Enrique Peñalosa is the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. Years after his tenure ended, he’s still making waves for a belief that he continues to espouse: The way people experience a city matters. He cares about quantifiable elements, such as the availability of affordable housing, but most of that stems from a deeply rooted conviction that the places we spend time should promote human wellness and joy. In fact, he’s strongly associated with the phrase “Cities of Joy.”
Cities of Joy might not be the first phrase that springs to mind for many of us when we think of Bogotá or other municipalities in developing countries that are addled with crime and poverty. But these are the exact areas in which Peñalosa is focused. While some leaders might be so bogged down in dealing with the drug trade or violent crime to the exclusion of other goals, Peñalosa remains convinced that joy is a worthy pursuit.
It would be irresponsible of us to draw any parallels between promoting joy in developing nations and the work we do as preservationists of historic properties in the United States. But we do find inspiration in Peñalosa’s perspective, as well as his efforts.
Here’s why: We, too, believe that the way people experience a place is important. It matters how we feel when we spend time there, and that’s dependent on a number of factors. It’s easy to take these factors for granted unless there’s something particularly pleasant — or unpleasant —about the space.
We know the following examples are trivial in comparison to Peñalosa’s efforts, but the underlying mission is there: Functionality matters. Space matters. Experience matters.
Think an office, a hotel room, a restaurant, or a gym is just a few walls, windows, a ceiling, and a floor?
Try working in an office with no natural light and a persistent buzzing sound from the HVAC system.
Try staying in a hotel room that smells like old take-out food.
Try eating in a restaurant that’s too cold, or working out in a gym that’s too hot.
On the flip side, you notice a place that takes your breath away when you step into it. And you remember it. You remember if it’s a place that simply feels good.
We don’t build cities of joy, but we try to create places of joy. And we think that is important.