Medellín: city of transition, city of hope

Medellin city centre, with its famous above-ground metro
Medellín city centre, with its above-ground metro

In April 2014, urban experts and enthusiasts from around the world travelled to Medellín, Colombia for UN-Habitat’s Seventh World Urban Forum (or WUF7). With nearly 25,000 participants (including mayors, civil servants, academics, students, NGOs and interested urban citizens) registered, it was the largest ‘WUF’ to date. And according to many veteran attendees, it was also the most enthusiastic WUF: eager citizens of Medellín were proud to show off the great changes in their amazing city. I was fortunate to also attend, as a writer with IISD Reporting Services. (Our final report can be found here.)


Parque Berrio, city centre
Parque Berrio, city centre

Medellín is an interesting case study and was a great host of this WUF7 with the theme: Urban Equity in Development – Cities for Life. More than just the local hospitality and the weather in the “city of eternal spring” Medellín is a living breathing example of both the challenges and opportunities of all things urban. And how, through political will, vision, careful planning and working with citizens and stakeholders, you can turn a city around.

My purpose here will not be to go into too many details of Medellín’s past. (There are many excellent articles that cover its transition, see for example: Next City or The Guardian). Still, it’s worth noting Medellín’s rapid change from “drug cartel city/ murder capital of the world” of the early 1990s (home of Pablo Escobar) to today’s city of social inclusion and sustainability. Medellín’s success has not gone unnoticed. In 2012, Medellín was named “Innovative City of the Year” by a joint Citi/ Urban Land Institute/ Wall Street Journal contest. In hosting WUF7, Medellín got another chance to boast of its success.

Children play in formally cartel-dominated areas
Children play in formally cartel-dominated areas

How did Medellín experience such a remarkable turnaround in such a short time? Local political leaders, NGOs, academics and civil society worked together to create a new city vision centered on social inclusion – an urbanismo social agenda.

Medellín transitioned from crime capital to an arts and architecture capital. Many of its most impressive buildings and public art are strategically placed in its poorest (often dangerous) neighborhoods to invite people back into these public spaces.

Parque Biblioteca España, for example, is a park and library built in the Santo Domingo neighborhood. Where drug cartels once dominated, children now laugh, playing football or trying tricks on their bicycles. Citizens in the city’s poorest communities now have improved access to learning and education in this impressive library. Similarly, in the town centre, life-size Botero sculptures can be found. After all, Fernando Botero Angulo is a Medellín native.

Parque Biblioteca España, accessible via the metrocable
Parque Biblioteca España, accessible via the metrocable

Like many Latin American cities, Medellín’s population boomed in the last 50 years, with informal settlements (comunas) climbing the hillsides of this valley city. Still, jobs and commerce remain centrally located. Thus, accessibility and mobility between outlying neighborhoods and the city centre were prioritized.

Medellín has a world-class public transport system that few cities can match. It includes a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, an above ground metro, buses and even gondolas (metrocable) to reach hillside comunas. You can use the same ticket on these different transport links, connecting via common transit stations. Medellín has also invested in cycling infrastructure and has a growing community of cyclists. Like Bogotá, for over 20 years Medellín has hosted “Ciclovía Sundays” closing its central streets to cars during morning hours, inviting citizens to cycle, rollerskate, run or use these public spaces in other ways besides driving.

Local art, reflecting indigenous stories of creation in the Metropolitan Area’s Green Belt project in "Comuna 8"
Local art, reflecting indigenous stories of creation in the  Green Belt project in “Comuna 8”

In addition to arts, architecture, public transport and cycling, the city emphasizes green space and park planning. No where is this more relevant than in its densely populated comunas, often built on steep cliffs overlooking the city and prone to landslides. While violence once plagued these hillside comunas, Medellín is now building vegetable plots, cycle lanes and green pathways – linking them together in giant garden belts to promote ecotourism and citizen interaction – always with the help of the local residents.

Despacio cycle ride at WUF7
Despacio cycle ride at WUF7

Medellín and WUF7 were so inspiring; I may have to dedicate several blog posts. Prior and during WUF7, Medellín hosted urban lab tours, demonstrating different city projects. I attended the “Walk of Life” tour to learn about green space planning in its hillside communities. I also joined a bike ride with a slow transport NGO, Despacio, to test improvements to Medellín’s cycling infrastructure. During WUF7, we heard about the safety and comfort of Medellín’s metro and gondola system – which, of course, we also had to try out.

Super excited to test out Medellín's flashy new metro and showing off the WUF conference bag  (#urbannerd)
Super excited to test Medellín’s flashy new metro & showing off my WUF7 conference bag

Each day, WUF7 addressed themes like “taking back public spaces” or women’s safety and access to the city. Inspired by these discussions, each morning I ran through the town centre, enjoying a bit of morning exercise and to try and sense how safe I felt as a woman – especially since we were told by many taxi drivers that we were staying in a “very dangerous” area.

While safety remains a valid concern, during daylight hours I felt fine. I enjoyed walking to the conference venue or taking the metro, alone or with friends. Sure, I walked confidently and attentively so as not to invite petty theft (as I do in most cities); but I never felt threatened. At night though I opted for a taxi with my colleagues. Similarly, when exploring the Green Belt project above the city, local policemen escorted us. Police were also present at every metro station and in public spaces – although admittedly many were just out of adolescence. (Perhaps police presence was heightened to protect the WUF7 delegates…) Undoubtedly though, safety remains a concern.


My colleagues also got excited to test out the cycling infrastructure
My colleagues also got excited to test out the cycling infrastructure


Metrocable - complete with solar energy
Metrocable – with solar energy

Still, transformation does not happen over night – it requires a long-term vision and inclusive city planning. And this is where Medellín can brag: because while problems remain, its progress is significant and its vision continues. While citizens were once ashamed of their city, they now boast of their metro, of their architecture and of their public spaces.

Medellín was a great host for WUF7 because of its strengths and its weaknesses, and what it can teach other cities. One of the most powerful moments at WUF7 was listening to Mayor Naasson Kubuya Ndoole of Goma (Democratic Republic of the Congo) speak. Reflecting on the challenges facing his city, Mayor Ndoole spoke of the lessons Medellín can offer. He spoke of hope in seeing Medellín’s progress: how a city can turn around, how it can work together, and how to remain humble in the process.

Street art, Medellín
Street art, Medellín

These are the lessons I take from Medellín: its pride, its humility, its fears and its continued hope – the most real and raw of human emotions. After all, the city is the most real and raw human creation, lest we forget. A city then is always full of hope and despair, simultaneously. Medellín demonstrates how one can dominate over the other.

While not often discussed in formal UN/ international fora, “hope” was continuously and authentically repeated throughout the conference. As cities expand around the world, there are many global and local challenges they face: climate change, resource crises, public health concerns, crime, inequality and service provision to name a few. Still, despite challenges, this message of hope is what I take from Medellín – hope as a vision and hope tangibly displayed in the changes easily witnessed in this incredible city.


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