How Medellín revived itself, Part 4: the road to “most innovative city”

A walkway in Medellín's Comuna 13 is one of many projects in the impoverished neighborhood that have improved mobility and access to the city for residents. (Christopher Swope/ Citiscope)

Medellín’s brand of “social urbanism” has given the city an award-winning international reputation for civic works that benefit the poor. How that happened is the subject of the last installment of my interview with Gerard Martin.

Martin is the former director of the Colombia Program at Georgetown University’s Center for Latin American Studies. He’s also  the author of Medellín. Tragedia y Resurreccion. Mafia, Ciudad, Estado. 1975-2012, which comes out in a second Spanish edition this month. We spoke in advance of the World Urban Forum’s arrival this week in Medellín.

Previous parts of our interview covered Medellín’s growth and development; the rise of violence in the city and the fight against it; and how Medellín and other Colombian cities adapted to constitutional and legal reforms that gave mayors more power. These interviews hsave been edited for length and clarity.


When does the spark of innovation start to happen? Medellín built a Metro system not too long ago. Is that the beginning?

The Metro was proposed in the early ‘50s by Wiener and Sert, famous international city planners hired to develop a city plan for Medellín. The plan was ambitious, but due to the weak local government, the plan was only very partly implemented. But the Metro idea was kept alive. Construction on the Metro finally started in the late ‘80s and the two lines and about 30 stations were opened in ‘95. No other city in Colombia had a Metro, so there was a huge debate about the pros and cons. A central issue was the cost and supposed corruption in building the system. It ruined the city finances. But it also introduced a new structuring element to the city. The metro stations were surrounded by plazas. Sidewalks around the stations were widened.  

After the inauguration of the Metro in the mid 90s, Medellín enters into a bit of a slump. The Metro is finished, but there’s no money left to do something else. Also, the private sector and enlightened local elites saw all the renovation that was going on in Bogotá and said, “Hey, we too need a better person to step up and do something with our city! We have the Metro but we’ll have to do other things.”

And we get the first cable car?

Luis Perez, mayor from 2001 to 2003, built the first cable car line. He actually went to Bilbao in Spain, to see the Guggenheim museum there. He wanted something emblematic to turn the image of the city around, and so he came up with the cable car. Perez wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, and it was to a certain extent the Metro consortium that actively lobbied to build it. But Perez also built some quality public buildings downtown — a library and a music school — although in a disjointed manner. 

And then we have Sergio Fajardo as mayor?

Cable car or not, Medellín’s mayors were not the visionaries you already had in Bogotá. More innovative local figures had failed to get them selves elected. Their despair led to a principled decision to create an independent political platform, with Sergio Fajardo as candidate. Fajardo had left Medellín to study in the U. S. His father was a famous architect, and he himself was a mathemetician, a professor at Los Andes University in Bogota. He was, however, in contact with Medellín, served on a peace commission in the mid 1990s, and wrote articles in local newspapers. Fajardo first loses, in 2000, but made a good performance and ran again in 2003 and wins.

Fajardo brings in all these people who have been working out of civil society in the ’90s. They’re not his traditional circle of friends, but he is this great team builder. He’s the mathematician who prioritizes, makes plans, goes forward —  let’s measure, let’s do. He’s low on polemics but strong on sticking to his guns, and getting the parties around the table, including the private sector — the enlightened private sector. One of the first things he and his team did was defining a number of ethical principle. And everybody had to sign up for that. Transparency and zero corruption were two of them, and he took that very seriously. 

One of the key people Fajardo has on his team is Alejandro Echeverri. Who’s he?

Alejandro Echeverri, who studied urbanism and architecture in Barcelona, wrote some critical articles with his team about the cable car. They argued that instead of something that runs above the neighborhoods, what you need is to have interventions run through those neighborhoods to weave their fragmented parts together. Fajardo brought him into his team, and they come up with these sophisticated neighborhood interventions, this “urban acupuncture.” They call them proyectos urbanos integrales — integral urban projects, or PUIs. And I remember this little debate with Alejandro, where I’d written this piece on “planes” urbanos integrales and he would say “no, it’s not a plan, it’s a project, because a plan never translates into activities.” They would start implementing the simple stuff immeditaely, while doing planning around the more complex projects. That’s one of the reasons why they were able to do so much in four years.

The integral urban plans  the PUI how did those work in practice? 

These PUIs are essentially multi-neighborhood intervention plans for designated sectors of the city. It’s a form of highly participatory and contextualized slum upgrading. They first defined where are the most critical populations, based on indicators of human development and poverty. Their reasoning was that if we intervene in the most critical areas of the city, we don’t only reach out to the most needed, but we can make a major impact on the overall indicators of the city in terms of human development. There’s 16 wards in the city and they chose to start in Comuna 1 and 2, which are among the poorest neighborhoods in the city. It was also where the cable car was under construction.

Gerard Martin (Julian Roldan) 

The next step was to define the interventions and create the master plan. For this, they would go out and work with the communities and plan with the communities and design with the communities. Before deciding on which sidewalks to build, they figured out how people walk in the neighborhood. They’d ask where the community wants to gather. Do you want hard surfaces or green surfaces? Do you want trees? So that’s going on, but meantime they’d already started building the library, an enormous new school, a support center for small business, etc. Thus, the PUI was able to deliver 80 percent of its planned products at the end of four years.

Part of it was doing it all in a coherent, integrated, coordinated, interagency way. Not just one agency is doing schools and another is doing a police station. There was a task force behind each PUI, where all would convene and coordinate. 

Other projects are done outside the PUI. For example, the new bus system Metroplus doesn’t penetrate any of the PUIs. Also, the historic north-south avenue “Carabobo” was intervened in its full length to create a kind of promenade that breaks through a historic barrier between the poor and the rich neighborhoods; and then there’s the clustering of a series of new cultural venues in what is called el nuevo Norte  — the new North.

It’s easy to look at the big projects, the libraries and museums, but Fajardo does a lot with the schools as well, yes? 

He is the first mayor in Medellín who gets to actually be in charge of the local education system. And he made education the central axis of his fight against social inequalities. That’s both a physical thing — putting in new schools, renovating older schools. But it’s also new training programs and professional development for teachers; it’s universities engaging in partnerships with public high schools, to help improve their performance and quality. Overall, there was a very ambitious redefinition of the education agenda for the city, and they worked very hard on that in particular in the poorest parts of the city. 

They also worked on public space. They felt that libraries are part of the education agenda, but also the cultural agenda because those libraries are also digital hubs and they do cultural events. In addition they set up cultural centers in various neighborhoods, they set up vocational training centers in the most complicated neighborhoods. Many of those are generally right next to the new lines of public transit, be it a bus line or the Metro line or cable. Most interventions took place in neighborhoods that had suffered some of the most intense violence. 

Are the physical interventions responsible for the reductions in crime in these neighborhoods?

It’s important to not create this misunderstanding — even the New York Times had this article, “Medellín fights crime with architecture.” The physical interventions were not targeting crime. They were just things that had not been done for 40 years. The guiding political decision was to fight inequality. That translated, among other things, in bringing quality public services into these neighborhoods. Now, it’s likely that good schools and libraries, where there wasn’t much before, will have a preventive impact.  Kids age 5 will have these facilities and be less at risk of slipping into crime careers. But the central part of Colombia’s crime, violence and illegality is not poor kids doing the wrong stuff. I’m not sure how much impact libraries and schools may have on hardened organized crime capos or hard-core gang members. You need other programs to fight that, and the city has worked hard on those as well, in coordination with national government agencies. 

And what is the transition after Fajardo like? 

Alonso Salazar, who was deputy mayor for security under Fajardo, was designated to continue the reform agenda, and elected mayor. He essentially consolidated and advanced the agenda defined by Fajardo’s team. For example, at the end of Fajardo’s term, the first PUI was mostly ready, but Salazar continued implementation of the second — in the Comuna 13 — started another in Comunas 8 and 9, and a fourth one was designed for Comunas 5 and 6. He also continued the building and upgrading of schools, created four new libraries, built a dozen or so pre-kindergartens, and further focused interventions on the poorest neighborhoods. 

And is the current mayor on the same page as Fajardo and Salazar?

Anibal Gaviria is mayor since January 2012. He campaigned on continuity, and he was elected on the same party ticket as former mayor Fajardo, who is now governor of Antioquia, the departamento that Medellín is in. Many however consider that the current mayor has deviated, that there’s less rigor in the management and that has not always appointed the best people. For one, he has done away with the PUI approach.

What are three things to Medellín’s approach that other cities could learn from? 

Well the first one is a political commitment to serving the city and to define public administration and government in terms of being at the service of citizens and oriented toward the needs of the poor. 

The second thing is defining central priorities as well as specific methodologies to pursue them. The priorities were fighting social inequalities, violence and a culture of illegality. The tools were things like the PUI

And the third thing is being a very good administrator, and bringing the right people on board to help you be that. There’s a constant dialogue now with research centers, and that is part and parcel of it. 

Medellín has this great turnaround story but it’s still got a lot of problems. What are the most pressing ones in your view?

There’s still an enormous debt in terms of informality and poverty and inequality.

Another challenge is related to organized crime, and in particular money laundering and other dimensions of the cocaine business. This requires measures to protect specific economic sectors against the risk of infiltration of organized crime.

Finally, but not in this order, there is education. Although enormous progress has been made, there is a structural issue that has not been seriously attacked, which is the doble jornada. About 80 percent of the students in the city go to public schools, and those schools have one group of students and teachers from six in the morning until 12:30, and a second group of students and teachers from 12.30 until 7 in the evening. So in the morning and the afternoon, you always have half the kids in the street. They can’t even use the school for before- or after-school programs, because the school is used by the other groups of kids and teachers. It’s a terrible injustice, with devastating consequences for the quality of education, and a significant impact on the security situation. 

MORE FROM THIS SERIES

Part 1 Medellín’s growth and development

Part 2 The descent into drug violence and how it changed

Part 3 How Colombia decentralized powers to cities

Part 4 Medellín’s mayors and innovation strategies

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