Enjoying a cup of coffee…

A few months ago, my colleague David Feehan and I were asked by the Interamerican Development Bank to present our experience as part of a team that played a role in establishing the first Business Improvement District in Latin America. The conference, entitled PPPAmericas, concluded yesterday.

Our work in El Salvador was funded by the IDB, and as we came to understand over the course of the two day conference, BIDs are an entirely new concept for most in the world of public-private partnerships. While most panels discussed the construction of jails and infrastructure, we stood out like a sore thumb, with an interest in…gulp, shopping districts?! But our session was well attended by over 200 practitioners from all over Latin America, and many seemed quite intrigued by what has been accomplished in El Salvador. Jorge Iraheta represented the Corporation Zona Rosa, our client, and described in great detail how they executed the BID concept (known in Spanish as “Distritos de Mejora Comercial”) with some creative thinking outside the box…but more about that in a follow up blog entry.

The conference was held in the central Mexican pueblo of Guanajuato. What an amazing city. I recommend ever urban planner (or urban planner wanna be!) visit this place. It is one of ten Mexican pueblos to sport the coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site distinction. I first visited Guanajuato almost 15 years ago. From 1997-98 and then again from 1999-2000, I traveled and lived in over 13 Spanish speaking countries on a Watson fellowship, and then later as a Fulbright scholar, looking at how historic Latin American cities were remaking themselves. At the time, I would sometimes pinch myself as I wandered the streets of an old colonial city exploring hidden nooks and crevices. That was my “job” for almost two years of my life. And to find myself again wandering the same beautiful streets of Guanajuato taking pictures (I do tend to get funny looks when people see me taking pictures of trash cans!) was a real pleasure.

Guanajuato is a little piece of heaven that is unlike any other place on earth. There are barely any cars on the few passageways (I hesitate to call them roads) wide enough to accommodate them. That’s because the town has an intricate system of underground tunnels that accommodates most automobile traffic. This leaves the town a true pedestrian domain. The streets are also packed with students from the university – which is in the heart of the historic district – lending a vibrancy that always accompanies young people. Street musicians serenade diners at the dozens of outdoor eateries. The Plaza Union, one of the main plazas in town, is filled with neatly trimmed trees that have grown into an imposing and massive green canopy, made even more imposing by the fact that the trees are carved into a neatly shaped box. When you enter the Plaza, you feel as if you are walking into a lush living room with leaves for a ceiling. As you walk the streets, every turn uncovers a surprising vista, a hidden plaza or building to discover. I spent half the day walking around exploring before making my way to the city museum and local market for a few small gifts. I did refresh myself with a stop at a little cafe, where I enjoyed the view of the bright yellow cathedral.

If you get lost, there are helpful directional signs to guide you. Although I did find the standard downtown map unnecessarily confusing. When a self – professed map geek has problems reading your maps, there is a problem. But getting lost was, frankly, half the fun. I also realized what an incredible disconnect there is between the world of BIDs and the world of tourism districts. All of the directional signs seemed sponsored by the state or city run tourism council. In the US, this kind of signage can be sponsored and maintained by BID’s, freeing critical public resources for other needs. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of resources were committed to upkeep, particularly as I stumbled upon more than a few signs marred by graffiti. But those sights did not affect the overall experience, and the cleanliness of the streets was more a rule than an exception. See for yourself…

Plaza Union’s perfectly trimmed trees

 

An intersection in the underground street system

 

Signage in need of maintenance
The outdoor living room…

 

Surprising elements at every turn

 

Directional signage

 

Outdoor cafe along a typical ‘street’

 

Car traffic is tucked behind the buildings
as it emerges from the underground street network

 

A downtown map marred by graffiti