It has gained its fame from Netflix’s hit show “Narcos” and through tales about drug-lord Pablo Escobar, but truth is that Medellin is now being recognised for much more than that. The Colombian city has opted for urbanism and architecture in order to tackle unemployment and crime. This strategy is turning Medellin into a world-renowned hub for urban innovation and development.
Through the 60s and 70s, Latin American cities saw a high level of urban migration and Medellin was no exception. As a consequence, new neighborhoods and informal settlements rose rapidly around the periphery of the city. Soon, these settlements were caught in the midst of a complex fight between drug cartels, police, guerrillas and paramilitary forces. However, during the mid-90s Medellin witnessed intense police raids and drug-lord hunts that put an end to this conflict.
Consequently, local politicians saw an opportunity to rebuild and reinvent Medellin. Mayor Sergio Fajardo (2003-2007) used social urbanism to develop forgotten and marginalised areas of the city. Fajardo opted for architecture and urbanism as tools for social development. The city launched a series of projects focused on participatory and inclusive politics as well as innovative institutional schemes.
As a result, crime and unemployment have considerably decreased. There have also been improvements in mobility, governance, and education as well as in the creation of public spaces and green areas. These policies and projects have helped recover the most impoverished areas. Additionally, there is a sense of dignity and pride among Medellin residents regarding their city. You can catch a glimpse of their pride in this video co-produced by the city council.
For instance, the Metro Cable has helped to connect neighborhoods and settlements. It has reduced displacement time by one hour and it has benefited 134 000 inhabitants. Urban escalators are helping citizens’ mobility through inclined areas and allow them to reach the metro more easily in a neighborhood called Comuna 13. Additionally, the Biblioteca Espana is a learning center that provides various educational services, mainly aimed at young people.
Recognition and remaining challenges
The success of these projects and interventions has not gone unnoticed. This year, Medellin has been awarded the Lee Kuan Yew Award, one of the world’s most highly recognised prizes for urban development. Additionally, Medellin has inspired other Latin American cities to pursue urban development strategies to tackle similar social and economic problems.
Nevertheless, there are areas of Medellin that remain indifferent to the success of these policies. Most rich areas of the city are opting for private investment. Despite the considerable decrease in crime, Medellin’s economic elite are building highly-secured residential areas and shopping malls. These measures are contradicting the council’s pursuit to create more public spaces. Additionally, the exclusive nature of private investment can create further fragmentation and enmity among citizens. In order to prevent this, it is important to establish public-private coordination and seek non-excluding initiatives.
Medellin has reinvented itself and it seems that it will continue to do so. The city is proving that through innovation, urban development, and inclusive politics, social development is possible. It is important that other Latin American cities facing similar issues see Medellin’s success as an example of what can be achieved when the city works for its citizens and finds solutions for urban development.