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Medellin, Colombia: Why inclusivity and innovation are sparking urban renewal (Part 2)

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Medellin is a city that has achieved a lot in the last 20 years. It has transcended its difficult past and become a better integrated, more accessible and safer place to live than before. It is no longer the ‘no-go’ city for Colombians, tourists and businesses that it once was.

Today Medellin is a bustling, cosmopolitan city with a good transport system that is clean, efficient and integrated. The city’s public spaces are well-used, accessible and contribute to uplifting the areas in which they have been developed. Citizens enjoy greater access – via the city’s integrated transit routes – to neighbouring communities, libraries, schools and other public facilities like community parks and educational institutions than previously.

Neighbourhoods, particularly in the city’s poorer areas, are safer than they were before.

The city’s murder rate, for example, has been reduced significantly over the last two decades. Prior to the death of the infamous drug cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar in 1993 and the subsequent dismantling of Medellin’s drug cartels, the city had a murder rate of approximately 381 homicides per 100,000. The New York Times estimates that “[i]n New York City that would add up to an almost inconceivable 32,000 murders a year”. By 2007 following improved law enforcement support and the upgrade of various public spaces and facilities, the murder rate had been reduced dramatically to 34 per 100,000. Since 2007, however, this figure has fluctuated and – while it significantly below what it was in the early 1990s – the incidence of violent crime remains a concern for the people of Medellin.

I recently spent some time exploring Medellin and had the opportunity to experience some of the benefits of the city’s urban renewal programme.

I was impressed by how many public spaces in Medellin are functional spaces. These vibrant spaces fit into and uplift the neighbourhoods in which they are located. They have been created for and with the people who use them in mind. These spaces are well used and well maintained by the municipality and the people who use them.

I was equally struck by how much collective ownership the citizens of Medellin have in their public spaces and facilities, particularly given the city’s history. “You will see that the Metro trains are always clean, for example. They are our trains. We use them everyday and we therefore take good care of them. You won’t see anyone eating or drinking on them. We don’t like to see our trains and public spaces in a mess,” says Carlos, a young professional who lives in Medellin and who I met in the city’s El Poblado neighbourhood. It was refreshing to see people who are connected to and proud of their city.

The urban renewal of Medellin has sparked a paradigm shift amongst those living and those visiting the city (me included!). The citizens of Medellin are taking a greater interest in their city than before. Visiting the city and chatting to people who live and work in the area, one gets a strong sense of what collective ownership looks and feels like.

So how did Medellin become the city it is today? What steps were taken to upgrade the city’s public spaces and facilities? How was a culture of transformation created in a city once notorious for its violent crime?

Inspired by my experience of Medellin, I explored this a bit further to get some answers and identified two key ingredients that have contributed to Medellin’s incredible renewal: inclusivity and innovation.

Read Part 1 about innovation here

INNOVATION

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Inclusivity means nothing if you are unable to design and build the kinds of neighbourhoods that people will value. The development and implementation of Medellin’s urban renewal programme therefore needed to be infused with a healthy dose of innovation, creativity and a “can-do” attitude. Ideas (particularly those identified during the community engagements) needed to become a reality if Medellin was truly to become a better place to live.

During my recent visit to Medellin I experienced innovation at work. One impressive example of this is the way in which the city’s transport system has been innovatively designed to be as accessible and functional to as many people as possible.

Since 2004, people living in areas located high up on the hills surrounding the city (typically the city’s poorer areas) can access the city’s integrated train and bus system by making use of cable cars.

The installation of the cable cars is reported to have reduced crime along traditional transit routes and shortened the travelling time of people commuting between the CBD and these high-lying areas to 20% of the time that it used to take before the cable car system was installed! Each day approximately 67,000 people use the cable cars as part of their commute.

Cable car stations are conveniently located close to public facilities (like libraries) and commercial enterprises (like cafes and convenience stores) so that people can make use of these facilities and do their basic shopping during their commute to and from the CBD.

Since the installation of the cable car system (which itself has become somewhat of a tourist attraction), the city is reportedly experiencing increases in foreign investment, commercial development and property prices in areas previously disconnected from the city’s public transport system.

In addition to installing the cable car system, the city installed escalators in 2012 in some parts of the city’s high-lying and more dangerous areas to improve the safety of commuters and to further reduce their travelling time to and from home.

Many people living in the city’s poorer areas live so high up on the hills surrounding the CBD that they cannot make use of cars, taxis or buses to get to and from their nearest cable car station. Before the installation of the escalators, people would make use of long staircases to get to and from their nearest transport facility and were often the victims of crime during this part of their commute.

Since the installation of the escalators, the commute to and from cable car stations is safer and quicker than before.

The city has also built footbridges in some parts of the city’s high-lying areas as part of efforts to connect neighbouring communities. Given the geography and terrain of these high-lying areas, it was not easy for people living in one area to access adjacent areas on foot or by bicycle. Since the construction of these footbridges, people are better placed to enjoy more of their city and connect with others than before.

While crime levels in the city’s poorer areas remain a concern for many and can only really be reduced further by creating greater economic opportunities for more people, the lives of many have been improved through innovation since the early 1990s. It is no surprise that Medellin was declared the world’s most innovative city in 2012!

The citizens of Medellin are better connected to their city and each other and exercise greater collective ownership over the development of their city than before. Medellin has transformed into a city that is fast becoming a city of choice for more Colombians, more tourists, more businesses and more foreign pensioners looking for a retirement spot.

By adopting an inclusive and innovative approach to urban renewal, Medellin has achieved what many cities have struggled to do: create a strong culture of transformation.

Additional sources:

  1. http://www.acimedellin.org/medellinlaboratory/descarga/MedellinLabEN.pdf
  2. http://www.currystonedesignprize.com/recipients/2009/transformative_public_works
  3. http://www.sosyalarastirmalar.com/cilt2/sayi8pdf/Blanco_Kobayashi.pdf
  4. http://architectureindevelopment.org/news.php?id=49
  5. http://archleague.org/2013/03/connective-spaces-and-social-capital-in-medellin-by-jeff-geisinger/
  6. http://travel.nytimes.com/2013/01/20/travel/i-just-got-back-from-medellin.html?pagewanted=all