The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Medellín: an urban facelift that's more than skin deep

Eye-catching new architecture projects are emblematic of Medellín's return from a city of violence to a city of 'research and entrepreneurship'. But behind the scenes is a multilayered program of social and physical interventions, disarmament of paramilitary groups and security improvements, a program not without its mistakes as Flavie Halais reports.

Flavie Halais

Flavie Halais

Cities: Medellin

Topics: New cities and special projects, Crime and security, Parks and green space, Architecture and urban design

It can be difficult to picture exactly how much Medellín has changed over the past years when visiting the city for the first time. This was once the most dangerous city in the world, with up to 6,000 deaths per year at the height of violence between the state, narco-traffickers, right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerillas. Nowadays, Medellín offers its residents and visitors a relative safety, allowing them to enjoy a spotless subway line linking the city from north to south, three cable car lines connecting peripheral neighbourhoods to the core, as well as the many parks, plazas and landmark buildings that define its new identity.

Bold architecture projects are unusually common here, thanks to a well-nurtured local culture of architecture and planning. But aesthetics aren't only at play. While it is every architect's and planner's dream that a project alone could achieve significant social change, in Medellín it seems every one of them has. In fact the story of the city's transformation has often been told with architecture at the forefront; an easy, yet incomplete way to learn the lessons from Medellín.

'You must conduct various programs simultaneously in order to start reclaiming [territory],' he says. 'There must be a combination of social intervention, physical intervention, and security programs.'

One such project, hidden in the heart of Comuna 13, one of Medellín's most sensitive areas, was inaugurated just a few months ago. There in the Las independencias neighbourhood, a series of six escalators have been built in order to spare residents the 400-metre-high climb up to the top of the hill, which they had described as one of the biggest impairments to quality of life. Work is being overseen by the local PUI (Proyectos Urbanos Integrales, or Integrated Urban Projects), one of several units from the city's urban planning department that aims to bring architects, engineers and social workers under one roof and set them up in areas requiring a large amount of coordinated interventions.

Like others, Las Independencias' project was built after months of assessment, in close partnership with residents. 'We've had to work with them and explain that the project would be theirs and they would have to take care of it,' one of the team's social workers said to me.

Residents I talked to were happy about the stairs and wished for similar projects to be build elsewhere in the area, even though they complained of construction delays. More importantly, construction has been accompanied by social programs for the youth and the return of the police, which resulted in improved security. 'They're reclaiming territory with the works,' said Sorangela Gonzalez, a 50-year-old resident, as a police officer was casually chatting with three young boys nearby.

Implementing 'social urbanism'

Medellín's way of conducting urban development has been refined under Sergio Fajardo's mayorship, from 2003 to 2007. Together with then-head of urban works Alejandro Echeverri, they perfected what has been called 'social urbanism': multifaceted interventions that are integrated both with the neighbourhood and with other public programs being conducted in the area.

Fajardo and Echeverri are perhaps most known for creating a network of award-winning libraries in the poorest neighbourhoods, which serve as community centres as much as spaces of leisure, providing children with alternatives to joining gangs.

While their work has sometimes been credited for a dramatic decline of violence in the city since the early 2000s, Echeverri is quick to point out that a number of factors were at play, notably the federal demobilisation program of paramilitaries that has had a big impact on communities like Comuna 13. 'You must conduct various programs simultaneously in order to start reclaiming [territory],' he says. 'There must be a combination of social intervention, physical intervention, and security programs.'

He also mentions a pre-existing culture of entrepreneurship which has allowed the city to keep functioning even at the height of violence. 'You have to understand that Medellín has always been Colombia's industrial city, a centre of research and entrepreneurship. There's a lot of activity here,' he says, 'even if from the outside we've been known for narco-trafficking.'

One such example of Medellín's peculiar business culture is EPM (Empresas Públicas de Medellín), the massive city-owned utilities company whose profits are used to finance a number of public projects. EPM's mandate makes it mandatory to serve all neighourhoods, including new slums. This means informal settlements have never stopped receiving basic public services, unlike other Latin American cities.

Some fear that a change in administration could one day cause Medellín to suffer the fate of Bogotá, where innovative projects like the BRT have been stalling in recent years.

Medellín's approach has generated its share of lesser-known mistakes. Although relocation seems not to have been a problem in Las Independencias, residents who had to make way for other works were shipped to new housing projects in the periphery, where public services are scarce. There, families coming from neighbourhoods controlled by rival armed groups are thrown together, which has caused a number of fatal disputes.

The Empresa de Desarollo Urbano de Medellín (EDU — the Urban Development Company of Medellín) is also struggling with the arrival of migrants, who tend to settle in slums on the hills and face frequent landslides. In order to control urban sprawl, EDU has come up with an ambitious plan to set up a 'green belt' on the hills and declare the surrounding areas as nature reserves. A risky plan, since managing sprawl depends mainly on dealing with the roots of urban migration (in the case of Medellín, migrants often flee rural areas plagued by violence) and collaborating with other municipalities from the metropolitan area. It's kind of hard not to see the green belt as a wall in disguise.

Of all challenges, political will might be the biggest. Some fear that a change in administration could one day cause Medellín to suffer the fate of Bogotá, where innovative projects like the BRT have been stalling in recent years. But the incredible resilience this city has shown in past decades makes me think that, should this ever happen, it will rebound once again.

(@flaviehalais) is a journalist, blogger and filmmaker in Montreal. She is currently conducting research on the impact of mega-events in Brazil.