Headshot of Juan Pablo CaicedoON A HIGH PLATEAU bordered by the green peaks of the Andes, Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, is home to roughly 8 million people. Each day, residents travel the city’s sprawling avenues, which are clogged by traffic and contribute to the smog that at times obscures the skyline.

When Mayor Claudia López took office, two years ago, she made addressing environmental concerns a priority for the city, with a goal of reducing greenhouse gases by half by 2030. This ambitious plan includes a rethinking of the city’s thoroughfares to cut down on fossil-fuel vehicles, increase electric public transportation, and provide attractive pedestrian areas, dedicated space for cyclists, and greenery.

That’s where Juan Pablo Caicedo MPA/MUP 2019 came in. 

Caicedo, who was born and raised in Bogotá, was working in New York as a consultant when López and some of her senior staff coaxed him home to tackle what he describes as a very special project—and a daunting one. López wanted him to help reimagine one of Bogotá’s most historic thoroughfares, a major artery known as Carrera Séptima (Seventh Street), which has long been the subject of transportation projects stalled by political gridlock or overly ambitious plans. Seven failed attempts to revamp the thoroughfare have been made since 2000 alone. 

López’s idea is to reimagine Séptima as a “green corridor” that incorporates clean public transit and usable green space. The project is currently in the design phase, with work to begin next year, and has a budget of $620 million. If the transformation of Séptima is a success, it will serve as a model for roughly 15 other green corridors across the city.

One challenge, however, is the length of the thoroughfare— 14 miles—and the logistical difficulties of revamping such a heavily used resource. “It’s like trying to build infrastructure on the ground on Broadway or Fifth Avenue in New York,” Caicedo explains. Leading the work as a project manager for Bogotá’s urban development department, he has his work cut out for him.

But with an MPA from the Kennedy School and a master’s in urban planning from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, undergraduate degrees in law and literature from Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá, and a passion for transportation, Caicedo can rely on a broad set of skills to help him work through the project’s many technical and political challenges. He also has hands-on experience from two internships during his time as a Harvard graduate student. In the summer of 2017, he worked in the mayor’s office in Chicago, exploring ways to fund the Riverwalk, a multi-use public path with restaurants, green spaces, and other amenities. “It’s a beautiful public space,” he says, “but they couldn’t find a way to pay for operations and management of this amazing infrastructure.” And in the summer of 2018, Caicedo did an internship in Bogotá developing a strategy to engage citizens in transforming another large thoroughfare in the city, Avenida Caracas. “It was kind of my cover letter to apply for the job I have now,” he says. “It was very useful.”

Juan Pablo Caicedo speaks about the green corridor project

“This project has a limited number of technical solutions, but it has an infinite number of political problems.”

Juan Pablo Caicedo MPA/MUP 2019

He will need all this experience for work on the Séptima green corridor. “This project has a limited number of technical solutions, but it has an infinite number of political problems we need to tackle at the same time,” Caicedo says. One of the challenges stems from the diversity of the residents who use Séptima. “It affects low-income communities to the very far north, but it also crosses through the power nucleus of the country: the financial center, the bankers, the political figures,” Caicedo explains. “All of them interact and live close by. So having an intervention that works for everybody is very, very hard.”

It’s a complicated context that requires community support. “This is an equity issue,” Caicedo says. “People are busy working and trying to provide for their families; they don’t have time to engage with the project or the city. So you need to democratize the access to opinions.”

To respond to the wide array of residents’ needs, the Séptima project crowdsourced solutions through a partnership with NUMO, an international alliance of organizations that care about urban mobility. Using a customized online platform, the city sourced nearly 7,000 proposals. Caicedo says that this digital engagement was chosen partly because of the pandemic: “People were stuck at home, but they could get online.” He hopes the push for greater community involvement will give his project the support it needs to succeed. “What we’re trying to do is listen more carefully,” he says. “You’re not going to get everything right. But there are definitely people who respect the project because of the engagement.”

Colorful building facades in Bogotá’s Buenavista neighborhood

“We need to allow birds to come down from the mountains. Biodiversity is critical. We need to understand this correctly.”

Juan Pablo Caicedo MPA/MUP 2019

The green corridor initiative is also challenging in its ambitious sustainability goals. Caicedo and his team know that the new Séptima must be appealing—offering well-run public transportation options such as electric buses and gondolas, biking and pedestrian paths, and places for people to gather and enjoy both nature and culture. In addition, the team is thinking carefully about how best to respect the natural landscape surrounding Bogotá. “It’s a green corridor in the sense that it attempts to reconnect to what it was like before humans were here,” Caicedo says. “It’s not just a zero-emissions approach. This is a sustainable mobility approach.” 

To achieve this ambitious aim, Caicedo has sought expertise on the ecosystems in and around Bogotá. One tactic will be to plant native trees and other greenery, which have been overtaken by exotic or invasive species in the city. “We need to allow birds to come down from the mountains,” Caicedo explains. “Biodiversity is critical. We need to understand this correctly.” 

Caicedo thinks back to a Kennedy School case he studied as a graduate student about a politically and technically challenging project to expand a rapid-transit bus line on Séptima a decade ago. That case, created by José A. Gómez-Ibáñez, the Derek C. Bok Research Professor of Urban Planning and Public Policy at Harvard University, made a big impact on Caicedo.

Gómez-Ibáñez picked the Séptima bus line scenario because it was an excellent real-world example of the challenges of expansion. Bogotá’s rapid-transit bus system, Gómez-Ibáñez says, “was so successful that transit lines reached a level that buses couldn’t support anymore. The problem was that initial success set the bar too high.” This case highlighted for students the technical and political challenges related to transportation. 

In fact, many Kennedy School courses have proved valuable to Caicedo—especially those in leadership and management. From Marshall Ganz, he learned about organizing and the power of mobilizing people in support of an initiative. He also served as a course coach for MLD-201, “Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change,” assisting Farayi Chipungu, an adjunct lecturer in public policy.

Caicedo says he draws on the skills he gained at Harvard every day. He also thinks back to the words he used as a class speaker when he graduated from the Kennedy School, which emphasized that public service is a mindset rather than a specific job: “Public service is a moral commitment to ourselves, to each other, and to the work we do.” This approach is one Caicedo has put to work throughout his career.

He believes he is doing something important for Bogotá—a place he loves, “where I can be myself,” he says. And despite the challenges of the project, Caicedo believes in a greener and brighter future for Séptima. “This is a very strong part of the ethos of the city,” he says. “It’s a historical place; it’s a symbol; it’s our patrimony.”

Inline images courtesy of the City of Bogotá (IDU).

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