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.
Photo credit: Alejandro Sajor, Wikimedia Commons
Starting in 2003 under Mayor Luis Perez (2000-2003), the city started to re-think urbanism. Perez initiated the idea of a metrocable system, a network of nine cable car systems connecting the favelas of the valley of Medellín with the city center. The first line of ski-lift-like gondolas opened in 2004; the lines were completed in 2010.
The Metrocable has revolutionized mobility for residents, particularly the poorest – and often most violent – communities on the slopes of Medellín’s mountains. The Metrocable has had a transformative effect there. New nodes along the system’s stations have led to new commerce and services. A little-publicized result has been that residents for the first time saw their houses and neighborhoods from above. That led them to improve their rooftops and their backyards. Their view sparked a new “sense of place.”
Education for all
Mayor Sergio Fajardo (2004-2007) accelerated the completion of Perez’s project to connect, and thus empower, some of Medellín’s most socially isolated inhabitants. He was well aware of the social and economic inequalities in Medellín, but as a mathematics teacher, he knew a city has limited capacity to change such imbalances. His vision was to give a fair chance to future generations through universal access to education. He began a campaign focusing on “education for all” and took advantage of the Metrocable’s penetration into the favelas to build schools to help ensure access to education.
Two highlights of his term included comprehensive slum upgrading to improve living conditions, and building a world-class children’s library at the summit of the Metrocable. This library shifted the center of gravity of Medellín toward the heart of the slums. With the Metrocable, the library dramatically illustrates how transit-oriented development can be applied meaningfully to low-income areas.
This initiative and the hubs it created paved the way for new investment in infrastructure, in home and neighborhood improvement and in services and amenities. Even more important is the sense of pride and dignity created as a result of those innovative initiatives.
The last mile
Mayor Alonso Salazar (2008-2011) built on and expanded his predecessors’ initiatives. He listened to the favelas’ inhabitants and put in place the world’s largest open-air escalator. (See some news coverage and images here, here and here.) It constitutes the “last mile” for inhabitants of an area known as Comuna 13, previously notorious for violence and social exclusion, and shortens a formerly 35-minute twice-daily hike up a steep hillside to six minutes. It’s free to use and has dramatically changed the lives of children and the elderly.
Sustainable urban planning and management
Other public strategies in Medellín include:
- A project connecting public spaces and pedestrian routes to green space and parks.
- A digital portal that lets users to calculate their carbon, commute time, and monetary savings of using the metro system.
- Bike-sharing and rideshare/carpooling programs.
Moving into the future
Mayor Aníbal Gaviria, who took office in 2012, has vowed to build on his predecessors’ accomplishments. He is committed to continue Medellín Digital, a partnership between the City of Medellín and a local telecom service provider, making information and communications technology a tool for development and social change. Close to half Medellín’s residents are now regular Internet users – significantly higher than the national average.
Like many of its Latin American counterparts, Medellín still suffers from extreme inequality and injustice. One can argue that the income inequality is primarily a responsibility of the national government. Nevertheless, for more than a decade, with different political parties and hotly disputed elections, a remarkable city continuum has worked to overcome a violent and unjust legacy.
Many of the solutions implemented look, in retrospect, like logical responses to a desperate situation. But who in the world would have used a ski lift to connect slum dwellers with the backbone of a city? Who would have planted a world-class library at the apex of a slum? Who would have resolved the “last mile” connection for the urban poor with the world’s largest open-air escalator?
Those are just the most visible achievements of Medellín. None of it could have happened without teamwork among the politicians, city administrators and citizens – or without the right mix of leadership and civic engagement.
Nicholas You is a veteran urban and intergovernmental expert, architect-planner and organizer of international city activities. Based in Nairobi, he recently capped 28 years of service to various United Nations agencies with five years as senior policy and strategic planning adviser for UN-Habitat.
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