By Gabriel Díaz Montemayor, ASLA
Social Urbanism: Reframing Spatial Design – Discourses from Latin America, a new book by Maria Bellalta, ASLA, dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at the Boston Architectural College, is a welcome addition to the growing number of publications on the social justice-oriented form of urbanism, architecture, and public space emanating from Medellín and Colombia. The achievements of social urbanism have rightfully become synonymous with Medellín in the world of landscape architecture, urban planning and design, and architecture.
So what is social urbanism? Is it a top-down and bottom-up planning, design, and implementation process for improving the quality of life of low-income and disenfranchised communities? Appropriately, there is no single definition in the book. There are various takes, which range from comparisons to Jaime Lerner’s strategy of urban acupuncture, integrated community approaches (engagement and participation), and projects and practices in Mexico and Brazil.
While this lack of definition may leave some readers dissatisfied, the book provides a chronology of Medellín’s many social urbanist endeavors and institutional actors, which are represented by a collection of acronyms: PRIMED, POT, EDU, PUI, EPM, UVA, AEI, etc. All these point to the value of complex solutions that include multiple stakeholders and interests.
But the results are not without shortcomings. In Gloria Aponte’s critical contribution, she highlights the lack of ecological considerations in the practice of social urbanism in Medellín. This omission is further described in Juan Camilo Jaramillo’s article on the damaged environment of the city – the accumulated negative impacts on air, water, land, and biodiversity.
Social Urbanism is a predominantly graphic book. It contains appealing and comprehensive social, economic, urban, and environmental data-based maps of Latin America, Colombia, and Medellín. As such, it is a book aligned with the work of architect and professor Felipe Correa, including his books on Sao Paulo, Brazil; Mexico City, Mexico; and Quito, Ecuador.
Social Urbanism also contains the DNA for several potential books that I hope emerge soon. Chapter One on Latin America’s geography is succinct, but as a chapter may be too ambitious. The maps describing the resource extraction of the continent are also a good companion for Correa’s Beyond the City: Resource Extraction Urbanism in South America. In Chapter Two, the book shifts its focus to the urban history of Medellín. Social urbanism, the heart of the book, makes up Chapter Three.
Chapter Four is a collection of studio projects developed through the many visits and design studios Bellalta has organized in Medellín with students from the Boston Architectural College and their student and faculty collaborators from the prestigious Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (UPB), a private, Catholic, and powerful institutional actor in Medellín’s transformation. This chapter reveals the breadth and depth of opportunities for exploration by planning and design students. The projects speak to the unfulfilled promise of progress in Latin America and the potential of social urbanism across the region. Chapter Five, “Invited Voices,” includes short articles by some of the key contemporary actors reshaping Medellin, including Jorge Perez Jaramillo and Alejandro Echeverri Restrepo, former director of the Urban Development Company.
Social Urbanism opens with a prologue by Echeverri, who highlights the quality of the graphic presentations of data. Indeed, some of the graphics are spectacular, and their presentation is supported by the generous book format. But some graphics are not immediately digestible. Take your time to process them, especially the statistical information. (The book is bilingual, with English and Spanish in parallel, only in the index, acknowledgements, prologue, and introduction sections — a limitation I hope is resolved soon through an important and potentially impactful full translation in Spanish).
Bellalta views “landscape as a cultural space, influenced by geography.” Her introduction focuses on the exploitation of the natural resources and the people of Latin America by Europe and the United States. Latin America created wealth that Latin Americans did not enjoy, because they were enslaved and offered arduous low-paid labor. Local and foreign corruption and greed, which was fueled by resource extraction, explain Latin America’s permanent under development. In the region of Medellín, cocaine, gold, flowers, and coffee were the focus of extraction. The book is written as a criticism of this social and environmental injustice, illustrating how Europe and the United States were indifferent to the consequences of their actions. This is one of the book’s strengths.
A few years ago in Medellín, I interviewed architect and urbanist Jorge Perez Jaramillo, former dean of the School of Architecture at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, former planning director of Medellin, and author of another recent and significant book on Medellín, which is summarized in an article in the “Invited Voices” section of the book.
Perez Jaramillo described his city as a community that hit rock bottom in the early 1990s. After decades of violence and crime produced by powerful drug cartels, and the cumulative effects of decades of civil war and guerrilla activity, there was nowhere else to go except up or drown in the bottom. This springing up was fertile ground for a socially-oriented urban transformation.
If you are interested in Medellín because you know of the many beautiful public buildings, parks, and infrastructure built in the city in the last two decades, and you want to know more about these structures, then this is not your book. All the important examples — Biblioteca España, the escalators in Comuna 13, etc. — are included, but only as part of generous photographic essays woven through the chapters. The fact that the book avoids a design focus is refreshing. Social Urbanism instead targets the social and political processes that enabled these projects to exist.
The book seeks to answer: What kind of administrative, professional, academic, social, and cultural processes spawned the great design quality so widely recognized by many publications and awards? How can other cities transform inert and obstructive infrastructure, such as municipal water tanks, which in Medellín have become social-public infrastructure in the form of the Unidades de Vida Articulada (UVAs)?
This is not a how-to book, because the story of Medellín demonstrates that the great design quality could have only happened the way it did there. It may be due to the unique social, cultural, economic, and environmental conditions; the “Paisa” history, identity, and territory; the city’s resilient community; and numerous outstanding urban planning and design leaders, politicians, and academics.
Social urbanism has improved the quality of life for many who had been systematically ignored. But inequality has also increased in Medellín, and multiple projects and plans remain truncated, postponed, or unimplemented.
The important, old-yet-also-new ideas of social urbanism remind us to be always in action. Public health, safety, and welfare, which landscape architects and others are responsible for, must be sustained. As Bellalta proposes, social urbanism must transition from model to global movement.
Gabriel Díaz Montemayor, ASLA, is Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Arkansas.