City Doctors: A Systemic Approach to Transform Colon City, Panama

Mariano L. Bernardez, PhD
Carmen Arias Vallarino
Adam Krivatsy
Roger Kaufman, PhD

Just like their dwellers, cities can get sick. When that happens, each citizen experiences multiple and dramatic symptoms affecting daily life: crime and insecurity, traffic jams, sanitary and waste management problems, air and water pollution, damage and loss of property, lowered property values, broken schools, ailing infrastructure, and high taxes for poor-quality services and quality of life in a seemingly endless sequence of calamities.

Treating symptoms, however, can be treacherous. Self-medication and turning to emergency rooms can end in even more dangerous treatmentborne complications, making the recovery more difficult and relapses more likely.1Adopting partial ''solutions'' thatmaximize a specific subsystem—be it tourism, housing, security,or commerce—cancreatenew,more complex, and challenging problems (Bernardez, 2009b).

Experience shows that building public housing without addressing unemployment, crime, and security issues often ends with squatters living in ''vertical slums'' such as Chicago's Cabrini-Green (Center for Urban Research and Policy Studies, University of Chicago, 1999; Hunt, 2009). A prosperous, moneymaking logistic hub can turn into a ''container town'' that blue- and white-collar employees flee for safer suburbs before darkness falls (Florida, 2005). Building walls to protect the business areas and highways to help commuters exit and access the city isolates poorer areas, creating ghettos—as in Robert Moses' New York (Caro, 1975).

A careful review of the history of ''magic bullets'' for sick cities, such as public housing, employment subsidies, ''zero tolerance,'' or ambitious urban or touristic ''revival'' initiatives, shows a discouraging rate of failure, unintended consequences, and conflict between different groups of interest pressing to speed up for a new and equally specific solution. Policies get mixed up with politics and vice versa, creating regulatory mazes that become a quagmire for reformers (Barr, 2000; Lee, 2000). And then, people get sick of the city and leave. Property values drop, unwanted settlers like squatters and criminals get in, and business and investment get out at evermore-alarming rates (Sowell, 2007, 2009). Landlords are replaced by slumlords, and these soon evolve into drug lords, as drug economics find in the slums a strategically located safe haven and abundant cheap labor.

By then, the sick city has become a ''third rail'' that every new administration tries to avoid, postponing solutions in favor of cosmetic quick fixes. It is usually a big event—such as Olympic Games, or land getting cheap enough to attract real estate speculation, or a major social upheaval—that brings the sick city back into the spotlight.

At that point, everybody is painfully aware that partial solutions and quick fixes will not do. They have to find a doctor for the city who can unravel the maze of conflicting partial solutions and unlock the forces for change, aligning them toward a shared vision of the future that all stakeholders want, not for themselves but for their children and grandchildren. This is the way every great city started in the first place.

In discussing the case of Colon City, Panama, and the approach we propose as a team of ''city doctors,'' we will show how a systemic multidisciplinary strategic plan can be developed and applied by a private–public consortium, the tools required, and the lessons learned from what happened to Colon and the experience in other cities' turnarounds.

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