A view of the Medellin skyline. Photo by: Iván Erre Jota / CC BY-SA

Fans of Netflix, a popular television streaming service, were treated to the new season of Narcos over the weekend. The hit series depicts the destructive cat-and-mouse game by Colombian and U.S. authorities in their effort to dismantle Colombia’s drug cartels, epitomized by its most ruthless villain, Pablo Escobar. Decades of drug warfare put the country on the brink of becoming a failed state.

The show’s popularity derives, in part, from Colombia’s turnaround since the 1990s. Crime, gang violence and the drug trade are certainly still pressing issues in Colombia, like in other parts of the developing world. But the social progress and economic development of the past 20 years have put Colombia in a much better state.

Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, is often the focal point of that renaissance. The home of Escobar and the base of his cartel’s operations, Medellin was once ground zero for Colombia’s drug wars but has since been in an ongoing state of revival.

The city ramped up law enforcement personnel and technology — in parallel with broader domestic security priorities — to better crackdown on the drug cartels, gangs and militias. Medellin’s homicide rate has decreased twentyfold since 1991 and murders are now 95 percent less per capita than they were 25 years ago. An important component was also the city’s use of urban planning to empower its citizens. City officials drew up a number of municipal projects and interventions to promote greater social inclusion through creative urban design and architectural planning — a process now referred to as “social urbanism.”

Medellin is home to perhaps the world’s most famous urban escalators and cable cars that connect lower-income neighborhoods to central nodes of the city, empowering citizens with a greater degree of mobility. Parks, libraries and city squares have been refurbished to provide a stronger sense of ownership and inclusion in the city’s public spaces.

Together they have earned Medellin much international acclaim. In 2009 Medellin won the Curry Stone Design Prize — an annual award for innovative excellence in humanitarian design. In 2012 the Urban Land Institute, an international nonprofit, named Medellin “Innovative City of the Year.” And earlier this year Medellin was awarded the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, named after Singapore’s first prime minister, for its sustainable urban design.

The “Medellin Model” will likely garner a lot of attention at the United Nations Habitat III summit next month when world leaders convene to approve a “New Urban Agenda” of policies and strategies for sustainable urban development. A key agenda item for Habitat III is the issue of inclusive societies. With more than half of the world’s population now living in urban areas, cities, for all their economic vibrancy, have also given rise to stark inequalities. Many municipal leaders will be keen to study the approach taken by Medellin to reduce violence and promote greater social inclusion.

But don’t use the term “model” to describe Medellin, says one of the chief planners of the city’s revival. Doing so suggests a blueprint that can be replicated and simplifies the dialogue and multistakeholder processes, unique to the city, that went into the various municipal interventions. And calling a city a model may be a bit premature, since many problems — related to violence, drugs and gangs — still afflict Medellin.

But there is still much that can be learned from Medellin’s approach to promoting greater social inclusion through its urban development.

Devex spoke with Alejandro Echeverri, the director of urban projects under Sergio Fajardo, Medellin’s mayor from 2004 to 2007, about those lessons and the main takeaways from the city’s experience. Fajardo’s administration is widely credited with kicking off Medellin’s urban transformation and Echeverri was one its principal leaders. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

Describe social urbanism and how it came to play such a central part in Medellin’s turnaround.

It’s important to know that Medellin has a very complex combination of extreme poverty and violence. As a result, we had a terrible tragedy in this city. I have lived my whole life in the shadows of violence and inequality. So the question was how to produce more inclusive policies, programs and processes that could close those gaps, and how public spaces and urban transformation could help with that challenge as well. How could we write a new narrative or new history of the city’s social problems and improve the quality of life of people?

Social urbanism has the idea of thinking with a more holistic conception — to develop a physical transformation focused on public spaces, recover confidence in public spaces and promote transparency. At the same time, it tries to include and develop different strategies about education, culture and community collaboration. We haven’t by any means solved all of Medellin’s problems. Medellin still has structural problems, but I think its history today is very different than it was before.

What were the main steps to connect the vision of social urbanism with the concrete actions of urban development? How did you set the wheels in motion?

You have to be very strategic by selecting what and where you want to work because it’s impossible to solve all of the problems of the municipality. Our focus was on two to three areas.

The main one concerned the public transport system and the areas where the cable cars now run. The city was building a new public transport system at the time and the idea was to integrate a cable car system with the metro system, mainly through a cable car in the northeast part of the city. We figured this was a high-impact area being where the narcos and Pablo Escobar once operated and was weighed down by violence and informal parts of the economy.

We thought about how to develop a holistic intervention starting with the cable car stations and its impact on the common life of the people. How could we help to recover public spaces and small neighborhood streets and stairways in ways that improve the daily lives of citizens? For example, by making it easier for mothers to walk their children to school. How could we improve that condition by adding bigger components of infrastructure and transport systems? The priorities were the “barrios” (neighborhoods). We wanted to focus on pragmatic areas and apply holistic interventions that combined public transport, new public spaces, housing and new services around education and culture.

The true aim was a reconciliation between the people and their community. Infrastructure was one of the tools. How could public spaces permit people to recover the confidence in terms of how they use the city? In Medellin the violence produced a lot of structural problems. We lost the confidence to use the streets. You could not cross from one barrio to the next after 5 p.m. because it belonged to the militias. But you can transform the city with new interventions through simple actions. If you multiply and interconnect those actions with the common life of the people through higher quality services, education, schools, library and parks it changes the way people use the barrios. The idea was to transform the relation of people and society itself to recover confidence in their urban quality of life. Architecture helps a lot in that regard.

Medellin’s cable cars and city escalators are the most visual representation of the city’s transformation. What should people be seeing beyond the physical dimensions of those systems?

The key thing about Medellin is the integral and holistic concepts of the interventions. If you go to the escalators or take the cable cars and experience how they help communities, you will see very easily that the most important feature is the relation between the cable cars and the school that is 100 meters away from the station; or the center of entrepreneurship that is 100 meters away; or the library that is 150 meters; and how the street where the station is was completely transformed.

The city’s design was done with the logic of connecting one systemic intervention to the next — not only physical, but programmatic as well and how they became part of the common life of the community. So you cannot tell the history of Medellin only with one building or one cable car line. It’s a more complex condition.

I like to use the word proximity. How could you develop a close conversation with the realities of a community? What are the needs of the community? The idea is not an urban renewal program. Urban renewal means you erase everything and build new things. The idea is to engage a community with existing infrastructure and, when needed, improve things by connecting new interventions.

How you can develop a special sensibility of the infrastructure that connects with everyday life? A tragedy of urban transformation and public policies with cities is that policy experts are very often far removed from the realities, conditions and necessities of the community. You have to combine new dreams and new strategic visions that connect with the community. So cable cars and new libraries belong to a strategic vision, which is a very dense agenda around infrastructure, connections and services.

Do you ever get tired of hearing all the success stories about Medellin? Do they distract from all the work and improvements that still need to be done?

I don’t like the word “model.” Talking about models is very dangerous because it simplifies things and uses simple images to replicate the process. Medellin could teach a lot if you understand how the process happened. How the communication and dialogues produced agreements that became projects and infrastructure and how the city combined programs in different scales.

The problem we have in our cities is the fragility of the politics and the lack of continuity in the policies. In Medellin the challenge is huge. I am optimistic because we have started to solve the problems. We have started to ask the right questions, but we have a long way to go to solve those problems.

The city still has huge inequalities. We still have high rates of violence in many parts.

We have a huge problem with housing. How can we apply housing projects on a larger scale? How can we increase and improve the public transport system for all places in the city? There’s a big amount of informal occupation in risky areas. We need years to stabilize and relocate those families. And how to develop a more sustainable conception of the city in terms of green corridors and transport.

We are optimistic that the spirit of the city today is completely different, but we are far from the place where we have all of the problems solved.

What are your main expectations for Habitat III when many cities will likely looked to Medellin for advice on urbanism and sustainability?

The most important thing is to connect with the people. It’s not an extraordinary concept. But the problem is that most public policies and urban programs focus on other objectives. I believe that the transformation of cities has to happen with the people and for the people. In that sense, I believe that dense agendas full of small actions and interconnected to each other can transform societies. I don’t believe in the big projects that relate to big infrastructure that make it tough to connect with the realities of communities. Unfortunately, most governments and U.N. Habitat think in big policies and big actions as the only way to transform societies. I really I hope that questions that connect to the communities have scale at Habitat III to develop other agendas.

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About the author

  • Naki B. Mendoza

    Naki is a former reporter, he covered the intersection of business and international development. Prior to Devex he was a Latin America reporter for Energy Intelligence covering corporate investments and political risks in the region’s energy sector. His previous assignments abroad have posted him throughout Europe, South America, and Australia.