The La Paz Zebras: Citizen culture project
Continent：South AmericaCountry：BoliviaCity：La PazYear Submitted：2016
- La Paz Zebras is a very successful project aiming to actively involve highly vulnerable youth in a citizen education program by which they become urban educators disguised and role-acting as zebras, an obvious but creative reference to pedestrian crossings on streets. Their aim is to change the undesirable behavior seen every day in pedestrians and car drivers (e.g. not respecting crossings, ignoring traffic lights or getting on and off public transport anywhere).
- Starting with 24 participants, the project currently welcomes 300 zebras per year. So far more than 3000 young citizens have been part of the project. Thanks to it, they have managed to overcome a number of challenges related to drugs, delinquency and other illegal activities. Due to its success, nowadays the project is a trademark of the City La Paz, and has been replicated in many other cities of Bolivia and Latin-America.
- The 24th of July of 2015, UNESCO declared the La Paz Zebras a “cultural asset” of the world, for their contribution to the development of a stronger citizen culture in La Paz, replicated in many other cities of Bolivia and Latin America.
- In May of 2014, the La Paz City Council declared the Zebra Project a cultural asset of the city (Municipal Law 119/2015), for its major contribution to the city´s quest for better living conditions.
- The reasons that led to this initiative are two. First, the need to motivate citizens to improve their behavior on streets, either as pedestrians or drivers, particularly in a colonial-looking city like La Paz, where streets are narrow and thus spaces are limited.
- Second, it was necessary to provide a different life prospect to a growing number of youth who, after enduring very though childhoods due to poverty, family violence or orphanage are admittedly highly vulnerable to fall in different illegal activities.
Goals of the Initiative
- The goals of the initiative are basically two:
- Improving the behaviour of the citizens on the street and public spaces in general. This should lead to lower levels of traffic incidents and increase in the levels of happiness within the city. It has been demonstrated that citizens react positively to the friendly and creative messages given by the zebras, thus building new patterns of behaviour.
- Minimize the number of young citizens involved in illegal activities. In essence, every young citizen joining the program is one new human being who wants to contribute to society.
Parties and Partners to the Initiative and Resources Used for Implementation
- The project is so innovative that has been supported by the private sector in several ways and in a number of times. The “zebra for one day” program, which is currently ongoing, has been a way employers and employees at the private sector can actively support the campaign and raise awareness on the topics it promotes. Also, many private firms have offered financial support for specific activities designed for the zebras.
- Recognizing that poverty is one of the main issues these young citizens suffer from, the La Paz municipality hires them as urban educators on a part-time basis and pays them the minimum legal wage, representing more than Bs3 million (close to half a millions US dollars) per year. Also, a coaching staff of the Municipality permanently trains the old and anew zebras, developing new and more creative techniques in order to motivate a better behavior among the citizens.
Innovation for the Initiative
- Back in 2001, the initiative was certainly revolutionary, because it was a completely different way to generate changes in the behavior of people. And perhaps because of this novel approach, it was so successful almost immediately, as more and more citizens started to respect pedestrian crossings.
- Currently, after 15 years of continuous work, it has become more evolutionary, since now the zebras have evolved from simple actors trying to defend pedestrian crossings to proper urban educators in many issues faced by the city (e.g. respecting traffic lights, keeping the city clean, respecting the elder and taking care of children).
- The zebra initiative was a local innovation which, in turn, has been borrowed by some other cities in Bolivia and Latin-America over the last few years. To the best of our knowledge, it was the first of its type back in 2001 and the fact that it considered not only people disguised as zebras but actors with a social purpose, made it even more revolutionary.
- The innovation is actively applied in policy implementation, as part of the mobility strategy of the city and, as the project evolves, as part of an ambitious citizen culture and participation strategy. The Zebras Project will remain a key tool for improving mobility in the city despite an ever-growing number of cars that circulate within the city, but also support many other city campaigns related to social and environmental objectives, such as taking care of the elder or learning how to recycle residuals.
Obstacles and Solutions to the Innovation
- A growing number of citizens living and cars circulating in the city are two major challenges, due to high immigration rates from the rural areas. Migrants often do not know most of the rules related to traffic and other social activities and thus tend to incur in several related faults. That is why the innovation still needs to reinforce even the most basic ideas it promotes. The risk of over-exposing the zebras is also present, but fortunately the coaching team keeps finding innovative ways to revitalize the image of the project to keep it fresh and friendly.
Outcomes and Assessments
- The project has accomplished a lot over its 15-year history. It is now a trademark of the city and even a touristic attraction. Its impact motivating a better behavior of citizens in the streets and other social activities, has been widely documented and replicated, thus helping decisively to improve the quality of life of the citizens of La Paz. So far more than 3000 young zebras have been part of the project, giving them a new perspective in life after a troubled childhood. Currently more than 250 zebras are actively contributing to the program.
- While most of its impact has been local, the fact that other Bolivian cities have replicated the program implies that the project is gradually achieving national impact. A remarkable spin-off, a TV show called “The Z” about the life of one of these young zebras as a leader of its community, gives the project yet another scale of impact.
- Given its nature, it is difficult to consider a large number of quantitative metrics in order to assess the initiative’s impact. Nevertheless, we take the number of participants in the program (currently at 250) and new applicants each year as an indicator of its success. Likewise, the number of press reports about the project and the number people and firms interested in being part of the “Zebra for one day”, account as indirect measures of its impact and relevance.
- Thanks to the Zebras, the city is perceived as much friendlier and affable. The Zebras have become a remarkable touristic attraction over the years and a friendly and ever-present personality for children.
- The methodology developed by the Municipality to transform young vulnerable citizens into urban educators with high impact in the society has evolved to become a trademark of the institution, called “The zebra transformational methodology”, aiming to inspire these people with troubled childhoods to pursue happiness and visualize a life-project, a new attitude towards life which can then be extrapolated to their interaction with drivers and pedestrians every day. This methodology is now being replicated by primary school teachers of the city.
Benefit to Other Cities
- The Zebras Project is a human innovation in terms of public policy aiming to solve at least two human problems seen every day: a) vulnerable youth at the verge of becoming delinquents or falling into drugs, with no clear life project at sight; and b) low levels of citizen culture and participation among the city´s population.
- Given its remarkable success over the years, currently there is no municipal event without a group of zebras bringing joy and laughter to the citizens of all ages. Many children often ask to have the zebras as the main entertainment at their birthday parties, with traffic education and citizen responsibility the main topics they promote in such events.
- Many young zebras of 15 years ago are now fine women and men, with stable jobs and who now have their own families and, in some, cases have opted to pursue higher education. Every one of them is a life story that probably deserved to be told as a way to inspire the new generations who are suffering similar challenges in their lives.
- Motivated by their friendly approach and the transformational methodology they apply in order to motivate behavioral changes, even the most reluctant citizen will end up smiling and following the recommendations and advice offered by the zebras.
- This still a work in process and the increasing number of people and cars in the city imposes new challenges to this project, but the experience gathered over so many successful years and their prestige among citizens gives them an optimistic outlook for the future.
- In fact, the newer versions of zebras are also creating awareness and inspiring new citizen commitment and participation in many other highly relevant urban issues, such as eco-efficiency in terms of solid residuals and the usage of water and energy, and resilience and adaptation against climate change and several natural risks faced in the region, just to name the most relevant and urgent.
- In sum, the Zebras Project is a Citizen Culture Project of the City of La Paz which improves the quality of life of its citizens and aims to decisively contribute to their happiness and welfare on a sustainable basis, since it is fundamentally based on human behavior.