For Release Thursday, May 9, 2013
(Editor’s note: This column was originally published May 9).
Plenty of people who knew of Medellín only through its reputation for drug wars were likely surprised when the Colombian city won City of the Year earlier this year, from the Wall Street Journal and Citi, besting New York and Tel Aviv in online voting run by the Urban Land Institute. In this piece, Citistates Associate Nicholas You recounts the decade-long work by a series of innovative mayors to improve not only the physical environment but to inspire social inclusion among the city’s poorest neighborhoods. – Mary Newsom
My first visit to Medellín, Colombia, was in 1995, just a little more than a year after the demise of Pablo Escobar, the renowned drug lord who ran the Medellín Cartel. The internecine warfare sparked by his death brought the city to its knees through relentless violence and crime. By 1999, my second visit, no one ventured out after dark.
Yet it was during this time that the first phase of the Medellín Metro rail system was launched – Colombia’s first mass transit system. Its two lines connected downtown with middle class suburbs and a few lower-income neighborhoods. Today it provides efficient and reliable service for more than half a million commuters daily. The metro also inspired a series of urban rehabilitation projects that began to transform the city center into a more urbane space. Rundown warehouse areas were converted into attractive pedestrian malls for stores, restaurants and cafes.
Even so, the city – second largest in Colombia – continued to suffer the ravages of its narco-trafficking past. Violent crime and social exclusion characterized the city, and to this day its income inequity remains among the most extreme of any city in the Western hemisphere.