“The turning point in our city’s history was the killing of Pablo Escobar,” said Alexander Velez, our guide during a tour of Medellin, organized by UN-Habitat during the World Urban Forum. Escobar, the most notorious drug dealer of the century, was estimated to be worth some $25 billion by the time he was killed by Colombian police forces in 1993. At his height, he controlled some 80 percent of the world’s cocaine market. According to Velez, his impact on Medellin was deeply poisonous. The gangs he controlled ruled the slums surrounding the valley of Medellin without mercy. It was dangerous to even cross neighborhood lines. Thousands of innocent people were murdered each year.
The other turning point, said Velez, was the creation of Medellin’s extensive Metro system, the first leg of which was launched in 1996. After Escobar died, the gangs were co-opted, and security began to improve, the people of Medellin discovered they could travel safely to other parts of the city. Soon, the city’s total transformation began to take root. And it only continues.
We drive along the Medellin River, a thin, polluted channel lined in concrete and surrounded by train lines and highways that cuts through the heart of the city. Velez explains that a new park will soon be built around the river. “We will bring back nature and undo the pollution. There will be pedestrian walkways, bicycle lanes. The highways will be buried.” Velez said there was an international design competition for the restoration and redevelopment project, which Latitud Taller de Ciudad y Arquitectura, a local firm, just won. The first segment will cost $300 million. Eventually, the park will extend 44 kilometers, said Velez.
The restoration of the Medellin River is just another example of how the city’s leadership is focused on improving social equity, stitching the poor and rich parts of the cities together.
This transformation is even seen in El Poblado, the wealthiest part of the city. Velez explained that this was the first place the Spanish colonialists settled in 1616. “They didn’t find gold but did find water so they stayed.” Over the centuries, the area evolved into a place where the very rich kept their country homes. In the early 20th century, there were extensive estates. One example of this is the Castle, the estate of José Tobón Uribe, who died just after he built the place in the 1930s. The castle was modeled after a Gothic castle in Loire, France. Later in the 1940s, textile magnate Diego Echavarría Misas bought the castle and then turned it into a museum.
Even the richest area is now more accessible, said Velez. While the very wealthy still live in the area, along with the Mayor of Medellin and other celebrities, El Poblado is also now the neighborhood of the upper middle class. The main square, El Poblado square, where the Spanish first landed, has become a spot for locals to take a break. Gorgeous old trees provide a welcome canopy.
And winding through the district is a stream that has been restored, forming the backbone of a new linear park, which opened in 2003.
Surprising cafes and bars appear at the edges of the park, providing another respite in a city filled with greenery.
Heading towards the city center, Velez explains the city’s “partial plans,” an ambitious urban revitalization program aimed at improving the quality of life for residents and business owners. He said this plan will eventually result in 100,000 new, “non-subsidized” apartments. “The partial plans will bring life to areas that are industrialized. Before, they were places for the homeless and illegal drugs. Now, there will be residential apartment complexes, hotels, and hospitals.”
We could see the metamorphosis in one industrial area, with the opening of the Museum of Modern Art in an abandoned, 1930s-era steel mill. A $12 million addition is coming in behind the existing building.
And, again, Medellin surprises with its parks. Colombian endorphin-addicts could be seen tossing medicine balls in Parque líneal Ciudad del Río, the funky, urban park covered in street art, adjacent to the museum.
As we gaze at the new museum, we stand right in the middle of Medellin’s budding system of bicycle infrastructure. While the lanes still seem a bit disconnected, the better ones are up on the sidewalks, away from the parked cars and traffic. Velez said “the network is not yet integrated, but the city is working on it.”
These lanes also serve the new bicycle share system, which Velez said the city has been running for the past three years. If residents show an ID and credit card, they can use the bikes for free. Velez said there are 800 free bikes, and the system will soon scale up to nearly 1,100.
All of those must be put to use on Sundays, when much of the city’s streets no longer become accessible to cars, opening up into a bonanza for two-wheelers.
Throughout the city, one is struck by the small design details, too. Velez took us to Plaza Botero, which features the largest collection of local Medellin artist Fernando Botero’s outdoor sculptures.
While the sculptures are stunning, the comfortable, human-scale streetscape competes for your attention, as well as the urban furniture that can be found throughout the downtown. This is a city designed for all — with places to stroll and sit. It’s the careful attention to these details that make Medellin feel so welcoming.
The tour then headed to the northern end of the city, which has been hit hardest by poverty and violence, and, therefore, has seen the greatest transformation. Our first stop is the Ruta N complex, the center of Medellin’s efforts to lure innovative companies to participate in the city’s rebirth. Velez said it’s an innovation center that includes a lab and offices for the local Hewlett Packard center. The building features an innovative green wall system and reuses all water.
Tropical gardens surrounding the building collect rainwater and cool the plaza and building.
Next to Ruta N are a set of new parks that demonstrate the core of the city’s transition into a more equal place, at least in terms of access to beautiful public spaces. As Velez has explained, since the early 00s, the city, along with the foundation of the Empresas Publicas de Medellin (EPM), the all-encompassing public utility, have financed a wonderful program of “library-parks,” which combine places for learning, exploration, and play, with well-maintained green, public spaces. There are nine library-parks in “deprived areas.” One of these is the Park of Wishes, which was designed in 2003 by architect Felipe Uribe de Bedout, who also created the now-famous Barefoot Park, and features the city’s biggest music school. Facing the school is the city’s planetarium, which has a giant projector screen for outdoor films on one of its walls. The park offers fun “echo chambers” in the shape of moons.
Right along side the Park of Wishes is Park Explora, which has the largest aquarium in Colombia in its extensive grounds. In the spirit of equality, “high income people pay to visit the aquarium, while low-income people just need to show their electricity bill to get in for free.”
“Together, these two parks offer the poorest access to music, astronomy, and nature — education, which is what they need,” said Velez. “All these new amenities will help the city continue to grow in a sustainable way.”