This year, Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia, is the host of the UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum, which attracts more than 15,000 urban leaders from around the world. This is a huge accomplishment for a city that had the highest number of homicides in the world just a decade ago. Now, Anibal Gaviria Correa, the Mayor of Medellin says, the city is not even in the top 50 ranking of dangerous cities. How did Medellin turn it around to win the title of the world’s most innovative city? The answer is complex — and the city continues to face many challenges — but the mayor said its amazing progress is really due to “social, not technological, innovation.”
Medellin (which is pronounced Medejin) is the largest city in the Antioquia province. The city, which is nestled in a valley some 5,000 feet up, had a population of around 250,000 in the 1940s. With “informal expansion,” the population exploded to 2.4 million by 2011. Without a plan, slums took root in undesirable locations along the slopes surrounding prime real estate in the valley. People from the countryside moved there to flee the civil war, only to find that a landslide could take away their home in an instant. Pushed up the slopes, these newly urbanized people experienced major displacement, resentment, and, later, incredible violence, fueled in part by drug lord Pablo Escobar and the many drug gangs.
Mayor Correa called 1990 to 2000 the decade of violence. Across the country, 48,000 people were murdered, with Medellin accounting for more than 20 percent of those deaths. Correa said it was no coincidence that during this decade Medellin had areas of extreme poverty and high inequality. In a clear warning to other developing world cities seeing their slums expand, he said violence and inequality are deeply connected.
To climb out of that dark place, the city’s leadership began to create a “structure for public participation” designed to bring all residents into a planning process, even in the midst of Colombia’s ongoing civil war. Three successive mayoral administrations continued the same good policies, creating momentum for the city’s long-term vision, which is to become a “city of life,” with a high-quality public transportation system, parks, and libraries accessible to all.
Empresas de Services Publico (EPM), a public-private utility that provides power, water, sewage, sanitation, and other services to the city also played an important part in making the dream become real. EPM provides hundreds of millions to the city each year, supporting the development of iconic projects like the subway, but also the extended Metro plus system, which includes a cable car that now provides connectivity to slums on the north side of the city.
On the Metro system, which is now the largest public transportation system in Colombia, Mayor Correa said “there is a real pride of the Metro, a culture of respect when you are in this space.”
The city has also financed fantastic “library-parks,” which offer both green space and a place to read. Here is the park for the Spanish Library in the hills of Santo Domingo, which used to be so dangerous the police would not even venture there.
Two new pieces of green under development include an extensive new riverfront park system, which will provide people with acccess to the Medellin river that cuts through the center of the city, and a greenway system, which will provide a “green belt” around the city, helping to reduce landslides and flooding for the poor communities along the steep slopes and perhaps pause sprawl.
Mayor Correa said green spaces are needed for both ethical and aesthetic reasons. If parks are found in all neighborhoods — rich or poor — they improve the ethical make-up of the city. Public green spaces provide “the civic realm where people can become citizens. It’s where everyone can be equal.” Parks also provide urban beauty, which Mayor Correa said is also “necessary for urban coexistence.”
Another important symbol of how the city is addressing persistent inequality: new day care centers. Mayor Correa said 80,000 children have accessed these new facilities, where they get free meals and a place to play, and their parents get an opportunity to go out and work. The city’s goal is to provide 100,000 children services through 20 centers. At the other end of the educational spectrum, the city is planning two new universities that will serve low-income populations in the city. Mayor Correa wants those young people working in new innovation districts.
The mayor said Medellin still has a long way to go. The city is still far too unequal, even though it’s a bit more equal than other cities in Colombia. (Unfortunately, this is not saying that much, given Colombia is one of the more unequal countries in Latin America, itself the most unequal continent on earth).
After Mayor Correa spoke, UN-Habitat invited experts from around the world to comment on whether Medellin can really serve as a model for other cities.
Swedish Ambassador to Colombia Marie Andersson de Frutos said Medellin is a replicable model because it city government has really worked as a team with the private sector and non-profits. Medellin shows “there is no quick fix. Prescriptions can’t come from a doctor, they have to come from the whole hospital.”
Jose Carrera, Development Bank of Latin America, said Medellin correctly identified that violence was tied to inequality. The city made a great move removing one key aspect of inequality in providing clean drinking water for the whole city, rich or poor. However, he added Medellin, like many others in Latin America, still needs to do a better job of creating new jobs for unemployed youth, which face double the unemployment rates of adults just at a time when they should be most productive.
David Sims, a partner with urban design firm Gehl Architects, applauded Medellin for “incorporating terms like love, trust, equality, and pride” in its new city charter. He said these concepts are difficult to measure but vital goals. Sims said Medellin has learned that true innovation comes from “different people meeting each other and having a conversation.” He also thought the city was doing a great job of focusing on the small things that matter — how people get to work, how they live. “There is a great balance here between the tangible (the physical infrastructure) and the intangibles (the culture).”