Thomas Sigler, Gustavus Adolphus College
In Panama and throughout Latin America, the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has become nearly ubiquitous. The uses of GIS within the planning practice in Panama range from zoning to forestry to watershed management. Despite the country’s small size, over a dozen national agencies currently utilize geo-spatial data in some capacity. To planners in the capital of Panama City, GIS has become an indispensible tool for dealing with pressing issues related to rapid urban growth. In the wake of an unprecedented construction boom since the handover of the Panama Canal in 1999, Panama City has grappled with a host of urban planning issues, including congestion, overburdened infrastructure, and an rapid suburbanization. Though city planners have scrambled to come up with solutions to the most urgent issues, a lot of work remains to be done.
Of the many problems facing Panama City’s planners, the city’s sluggish traffic seems to be at the forefront of local consciousness. Numerous megaprojects have been completed in the past few years to mitigate the problem, including a new coastal highway and an expressway to Panama’s second-largest city of Colon, home to the hemisphere’s busiest free trade zone. Another major step toward alleviating the city’s chronic traffic is Panama’s incipient Metro System. The project consists of a 14 km-long subway, approximately half of which will be below ground, as well as a modern fleet of buses whose standardized routes are replacing the retired American school buses that currently ply the city’s streets along irregular routes. Ground was broken on the project in January of this year and is projected to be finished by 2014.
According to Álvaro Uribe, Professor of Architecture at the University of Panama, one of the biggest challenges in designing a functional metro system has been the provision of user-friendly spaces adjacent to the subway’s 13 stations. To address this, the Secretariat of the Metro, in collaboration with the Ministry of Housing and other government agencies, has begun a comprehensive rezoning of all urban areas that will be impacted by Metro-related traffic. Outside of each station, a walkable radius of 600 meters will be designated as a pedestrian zone, in addition to a one-block buffer along the entirety of the line itself. An indirect impact buffer of 1500 meters will also be designated for rezoning in order to provide better access to feeder bus lines delivering riders from nearby neighborhoods. Together, these tracts are referred to as the “influence polygon”, the explicit purpose of which is to promote higher residential densities and more mixed-use development. Although the one-block polygon is the only one to have been legally implemented thus far, the system’s planners hope to incorporate all three into the city’s norms. Rodrigo Guardia, the Director of Land Research at the Ministry of Housing, has been involved with the implementation of the influence polygon. “I would call it an opportunity to maximize the benefits of the subway,” Guardia noted, adding that “the subway doesn’t reduce the need for transport, but it is more energy efficient and cost effective, and it takes riders off the surface streets”.
According to Uribe, who currently works as a planner for the Metro, one of the main obstacles to coordinated urban planning in Panama is the compartmentalization of data and resources within different agencies. Luckily, Uribe notes, “through GIS we have been able to link different institutions to have a common view…that’s really special for us because we don’t have any [linkages]”. Working alongside collaborators from elsewhere in Latin America, Uribe and others have been pushing for the integration of data and geo-spatial platforms through seminars and workshops. In the past year, GIS and planning-related events have been sponsored by the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy, the Association of American Geographers, and the Panamanian Secretariat for Science and Technology (Senacyt).
For more information on the use of GIS on Panama’s Metro System, contact Rodrigo Guardia at firstname.lastname@example.org. The author can be reached at email@example.com.