On Youth and Sustainability in Bogotá

In 2014, Colombia’s capital Bogotá hosted the United Nations High-Level Dialogue on Implementing Rio +20 Decisions. The UN officials recognised that the future for ‘sustainable cities’ could be found right there, on a continent, which has a higher proportion of urban citizens than anywhere else on the globe. They thought that Latin American cities have the potential to develop into places where resources are used efficiently, pollution is reduced and poverty fought. These development issues continue to challenge the core principles of “sustainable development”, first defined in the Brundtland Report in 1987. Central to the concept of sustainable development is the need for current generations to take only what is strictly necessary, so as to guarantee the social, environmental and economic prosperity of future generations. For Colombia to truly succeed in ‘developing sustainably’, it must first engage with its youth.


Invading Bogotá

Bogotá is Latin America’s sixth largest city and it is there that many of the educated Colombian youth have chosen to congregate. Due to its geographical location, its historical legacy and socio-economic circumstances, Bogotá has become a cultural melting pot and thriving financial hub; situated in a high plateau some 2,700 metres above sea level, the burgeoning city swells like a blister.

Furthermore, Bogotá strangles what little remains of the pristine wetland savannah that borders the Andean mountain range and has fast become an urban jungle in its own right; a most dangerous intruder. According to Julio Carrizosa of Universidad Nacional, Colombia’s most important public university, extending the limits of the capital beyond its current size will seriously impact what little remains of the precious ecosystem upon which the city is built.

Uncontrolled and illegal development, typically occupied by Colombian people from elsewhere, means that it is not just wildlife scrambling for space. Approximately 7.74 million inhabitants are packed into the city, with the poorest districts such as Bosa reaching a density greater than that experienced in Manhattan!  Some 302 persons live on a single hectare of land so its little wonder then that the development of clustered, poorly constructed, dwellings is referred to by Bogotanos as “invasión”.

Bogota buildings Kai Whiting-2
Bogota buildings, sunset.
Source: Kai Whiting.

This loaded word is used by wealthier individuals, many of which are ironically immigrants themselves, to stigmatise the migration of the poorest social classes. Some of this mass movement, most of which occurred at the turn of the century, results from desperate individuals and families displaced by the internal conflict. They end up in Bogotá for the simple fact that many of the State entities that provide help and assistance happen to be located there.

“Invaders” typically have little in the way of work opportunities, education and physical resources. City natives generally regard this group as a nuisance or a menace to society, trampling upon their security and wellbeing. They blame them for rising crime rates, the undercutting those employed in the most precarious of jobs, and any additional strains on municipal welfare programmes.

The term “invader” certainly does not apply to the substantial number of migrating individuals of the middle class. Such people also come in search of Bogotá’s bright lights and use the city and its services to suit their own purposes, such as higher education and gainful employment. After all most of the highly paid jobs with upward mobility are to be found in the capital.

For every 100 Colombian workers, 40 are to be found in Bogotá. This concentration of people is responsible for just under a quarter of the nation’s GDP, with the Department of Antioquia (where Colombia´s second city, Medellin, is located), following far behind.

In addition, Bogotá’s creativity and cultural diversity, which enables a certain level of freedom of expression (Chapinero, an important district of Bogotá, is a recognised zone of tolerance for the gay community, for example), are equally important factors in the enticing of young and socially mobile Colombians into the capital and away from the “stifling attitudes” of elsewhere. Add to that Bogota’s large number of universities, such as Colombia’s equivalent to Harvard, Universidad de Los Andes, and what you get is a disproportional uprooting of current and future workers, managers and high-achievers, including a whole cohort of the “best” academics. All this is before going into the dynamics of the “brain drain” to wealthier, more developed, nations.


Going abroad

Over the course of the last year, there were various calls in the UK press and by think tanks to tackle economic inequality on a global scale, if humanity is to seriously commit to sustainable development. There is nothing simple in meeting this challenge, given its multi-layered and subtle nature. Nor is it a new problem. Colombia dealt with the loss of its young citizens as early as 1936 with the first waves of financially motivated emigration in the direction of Venezuela’s oil fields. A larger one between 1960 and 2005, typically towards the United States and Spain, followed. This time it was not only for monetary gains but in response to increased concern over corruption, narco-trafficking and violence, largely conducted by illegally armed groups. At this point, steps towards peace, a state which still eludes the Colombian people, takes precedence over any effort to move the country along the path of sustainability.

Consequently, the common perception held by Colombians – especially in the absence of a successful peace process – is that “whilst I love my country, there is nothing for me”. Such feelings tend to magnify upon leaving for the developed world with its sense of physical and socio-economic security, if not prosperity, its good clean environment and thus optimal conditions for the nurturing of both a family and a career.

Upon listening to those that stay, the corporate professionals, university lecturers and students alike, one quickly comes to the conclusion that the home town, is a nice place to visit and perhaps even retire to, but nothing beyond that. For any urban Colombian it is as simple as a lack of job market, professional connections or personal interest – why go back to a place one can no longer identify with, and cannot hope to change?


Bogota Blue Kai Whiting-2
Bogota Blue.
Source: Kai Whiting.


Bogotá – a city without trains or trees

Bogotá is not without its critics. Pablo Sanabria of Universidad de Los Andes and various others have described it as the “worst” city in which to live – a necessary evil to go through if one wants to get on in life. A place with no true identity and where, for the most part, no one seems happy.

Happiness has much to do with quality of life. In an urban setting this can be measured in numerous ways. Two interrelated factors are, however, of great importance: air and mobility. That is to say, is the air one breathes actually breathable? How easy is it to get from one side of the city to the other and how long does it take? Amongst the gridlocked smokescreen that accompanies every major road in Bogotá – and not just during the rush hour – the short answer is increasingly difficult.

According to Bogotá´s ex-Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, “an advanced city is not one where the poor can drive around in a car but one where the rich use public transport”. The truth of this statement may become apparent when and if a good clean public transport system forms a strategic component of Bogotá’s urban sustainability. It is also easier said than done. Whilst Bogotá has more cycle route kilometers than any other city in the world (one of the reasons why it was selected to host the Rio +20 dialogue) it also has no metro or tram to speak of. Even worse: Colombia as a whole has no inter-city connecting train service. This situation, along with the surrounding topography, may have encouraged the evident love Bogotanos have for cycling, but it has also undoubtedly contributed to the 76 percent increase in private motorised vehicles in just seven years.

In 2014, Bogotá is one of only three cities of more than 7 million inhabitants that has no urban train service. The other two are Kinshasa, of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Dhaka, Bangladesh. What it does have is the world’s busiest Bus Rapid Transport System [1], TransMilenio [2]. It also has the novel idea of a yearly “No Car Day”, which is granted the first Thursday of every February. One day without cars is not enough, however, for the 600,000 children annually, under the age of five, treated for respiratory problems, following continuous exposure to dangerously high levels of particulate matter and ozone. Apart from the limitations of public transport, the lack of trees and greenery in general is also affecting the happiness and health of Bogotá’s citizens. Poor public transport links and services effectively force people to drive more cars. And more cars, means more resource extraction in pristine ecosystems, air emissions, more roads to contain them and unfortunately the felling of desperately needed trees and loss of green open space. Indeed the 0.16 trees and 4.1 m2 of green open space per person does little to generate feelings of wellbeing in the capital. On the contrary, it serves as a reminder of the prevalent social inequality and environmental injustice that exists between the haves and haves-not (the wealthy tend to live away from problem areas and on wider avenues located only walking distance from greener areas).


Innovating bottom-up and top-down

Sustainable practices which could help the country to develop for the benefit of all its people and its environment, whether re-thinking street plans or public transport strategies, stem from innovation: the desire to do things not differently, but better. A Texan saying that has been in print, since at least the early 1980s, sums it up perfectly: “If all you ever do is all you’ve ever done, then all you’ll get is all you ever got.”

Bogotá, in pushing forward its sustainability agenda has got to engage with its youth. This involves promoting problem solving with both top-down and bottom-up schemes that look to solve the complex longer term issues discussed above. A top-down approach that addresses the development of young people with academic promise and leadership is already being worked on by the Administrative Department of Science, Technology and Innovation (Colciencias). In 2014, it launched an ambitious campaign to enhance research activities, innovation, and academic attainment of its university research groups and talented individuals. The idea behind it is to “promote and produce knowledge and the construction of capacities for the integral development of the nation and the wellbeing of Colombians”.  To tackle the university degree imbalance between expatriates and the home-based population, it has taken the perhaps unusual step of investing more than £1.7 billion in either sending its researchers out for their doctorate degree to the world’s best universities (as long as they agree to return for two years and are capable amongst other innovative activities of publishing in international journals) or admitting them into the best national ones. Furthermore, should a promising intellectual have already spent a considerable amount of time living and working abroad, money has been set aside to retrieve them via a “quick stop-off” post-doctorate.

View of the moutain-2
View onto the mountain.
Source: Kai Whiting.

For the bottom-up approach, the government must continue to publically support, in both words and actions, those members of society who are, or are trying to, actively participate in environmental and community initiatives at the grassroots. Nohra Padilla, a recycled material street collector and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize is a good example of where an “invader” can, through innovation, positively contribute to city life and wellbeing. A victim of the internal conflict, she was driven from rural Colombia into the metropolis and started her working life, aged just seven, walking Bogota’s streets in search of any thrown out item that could potentially provide some income for her family. Now she heads the Association of Recyclers of Bogotá (ARB), which represents the city’s 3,000 informal recyclers and forms part of the 12,000 members strong National Association of Recyclers in Colombia (ANR).

Another example of an urban initiative, this time with seed-capital loans and capacity building is that of Fundación Mujeres Empresarias Marie Poussepin. Focusing on single mother families, it aims to improve quality of life through the creation of urban micro-orchards, allotments and gardens, which serve as small business enterprises and cultivate a spirit of entrepreneurialism. While giving the women involved an opportunity to build a business that suits their needs and aspirations, the programme also puts some colour back into Bogotá’s grey cityscape with the installation of green areas and living walls, in addition to the sale of eco-art products.

Perhaps the most poignant example is that of a young person, a product of the brain drain themselves, who recognised the need to replicate the successes found in Silicon Valley in their home nation. Andrés Barreto, aged just 28, is considered by many to be the Mark Zuckerburg of Latin America. A Colombian graduate of political science from the University of Florida, and with an eye for talent, he is not content to sit still and watch the money come in from any one of his eight technological start-ups, including the music streaming site Grooveshark. Rather, he is much-admired for his dedication to talented Latino entrepreneurs. In 2014 alone, Barreto invested in 30 start-ups born in Colombia. He also supports government platforms such as iNNpulsa that works to enhance high impact Colombian innovation and business development on the continent.

So, the Colombian Government, as well as its citizens, has definitely begun to address the brain drain triggered by inequality of opportunity and economic polarity. In tackling some of the issues that have traditionally bred discontent among the educated youth – if not turning such problems on their head – Colombia has shown that despite the challenges, it can make a powerful enough proposition for those who do not only wish to stay, but that have the desire and means to contribute to their nation. Recognition and policy drives by the government that create opportunities in smaller cities, towns and villages is not only important, but something that needs to be more widely debated in Colombian forums for sustainable development. A place represents much more than infrastructure and the provision of services. It propagates the sense of belonging, which over time acquires identity and, if nurtured properly, leads to empowerment. It is this empowerment which will ultimately make the difference in a young educated person’s decision to stay, leave or even go back to Colombia.


[1] High demand routes which run metro type services but with buses instead of trains

[2] Hook, W., 2008. Bus Rapid Transit: An International View. Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. New York.


Kai Whiting, MSc, is a British lecturer based in Bogotá, Colombia. He is currently the director of the Energy Engineering undergraduate programme and lead researcher in Sustainable Energy and Mining at Universidad EAN. He tweets at @Kaiwhiting.

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