MEDELLIN, Colombia — In Medellín, Colombia architecture and urban planning initiatives have transformed the city, bringing lasting social and economic improvement.
Before the changes were implemented, the city was known for its violence and high level of drug cartel activity. Medellín was home to the famous drug lord, Pablo Escobar. In 1991, there were 6,349 murders, a rate of 380 per 100,000 people (the United States’ murder rate was 4.7 per 100,000 in 2014).
Today the city has improved drastically. The murder rate has fallen over 80 percent, and citizens are no longer afraid to venture into public spaces. The police are more active, making people feel more protected than the days in which the police never ventured into certain areas out of fear of gangs and drug lords.
Not only has violence decreased, but unemployment is low, and the perception of the city’s safety has improved. Medellín has become a business and medical hub. A tourist industry is on the rise and civic pride is high with new public buildings, squares, efficient metro and cable car systems. The metro linking rich and poor neighborhoods represents a new commitment to democracy.
However, gang presence still exists in the city— though random, haphazard violence is mostly eradicated.
In just the first ten months of last year, threats, violence and forced recruitment from gangs displaced over 5,000 Medellín citizens according to the municipal ombudsman’s office. “Micro extortion,” or forcing small businesses to pay ‘contributions’ by gangs is still very common in Medellín. It impacts nearly everyone, from shop owners to schoolchildren as well as bus and taxi drivers.
“If a young man who is not from around here comes and starts asking questions and poking around, the gangs will nab him and see what he’s up to. They control the area,” said Ramon Carrasco to The Guardian.
Although violence is still an issue, citizens and government choose to focus on the outstanding strides that have been made in their city, rather than to dwell on the issues that still exist. Jorge Melguizo, an urban planning consultant explains the violence “does not detract from the positive things that have been achieved.”
The city, which once was had the highest murder rate in the world, is now ranked 38th. The number is still falling, and the murder rate is now under 60 per 100,000.
Many cities give credit to a specific mayor or leader when such positive change has been made, but in Medellín, credit is shared collectively by the citizens of the city. A key aspect of Medellín’s success is the projects’ focus on the involvement of the local community.
The public spaces were imagined by local citizens in workshops in which every resident was invited to attend and to share their vision for new public space through writing and drawings.
Furthermore, each design is created specifically for the physical and cultural context of the area of Medellín in which it is built. Sites include features like auditoriums, theaters, picnic areas, cafeterias, playgrounds, sports courts, music rooms and even small museums.
However, some worry that the positive change that has come to Medellín will not have the same revitalizing impact on the poorest sectors of the city. Transportation costs one dollar a trip, and many impoverished citizens of Medellín must choose between transport and food.
This fear is not limited to transportation; real estate companies promote secluded housing projects that have high security and privacy. In these projects are strip malls and parks— public spaces that are limited to those only wealthy enough to be able to settle in these often gated communities. Low-income community members are excluded .
Despite these issues that have yet to be resolved, the citizens and government of Medellín have high hopes for the future of their city.
“The main physical transformation is to public space, but it’s only the beginning,” said Alejandro Echeverri, one of the principal architects of the project.
“Mr. Echeverri took me down the hillside to Andalucía, another part of the Northeast slums. Formerly ruled by gangs who held opposite sides of a garbage-clotted creek, it’s now remade with a sports complex and school, new sidewalks, new mid-rise housing blocks and a bridge over the creek. Dozens of shops have opened. Men were tinkering beneath cars in the hot sun, chatting over beers, when I visited; children dawdled on the way home from school, eating ice cream on the bridge. A thousand eyes were on the streets,” wrote Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times when he visited the revitalized city in 2012.
– Aaron Andree