Posted March 28th 2012 at 10:23 am by
in Colombia

Bogotá’s First Planning Students Take on Urban & Rural

This post is also available in Español.

“The success of this program depends upon the quality of our work once we graduate,” said Juan Cristobal Constain, a student in Urban Management and Development at Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, Colombia.


Photo credit: Pablo… on Flickr

Juan is one of the first students to enter this program, and he couldn’t be happier with his education.  Like his classmates, he loves the combination of studying theory and working directly with people in cities.

Juan works with CEUS, or Centro de Estudios Urbanos, a new center in the department.  CEUS is working on projects that enable marginalized residents to have a voice in the future of their cities. For example, in the “Ask your mayor!” project, ex-combatants from the recent civil war, public school teachers and university students were able to ask public figures their most pressing questions.

What would you like Bogota to look like in 20 years?

“Most of the city planning offices in the country, and perhaps the world, are in crisis.  Slum settlements line the outskirts of many cities,” said Martha Bonilla, the founding director of CEUS.  “And the news about government offices is so often about corruption – construction licenses by corruption, political favors. So the students we have here are very special.  They all love public service, and they are all leaders.  They are taking a risk on a field of study that is not well known here yet.”

Bonilla wants to train city planners who can handle complex issues.  Her students are learning how to work directly with community members rather than simply make top-down decisions.  She believes in her students.

“These students were born into a Colombia characterized by high conflict, where it was so unsafe to walk outside in many parts of the city,” said Martha. “They learned to keep their lives and keep up their spirits, and enjoy whatever part of the city they could.”


Meet three students who are passionate about their work and studies in this program.

• Juan Cristóbal Constain

Juan is an undergraduate in Urban Management and Development at Universidad del Rosario. He is one of the few students who entered the program in the first semester of his freshman year, and he loves it.

The most recent project we completed at CEUS was called “Ask your mayor!”.

What do you think urgently needs to change in Bogotá?

There is a special situation here in Colombia because of the conflict and the paramilitaries, the guerillas.  We wanted to learn from the people who demobilized from the paramilitaries – who left the conflict and came to live in Bogotá.  We wanted to know their perception of the city. What do they want their city to be like? What would their dream city look like? What questions do they have for their mayor?

Bogotá was about to elect a new mayor when we started the project, so we planned a workshop in which these ex-paramilitaries could prioritize the 15 most important questions they had about issues in the city.

During this process, I learned that people have many concerns – things that you may have never thought about before.  We asked a teacher, “What is the main problem the upcoming mayor has to resolve?”  The teacher said it was the violence and presence of drugs in the schools. So we asked the new mayor: What is your policy around this issue?

The candidates answered these questions from the community, and a Colombian magazine published them.  Now that Mayor Gustavo Petro has been elected, the most important part begins: monitoring the answers he gave us.

• Julián Camilo Arenas Torres

Julián has completed his courses and is now working on thesis, but has already launched a career. Above all else, Julián loves working directly with the residents of cities and towns.   

I live in Bogotá, but I drive 8 hours, over two mountain ranges, to El Cocuy.  I do that twice a month, staying for a week each time, to work on a new master plan for the area.

I love working with the people there. They know their territory better than an engineer or a geographer would.  The ideas and visions they have for their area is amazing, really amazing.

One of the main problems they are facing, though, is that their young people often leave because they can’t find work or opportunities to grow.  The people want to bring these opportunities to the young people, so we are working on an economic revitalization plan for the town.

‘We’ is me and my two colleagues – an economist and a political scientist.  We’ve launched an urban planning consulting firm, Entopía Urban Consultants.  The Entopía concept means ‘That which can be,’ as opposed to utopia.  Our company focuses on research and training that helps municipalities make good decisions for their futures. In short, we want people to be happy in human settlements.

Colombia is in a moment of transformation and social change social. People working in every field need to analyze, understand and think about the macro issues in our society.  We have to get to root causes of problems so we can act preventatively, rather than with short-term solution. We should come to understand the city as a whole, not just parts.

• Nicolas Melendez Alvarez

Nicolas started college as an Economics major, but found himself looking for more. He considered several programs, but ultimately settled on Urban Planning because it engages so many fields of study at once.

When you study architecture you learn how to draw buildings, or a master plan for the city.  When you study economics you analyze the numbers and relate them to specific social problems. But when you study urban planning, you need to think about management, law, history, design, economics, and more.  You have to know something in all of these areas to see the whole picture – a great panorama called city.

Every country should have universities that offer the chance to study urban planning.  There are some theories that apply worldwide, but each place has its own specific context.  When you’re in Colombia, for example, you need to understand the history, the civil war that we’re having here.  You need to study the national context in order to plan, manage, and develop the city or region you´re working on.

This field is not like mathematics, where you have a chapter of calculus and you learn how to make integrals, and then you understand it and that’s it.  When you are studying this kind of field, you have to study both parts: the theory and the practical.  Go even beyond the laws and theories described in books and articles. You need to see, ask, talk, meet, and understand the micro and macro characteristics of each place if you want to do great work.


1 . Ask your mayor! We are building a social movement around 20 questions we developed through a question donation campaign last year.  We identified 3 marginalized groups in Colombian society (ex-combatants, public school teachers, and university students). Then, we did workshops as well as surveys via social media in order to collect their questions for the new major. The mayor answered the questions and we published his responses. We are now creating a blog where the community-based groups can monitor what is happening around the commitments the mayor has made.

2. Smart cities in an emerging and tropical economy. Universidad del Rosario is the first school in the Colombia leading the facilitation process between private tech companies, municipalities, local communities, and the state telecommunications investor.  We created this initiative in order to contribute to ensure that communication technology is available in all communities. Technology has the power to ensure greater social equality.  This April CEUS is hosting an international conference with the 1100 Colombian mayors and 32 governors.  Representatives from Turkey and Spain will present their learning experiences from their countries.  MIT Professors Dennis Frenchman and Ceasar McDowell will be key note speakers.

3. Post-conflict migration to megacities. Colombia’s largest cities have become a magnet for ex-combatants and displaced people.  Colombia has 4.8 million displaced people (UN 2009) – the highest number in the world – and close to 57 thousand ex-combatants.  Most of these people come to the big cities, which have no urban policy in place to integrate them into the spatial and social fabric of the cities.



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