Today, numerous cities have substantially more economic weight, international connectivity, and diplomatic influence on the world stage than dozens of nations.
Many of us think sustainability, liveability and innovation indexes are only populated with first world cities. However, whilst escaping poverty, violence and other issues, developing countries have been leading the way on urban innovation. Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, has in the past 20 years transformed into a leader in developing a more inclusive, sustainable and creative place to live. The city has come together, planed and more importantly, implemented projects using social urbanism, city branding and informal settlements.
Colombia and other developing countries like Brazil have witnessed the conspicuous rise of local councils that are far more advanced in developing integrated environmental strategies than their respective federal governments.
After decades of violence and political instability, local initiatives were developed to address the city’s problems, which led Medellin to win the 2013 Most Innovative City Award.
Before the political instability post 1950’s, Medellin had had steady social and political growth due to the increased popularity of coffee and freer international trade. By the late 1980’s and early 1990’s however, Medellin was a devastated city with a world record homicide rate of 380 people per 100,000 in 1991. Drug traffickers, local gangs, guerrilla militias, paramilitary groups, and petty criminals terrorised every sector of the city, often informally supporting each other’s efforts.
Addressing violence involved trial and error as the city’s problems were so interconnected, traditional approaches to solve this issue were not successful. Trial and error however, led to a “unified integrated approach” otherwise known as social urbanism that involved different stakeholders and an unusual mix of social work, innovative infrastructure, and institution building. Using social urbanism, Medellin was able to identify the contribution of informal settlements to a tourism strategy and to the city’s branding.
Medellin’s coming together was also due to the unrelenting migration from the countryside. As the most displaced country in the world, Colombia has -and continues to- experience vast amounts of internal migration, particularly to Bogota and Medellin. Medellin’s early investment in public transportation and reduced living costs made the city more appealing to migrants making the city’s population rise dramatically. Migration also helped informal settlements become more prominent to the city for the economic and social resources fostered in those areas.
Participatory planning has been enthusiastically written about and sometimes criticized in blogs, newspapers and academic journals. Working with a diverse group of stakeholders however, Medellin has been one of the largest cities in the world to successfully implement participatory budgeting. This allowed citizens to prioritise and allocate a portion of the municipal budget while developing a strong sense of belonging and ownership of projects.
The head of the planning body for Medellin claims the key for developing a thorough plan for infrastructure was its focus to informal settlement residents’ access to the rest of the city – and of the city to these areas. Planning also involved prioritising initiatives to “give children things to do, role models to emulate, and space to move away from the violent path”.
One of the central differences between Medellin and other growing cities has been the emphasis placed on the creation of urban development plans by the community and local businesses in informal settlement areas. Local municipalities developed an integrated decision-making approach that developed a shared vision and the ability to work on issue-based projects like education and rubbish control in public transportation. Formulation of strategic plans focused on linking informal settlement areas to the city and other initiatives across the city.
Addressing the education deficit in Medellin involved engagement of a variety of stakeholders including private schools and tertiary students. In 2004 mayor Fajardo engaged private schools lowering their taxes with the condition of providing support for public schools. While in office, he also engaged university students to monitor urban renewal projects such as markets and other activities developed in library-parks.
Turning to transportation, the city constructed a series of transportation links from its poor hillside neighbourhoods to the commercial and industrial centres. The links include a metro cable car system and escalators up steep hills, reducing commutation times, spurring private investment, and promoting social equity as well as environmental sustainability.
The new transport system has revitalized the local economy as it has developed new retail centres in public transportation stations and informal settlement areas. The city also expanded the MetroCable, an aerial cable car transport system built under Fajardo’s predecessor that serves poor hillside neighbourhoods.
Social urbanism in Medellin transformed the urban and social landscapes of the city. The relationship between social urbanism, informal settlements and city branding was key to develop, perhaps without noticing or anticipating, a role for informal settlements in branding the city, and promoting tourism to those areas. With “social urbanism”, it also helped building an image of the city more authentic and distinguishable from other cities in Colombia and Latin America.
Medellin has made remarkable efforts to address its population needs and provide a safer and more inclusive place to live. Through the research there are three themes that seem to emerge:
Becoming the most innovative city in the world was achieved through investment in things that had not been tested, trial and error and a mix of issue-based projects and local approaches. Colombia did not have a metro when Medellin decided to build one and informal settlements in Bogota remain inaccessible through public transportation. The extensive investment in social participation or the integration of different sectors had never been tested at a city-wide level.
While using informal settlements as tourist destinations may develop concerns in developing countries, it managed to attract businesses and awareness of these areas to the rest of the city.
Medellin has striven to develop local social capital for a global economy, especially in the most underprivileged neighbourhoods. In a city that was and continues to receive significant migration from all over the country, it was essential to develop strong investment in existent and new residents. Investment in social infrastructure has developed a sense of belonging in the city that few cities have been able to match.
Business/private sector integration
Cities around the world have recognised that addressing the city’s needs and interests will require sharing responsibilities and engaging community and the private sector. This however, is much easier said than done. Although businesses will also be interested in creating a better place to live, developing an ongoing investment from different sectors is complex.
What seemed to have united Medellin was –and still is- the sense of belonging individuals and businesses share. Fostering that sense of belonging through social urbanism enabled the city to develop diverse projects that had a significant impact in the city’s motivation and social sustainability.
In Medellin there is a deep sense of belonging to the city, a great sense of regional identification and pride.” Paisas, as locals are called, unite around civil society networks that bridge wide social, cultural and ethnic divides. Looking towards the future, these coalitions will be central to the city’s ongoing efforts to reduce social inequities and end deeply entrenched cycles of violence and poverty that Colombia is still experiencing. More importantly, these may be the answer to addressing other cities’ needs and develop a better place to live.
Medellin has demonstrated it would seem irresponsible to deny the need to invest in social infrastructure. The question that must be asked is how and what are the initiatives that must be implemented. People are the heart of every city, what keeps cities alive and what can create healthier and more dynamic places.