Deep Mapping Bogota: Urban Mediation in the Tropical Highlands

It has been almost three months since I returned to Bogota. Quickly, I have tried to adapt to its scale, flows, and rhythms. It has been quite an intense experience, full of surprises, memories, and paradoxes. My hometown has changed a lot, but is also the same. As I step and do not step into the streets and places where I grew up, I navigate familiar routes that have been transformed by urbanization and pollution, and are now crowded than before, full of cyclists, bikers, and skaters that compete with cars and buses and micro-particles for their space, for their way.

What perhaps remains the same in Bogota is the vibrancy of its energy, a furious mix of human and natural forces that dance to improvised cacophonous symphonies. Surrounded by the Andean mountains at an altitude of 2,640 meters (8,660 ft) above sea level, Bogota´s ordered chaos constantly reminds us of the unique urban mediation of this city. Tiny streets, broken sidewalks, millions of cars, buses, and motorcycles, four main rivers and 200 creeks, 1900 neighborhoods, and almost 9 million people compose an urban kaleidoscope that seduces and scares both denizens and tourists.

With a tropical highland weather (“páramo“), Bogota reveals its unique urban intelligence when it rains. The “aguacero” (heavy rain) bogotano that can last for several days and nights, brings back the city to a primordial state full of water and cold humidity that remind us that this area is, and was, watery, swampy, crossed by rivers, creeks, and wetlands.

It is precisely as we enter the rainy season this month that the city shows its deep time urban mediation, as an amphibious tropical body. “Abril aguas mil” (April thousand waters) says a popular saying here. Inundated sidewalks, furious creeks running through canals, and lagoons on the streets collapse the transportation system. Interestingly, the collapse of the modern city, is what makes evident the deep time mediation of Bogota. One version of the foundation of the city, says that it was precisely an aguacero what made the Spaniard conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quezada stop his expedition in search of ElDorado and decide to create a colonial urban settlement next to the east hills, in what was part of the Muisca indigenous territory of Bacatá.

With a tropical highland weather (“páramo“), Bogota reveals its unique urban intelligence when it rains. The “aguacero” (heavy rain) bogotano that can last for several days and nights, brings back the city to a primordial state full of water and cold humidity that remind us that this area is, and was, watery, swampy, crossed by rivers, creeks, and wetlands. It is precisely as we enter the rainy season that the city shows its deep time urban mediation, as an amphibious tropical body. “Abril aguas mil” (April thousand waters) says a popular saying here. Inundated sidewalks, furious creeks running through canals, and lagoons on the streets collapse the transportation system. Interestingly, the collapse of the modern city, is what makes evident the deep time mediation of Bogota. One version of the foundation of the city, says that it was precisely an aguacero what made the Spaniard conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quezada stop his expedition in search of ElDorado and decide to create a colonial urban settlement next to the east hills, in what was part of the Muisca indigenous territory of Bacatá.

Urban media archeologist Shannon Mattern reminds us that media infrastructures “have been embedded in and informing the morphological evolution of our cities since their coming into being.” I believe that water systems have been informing the city of Bogota during several centuries. Perhaps more precisely, these systems have informed the human settlements in the Bogota savanna at the high plateau Eastern Mountain Ranges of the Colombian Andes. It was in these savanna where where the Muiscas indigenous people settled Bacatá, their main confederation. Full of rivers, creeks, lagoons, and wetlands, the area has been covered by water for millennia. And it still runs. Water runs. River runs. Rain runs in Bogotá. In the 21st century the main avenues and streets transform into rivers and lakes. Some of them in lagoons and lakes. Today, the main rivers, Salitre (Juan Amarillo), Fucha, y Tunjuelo run in canals that are on and underground. Almost 200 bodies of water, including creeks, streams, brooks, and rills lead into these three main rivers, and, of course, to the Bogota river, that runs in the the west of the city, drawing the urban limits.

This week we read Mattern’s Deep Mapping the Media City for the Signs of the Culture class I am teaching this semester. While preparing the class I couldn’t avoid the temptation to look up maps of Bogota, and dig up layers of history, even if only virtually. I love the tools of archeology and geography, particularly maps. They are great for explorations, digging, and tracing the infrastructure entanglements. I used as a clue for my search the bridge that was found in Las Aguas, close to the intersection of Calle 19 and Carrera 4th, and that was found by chance, in 2000, by the workers that built the Eje Ambiental (Environmental Axes) in downtown Bogota. I was an undergrad student at Universidad de los Andes when the workers found it and I remember when the bridge appeared in the middle of the construction. Nobody knew what to do with the bridge. It was an unexpected finding. Even an obstacle, that delayed the construction of the Eje Ambiental for several weeks.

Today, one can see the bridge surrounded by a fence, lonely, with vegetation growing around, semi-hidden from the the people who walks. There are not signs that explains its origin, its history, its trajectory. The curious person needs to go closer to the fence in order to look for it, look at the ground, and see a semi-open whole, where the bridge lies, sit under the surface, covered by grass and wild clovers and flowers. Dandelions emerge with their daisy flowers during tome of the rainy seasons.

It turns out that the bridge is not that alone as it seems. Instead, it is part of a series of bridges that have been buried since colonial times under other layers of urban strata. It is part of a network that has been overlapped by other networks, creating a dense infrastructure entanglement. “Networks overlap upon other networks,” as Friedrich Kitler argues in his seminal essay The city is Medium. The network of bridges over creeks and rivers indeed existed in Bogota through several centuries. This article provides some evidence in maps and tables of 30 bridges that existed in Bogota from the 16 to the 19th century. This structures connected shores, neighborhoods, and provided an infrastructure for walking over the many bodies of water.

The water infrastructure, however, is perhaps the one that is calling my attention these days. The water as a medium has structured the city even before its foundation. Water systems have made the indigenous Bacata and the colonial and modern Bogota a hybrid body, an anfibious ecosystem. Today when it rains for consecutive days and nights, the primordial character of these city emerges. With its cold humidity of páramo, in the middle of the highlands, with water running underneath, on the ground, on the walls and roofs. While the modern and postmodern cities collapse during the furious rains, the ancient city remerges, with its flows, sounds, and cold humid weather, changing the rhythms and patterns of mobility and altering all the senses.

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