Building cities in Colombia

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Building cities in Colombia

Companies in the water sector, technology and urban design: these are the three branches Pepijn Verpaalen of consultancy firm Urbanos envisions great opportunities for in Colombia. “A lot of knowledge, experience and quality is needed.”

Watching a Dutch TV programme like ´Spoorloos (Without a trace)´, it seems every Colombian has once been adopted from a slum. Corruption, poverty, crime. In short: a disadvantaged South American country. According to Pepijn Verpaalen that image is incomplete. Verpaalen, owner of Urbanos a consultancy firm for sustainable urban development, says: “Colombia is also a dynamic country with one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It is booming.”

Exploring opportunities
“Last year we undertook a trade mission with Dutch companies to Colombia. We visited cities and projects to get an impression of the country and its current problems. Later, Colombian politicians and mayors visited the Netherlands, to see how our country functions and how rivers get space in the Netherlands, for example.”

Dutch bicycle industry
“We are now doing a so-called fact-finding mission around the theme of bicycles, commissioned by RVO and the embassy. We explore opportunities in Colombia for the Dutch bicycle industry. And in May we are presenting workshops in Colombia on urban development, to show how urban planning can happen in an alternative way. We do that in cooperation with Berenschot, Witteveen&Bos, RVDB and TU Delft.”

Ad hoc solutions
Those workshops are necessary due to the big differences between urban planning in the Netherlands and in Colombia. Verpaalen: “In Colombia a construction project is often started in a neighbourhood, without any thought to the interconnections between neighbourhoods, districts and cities as a whole. That leads to ad hoc solutions. Think of parks that are hardly used, due to the low level of comfort while staying there, or the illogical bicycle path connections that leave the adjacent neighbourhood practically out of reach. The Dutch use an ‘integral approach’ and have something to add in Colombia.”

Good cooperation
According to Verpaalen the Colombians can also learn a thing or two from the way the Dutch cooperate. “Earlier we spoke to the local monuments department in Colombia about fixing up a neighbourhood. They had clear plans in place. The very same day we talked to the municipality, and it appeared they wanted to build a road straight through that neighbourhood. Not much later a national office for urban renewal said there were high-rises for Ministries on the cards exactly on that spot. In one day we spoke to three different institutions with three different plans for the same spot. They never consulted each other. In the Netherlands we are used to involve all sorts of stakeholders in plans.”

Cultural differences
The question is: do these differences in views on urban planning stem from hard to break cultural differences? Verpaalen does not think so: “There are cultural differences in views, but in Colombia there is an enormous need and above all, will, to do things differently. The Colombians see that in the rapidly grown cities – with the rich on one side of town and the poor on the other– things are going wrong. Socially, but also for instance with mobility. They are very open to the help of the Dutch.”

Enough opportunities
“Actually opportunities abound. Much knowledge, experience and quality is needed, for instance in the water sector. By now there is a water platform in Colombia where the Dutch sector can share its knowledge. And in the technical sector and in medical technology there are plenty opportunities for Dutch companies in Colombia.”

In Colombia there used to be quite a bit of corruption. This practice has been replaced by another, says Verpaalen: “Colombia wants to remove all hints of corruption, but has replaced it with lots of red tape. Absolutely everything the government does, has to go to tender. Up to the purchase of a bicycle. This generates an incredible amount of paperwork, all covered in required stamps. Dutch companies have to realise that anything that involves the government will take long.”

Partners in business wanted
Companies that want to operate in Colombia can email Pepijn ([email protected]). "We are looking for business partners: urban development companies that have concrete ideas to start in Colombia.” 

This item is a translation of the Dutch article Steden bouwen in Colombia published on Grensverleggers.

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