I’m walking down the street in Medellín when a car backfires. I jump. Was that a gunshot? Just over 20 years ago, it probably would have been. Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city and home to notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, was known as the murder capital as the world. There were gang-controlled neighbourhoods that the police didn’t dare to enter and violent crime was out of control. In 1991, at the peak of the violence, there were around 6,500 murders, a rate of 381 per 100,000 people. Locals were afraid to leave their homes. Tourists never went there.
Today it’s a very different story. Having cut its crime rate by a staggering 80 per cent and transformed its image from that of a city riddled with crime, defined by Escobar and the cocaine trade, Medellín is now a hub of creativity and innovation, one that is attracting both businesses and tourists in increasing numbers.
A NEW VISION
Sitting at an elevation of around 1,500 metres in a valley flanked by verdant mountains, Medellín is known in Colombia as ‘The City of the Eternal Spring’. Its natural beauty is clear as you fly in.
A closer look at the steep hillsides, however, reveals an expanse of slums. Difficult to reach, these disconnected barrios are home to thousands of displaced people: subsistence farmers fleeing the guerrilla warfare in the surrounding countryside, indigenous people and those from other parts of the country looking for a better life.
After Escobar’s death in 1993, the government was desperate for new solutions to the city’s problems. As well as violent crime and federal and local corruption, there were wider issues such as social inequality, poor education and the lack of jobs.
According to Sergio Fajardo – the son of an architect and a former maths professor who became the city’s visionary mayor from 2003 to 2007 – to understand the city, you had to understand two major problems: ‘a profoundly unequal society and deep-rooted violence’.
The city’s transformation began around ten years ago with a different management model. Previous administrations had put the needs of the voters ahead of the needs of the poor as around 70 per cent of the city’s poorest residents simply don’t vote. Fajardo’s aim was to focus on the city’s most neglected neighbourhoods that had been lost to violence. As he said at the time: ‘Our most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas’.
He believed that all government action must be strategically linked to solving the fundamental problems of social inequality, violence and the culture of lawlessness. Calling his strategy ‘social urbanism’, alongside local business partners he initiated large-scale education reform and investment for a range of community development projects that would transform the physical environment, all linked to the main transport system. It included a series of library-parks – part community centres and part public spaces – where people could mingle, whatever their social or economic circumstances.
A shiny modern metro system, still the only one in Colombia, was opened in November 1995, reducing pollution – it’s estimated that it saves 175,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually – and easing congestion. New stops are being added even now and more than 500,000 residents and visitors use it each day.
On my journey across the city, I saw the ‘Metro culture’ in action and it would put many long-established systems to shame. Before its launch, a ‘User Education Process’ was launched to encourage the community to adopt ‘enhanced civic behaviour and coexistence guidelines’. It appears to have worked: everyone formed an orderly queue and made way for the omnipresent army of cleaners.
The pioneering Metrocable, similar to the gondolas seen in Alpine resorts, opened in 2004 and now has three lines connected to the metro, providing much-needed links to the city’s poorest hillside neighbourhoods. While it has reduced journeys of several hours down to a few minutes, it has also become more than just a mode of transport. Giving the most impoverished residents greater access to the city has fostered a sense of community and inclusion.
On the line to La Aurora, the Metrocable gives incredible views over the city, as well as a bird’s-eye view of a shantytown – a jumble of breezeblock shacks cascading down the hillside, sun glinting off the corrugated iron roofs – as well as new government housing projects.
Another line gave me my first sight of perhaps the most iconic of Sergio Fajardo’s projects, the striking Parque Biblioteca España, which opened in 2007. Perched on the edge of the hillside, three monolithic black edifices rise out of the sprawling slum of Santo Domingo Savio like a symbol of the new Medellín.
Designed by renowned Colombian architect Giancarlo Mazzanti, the US$4million ultra-modern building is home to a library, an auditorium, a day-care centre and a gallery. Children of all ages make use of the free classes and internet access, and it’s transformed the once no-go barrio: investment is up, house prices have increased and banks have moved into the area.
Another iconic infrastructure project turned tourist attraction are the escaleras eléctricas of Comuna 13, historically one of the poorest and most violent areas of the city. Alonso Salazar, Medellín’s mayor from 2008 to 2011, was looking for cheaper alternative to the Metrocable and the result was a US$7million six-section escalator that opened in 2011. It zigzags up a steep hillside for 384 metres, replacing the 350 or so stairs that the 12,000 residents have had to climb for generations.
While Comuna 13 is still battling gang problems, the escalators have given the police easier access. The houses are brightly coloured and well maintained – the government handed out free paint – and walls are covered in vibrant murals. The open areas around the escalators have become spaces for community exhibitions and turn into social spaces, particularly at weekends, where neighbours chat and children play, something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
The once too dangerous to visit Jardín Botánico has now been renovated, its walls taken down and a picturesque Orquideorama, a towering hexagonal canopy structure that shelters an orchid collection and butterfly farm designed by young architects in the city, has been added instead.
Across the road, architect Alejandro Echeverri, Director of Urban Projects under Fajardo’s tenure, designed the stunning Parque Explora complex, with an interactive museum of science and technology and Latin America’s largest freshwater aquarium, in a mix of indoor and outdoor space. People who live in estratos one to three (neighbourhoods are assigned a number according to their level of prosperity, with six being the most developed) can enter free of charge when they present their utility bill.
Other projects that might be less visible to visitors but no less remarkable, include the Moravia Cultural Development Centre, which opened in 2008. In the 1960s, the densely populated, unplanned neighbourhood of Moravia grew up around the city’s unofficial rubbish dump, where residents used to subsist by recycling rubbish. As part of the area’s regeneration under Fajardo, the residents requested a centre. It’s one of the last works of prize-winning Colombian architect, Rogelio Salmona, who created an open and transparent space that aims to promote education, culture and the arts.
Key to Medellín’s transformation is the role of Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), the enormous state-owned utilities company, which was established in 1955 to supply electricity, gas, water, sanitation and telecommunications to the city, and now has a reach beyond Colombia itself.
It operates as a private company, pays taxes like any other corporate entity and is required by law to give 30 per cent of its profits over to the city to be spent on social investment.
Last year, EPM’s contribution amounted to around US$500million – around 30 per cent of the municipality’s annual budget – which goes directly into social investment projects; building new schools, libraries, public squares and parks and developing the transportation system.
EPM provided the funding for all the library-parks and the Proyectos Urbanos Integrales (PUI) or Integral Urban Projects, including the escalators of Comuna 13. One of its current projects is the non-profit organisation ‘Ruta N’ and its ‘Medellínnovation District’ in the north of the city, which works to fund and promote projects that deal with science and technology.
EPM’s objective is ‘Tumbar la cerca para estar más cerca’ (or to ‘take down the fence to become closer’). As Federico Restrepo, the head of EPM before becoming city planner under Fajardo, told me: ‘It isn’t just about providing buildings, or even the functionality of those buildings. It’s about providing buildings with quality and aesthetics, giving the best architecture to the poorest people. In that way you increase a sense of inclusion and ownership’.
CONTINUING THE LEGACY
Medellín still has challenges ahead, but few cities have turned things around in quite the way it’s managed. Nor have its efforts gone unnoticed. In 2013, out of a list of 200 cities, Medellín was chosen as ‘Innovative City of the Year’ by the Wall Street Journal, Citibank and the Urban Land Institute.
In December 2013, it was named as one of the first-round cities in the Rockefeller Foundation’s ‘100 Resilient Cities’ project, for its continued efforts to battle violence and drug trafficking.
It was also selected to host UN-Habitat’s 7th World Urban Forum in April 2014. The theme, ‘Cities for Life’, focussed on ways in which urban design can boost social cohesion and equitable development. As current mayor, Aníbal Gaviria, told the forum: ‘The idea has been to bring institutions closer to citizens’.
Gaviria has taken on what Fajardo started, with an ambitious agenda prioritising improvements in safety and social equality, creating more green spaces and massive public works. The Parque del Río is one such project, a vast park spanning more than 1,047 acres that will line the banks of the Medellín River, involving not just architectural design but complex engineering and environmental issues.
Medellín has evolved into a city that people want to live and work in. Bianca Maritz, a school teacher and Canadian ex-pat told me: ‘I’ve been in Medellín for three years now and it’s the most accessible city I’ve ever lived in. It promotes healthy living with free exercise initiatives and every Sunday morning a major street is closed off for walking, running and cycling. It’s a wonderful experience to live in a city where there are constant, practical improvements.’
ART FOR ALL
Tourism is also on the rise. The city has new, stylish hotels, like The Charlee and The Art Hotel, and a burgeoning restaurant and nightlife scene. Local enterprises are springing up, such as Carmen, a restaurant where California-born chef Carmen Angel does a creative take on Asian-Latin fusion; the 3 Cordilleras craft brewery and the Pergamino Café, serving world-class coffee.
Jump onto the third Metrocable line at Santo Domingo and you’ll glide east over the shantytowns to Parque Arvi, nearly 1,800 acres of protected highland tropical forest, where you can hike and bike the trails, and kayak, swim and sail in the lakes and rivers. The more adventurous can take advantage of the city’s strong thermals and paraglide over the valley.
Street art is everywhere: the world-renowned, Medellín-born artist, Fernando Botero, donated more than 1,000 pieces of his own and others’ art to the Museo de Antioquia and his characteristically curvy statues are dotted around Plaza Botero. You can even take a tour of the burgeoning street art scene around Comuna 13.
Perhaps most importantly, Medellín’s residents – the redoubtable paisas – from across all social classes have a renewed sense of pride in their once-troubled city.
Student, Julián Granados Pérez, was born a few months before the death of Escobar. ‘I was born at my city’s darkest time but the sun is coming out now,’ he told me. ‘I remember when people were afraid to go out at night. But the decrease in violence has meant an increase in the quality of life. It doesn’t mean that the city has resolved all of its problems, but it does mean that the future is looking bright.’
This article was published in the April 2015 edition of Geographical magazine.