendlier for everyone, and we have high hopes that that’s going to continue to bear fruit as we swing into construction season again,” she said. “Also, out of Peter Kageyama’s ‘For the Love of Colorado Springs’ talk, we’ve seen citizens start to rethink how we use our public spaces. There are some very exciting ideas bubbling up from the community surrounding Acacia Park, so we’ll start to see some of those plans come to life this summer.”

Tickets are $10 per event, or a series pass can be purchased for $30. Additional topics of this year’s series include a New Urbanism Film Festival, Feb. 27; 
Placemaking and Public Art, March 7; and the 
The RiNo Story (River North community in Denver), April 4.

More information about this year’s City Center Series is available from the partnership.