Nataliia Midna

The last UN Habitat World Urban Forum, the world’s premier conference on urban issues, was held in Medellin, the “Most Innovative City” of 2012 according to the Wall Street Journal. But did you know that in 1991 it was the murder capital of the world? And did you know that now it is a top tourist destination in Columbia? I didn’t. And doesn’t it sound counter-intuitively? So what happened there that dragged the city out of the violence dump and turned it into the innovation center?

Medellin is the second largest city in Columbia with more than 2,4 million inhabitants. Until 1993 it was the main drug trafficking area and a home to the world-famous Medellin Cartel with Pablo Escobar as its leader. In that time, the situation was so bad that in 1991 there were 381 murders per 100,000 residents. A big issue for the local government was city’s suburban settlements called “comunas” which were created informally by displaced people from all over the country. Those who lived there felt detached from the city and it created a great internal segregation. The city of Medellin just like the whole country was caught in the middle of tough inner conflicts and violence. But everything was shaken in 1993 when Escobar was killed – the renovation process started.

For the first time in a history the idea of welfare of the poorest neighbourhoods as a key to success of the city as a whole spread through the minds of local authorities. To engage this concept the Medellín Academy developed a theory of social urbanism. It was a progressive concept that aimed to connect isolated communas of Medellin with each other and with the whole city in using its main principles of equity and environmental friendliness. To achieve its goals the theory needed an approach and the solution was found in the integral urban project. This approach focuses on injecting investment into specific areas, mostly the poorest communities, in an attempt to empower citizens and their participation and social trust.

But every city during a major transformation needs its leader and Medellin found one in Sergio Fajardo who was a mayor from 2003 to 2007. His philosophy was expressed in one famous phrase: “Our most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas” which became a kind of motto for the whole city.

So what exactly did they do within this social urbanism concept? The poorest and the most dangerous district was chosen to be the flagman of changes – Communa 13. It is situated on a hill and people living there needed connection with the rest of the city so the changes started with infrastructure development. And for that matter, a giant 384-meter escalator was built. It takes only six minutes to reach the top of the mountain! Another transport problem solution was a Metrocable for communas on the hills and modernized metro lines accessible to all citizens. This new transportation system not only improved the daily quality of life but also disrupted the drug trade routes and influenced a rise of commerce in the city.

In the same district, the most marginalized area in Medellin, authorities decided to build the biggest modern library – Parque Biblioteca España, that became a symbol of social urbanism. Here, people can find free Internet, art centers and different activities that drag them from the streets.

All over the city neglected territories were revitalized with new pedestrian walkways, free public bicycles, health centers and green areas. The biggest garbage dump was transformed into a large community garden with a view-to-kill on the city. To pull youth from drug gangs numerous cultural centers were built. Moravia Center for Cultural Development and Son Bata are the most famous ones – people can get here free music lessons or visit any available art classes. All these new venues provided a place for social engagement and those areas are not abandoned anymore, people feel safe as well as valued and noticed.

Important to know that all these projects were financed by the public-private partnership. Plus, a level of citizens engagement in a development process is very high – 20 great projects in 2015 were planned and realized through a participatory process with the community.

The transformation process wasn’t easy and peaceful at all and there are still major unsolved problems standing on Medellin’s way to social inclusion, equality, and sustainability but let’s save it for another time and appreciate all the work done during the last decade by local authorities, the private sector and citizens themselves.

Nataliia Midna

The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of the author, and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of ALDA and the European Union.