There is a proverb that says that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world. But, can the trends in one country impact the future of another? That is the premise of this blog series. Mexico Infrastructure & Sustainability Review will be presenting an example of an urban success story every week, as these can be seen as the reference points for the future of infrastructure developments around the world.
This week’s blog features the city of eternal spring – Medellin. From chaos and despair, once the murder capital of the world, this Colombian city managed to implement a process of social transformation that awarded it a new title a decade later: the most innovative city in the world. Urbanism played a key role in this achievement and in fostering the necessary reconstruction of the social fabric. How? Keep reading!
FROM CHAOS TO A LAUREATE FOR SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION
In 1991, Medellin’s homicide rate was 381 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). This number did not improve for several years, as the city was caught in a cycle of violence and insecurity as a battleground for some of the most infamous drug cartels. “[Pablo] Escobar and his cartels helped set the conditions for urban change to happen. They led Medellin to the brink of disaster, then demanded it change,” writes Alex Warnock-Smith for The Guardian.
Change indeed happened. In 2013 the El Urban Land Institute (ULI) “considered that the construction of public transportation integrated infrastructure that reduced CO2 emissions, supported the social development of marginalized areas, the reduction of crime rates, the construction of cultural facilities and spaces and the management of public services,” says María del Pilar Camargo for Semana.com. Medellin was recognized as the most innovative city in the world, reigning supreme over the other two finalists –Tel Aviv and New York—in the competition sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and the banking group Citi.
In 2016 the Colombian capital of Antioquia was again recognized, this time by the Lee Kuanye World City Prize, awarded by the Singapore Government to honor “outstanding contributions toward creating livable and sustainable urban communities around the world.” The judges’ decision says that “Medellin tells the compelling story of a city that has transformed itself from a notoriously violent city to one that is being held up as a model for urban innovation within a span of just two decades. Today, Medellin is a city that celebrates life – resolute in its commitment to creating a more just, more human, freer and happier home for its inhabitants.”
THE SUCCESS OF SOCIAL INFRASTRUCTURE
How was this turnaround accomplished? The IBDA believes that “the multisector approach, combining law enforcement with social and infrastructure investments, had a major impact. Citizen participation in community and municipal decision-making also played an important role.” In a context where social integration represents a massive challenge for many cities around the world, “Medellin has found the key to effective governance in social innovation. The city aims to empower every member of society, giving them a stake in the city and in the process gaining public trust and confidence,” says the Lee Kuanye World City Prize panel.
The city evolved from the reign of drug lords Pablo Escobar and Don Berna through radical experiments in urban planning. The participatory forms of government have also been key in this process and in striving for rebuilding the social fabric, damaged by violence and segregation, and foster upward social mobility. “The city’s planners began addressing its endemic violence and inequity through the design of public spaces, transit infrastructure and urban interventions into the slums,” says Warnock-Smith. “Key to their approach was a commitment to the public realm as a truly shared space, and a faith that they could transform Medellin’s public spaces from sites of segregation and warfare into spaces where communities would come together.”
The process continues, as the “Paisas” –demonym for the people of Antioquia’s Departement—strive for constant improvement. The infrastructure and urbanism programs continue evolving. “New green spaces and bicycles lanes have been built throughout the city. New “library parks” – a combination public library, park, and community center with architecturally attractive structures – serve multiple purposes of education, recreation and social cohesion,” says the IADB. If so far, the city has been recognized for its radical transformation, it will for sure be very interesting to see where it will go in the future. Wherever it is, Medellin has proved its country and the world that it will thrive in overcoming its difficulties, as it has done in the past.
Mexico and Colombia share a common story, both having battled with insecurity problems and large populations. As Colombia strives to leave its checkered past behind, it seems Mexico could learn some lessons from Colombia’s urban transformation. According to a recent report from the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, “the Mexican cartels are taking on a greater share of the cocaine supply chain, heavily originating in Colombia, while the Colombian drug groups known as the Bacrim are in decline.” Despite being very different cases and scenarios, Mexico could implement some of Medellin’s strategies of radical urbanism to bring about the needed social transformation that has proven so successful for Colombia.