Medellín: A City that went to Rehab

*A few months ago, for the needs of our graduate course on Smart Cities, our Professor Betty Tsakarestou challenged us to explore the globe and find out what makes a city smart, sustainable or simply better for its habitants to live in. Our team (Christina Charalampidou, Marieta Christopoulou and Effie Tzoumani) chose Latin America to focus on and here are some of our favorite City Stories: Medellín, Santiago and Rio de Janeiro.

The city of Medellin, Colombia, home of the Medellin Cartel and drug lord Pablo Escobar during the 70’s and the 80's, was once known as the most violent city in the whole world. Since the beggining of the 90’s, when the cartel was dismantled, its homicide rate has decreased by 95% and extreme poverty by 66%.

Medellin has tranformed from murder capital of the world to model of urban social integration thanks in part to a string of innovative mayors who laid out plans to integrate the poorest and most violent hillside neighborhoods into the city center in the valley below. Medellín is now considered safer than the US cities of Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit and New Orleans.

The entrance pavilion to the Botanical Garden in Medellín, Colombia, designed by Lorenzo Castro. Credit: Paul Smith for The New York Times

Patterns — Problems

The rapid demographic growth since the 50’s, and the lack of decentralization, and the lack of national policies toward social housing led to an informal urban sprawl. And it led to a city that is 25 percent planned formal urbanization and 75 percent of the people living in more informal developments.

The residential pattern in Medellín is development creeping up the hillsides of the valley and the basic rule is that the further up the mountains you go the poorer the population gets. The poor had to find land to build their homes further out, and further out implies building slums illegally higher up because the valley is fully urbanized now. So the higher up they live, the farther away from services of all kind they are, the bigger the crime rates are and the deeper the organized crime infiltration is.


At the beginning of 00’s something is starting to change. The first cable car was built alongside with quality buildings downtown- a library and a music school, in a an effort to turn the image of the city around but the most important changes took place after Sergio Farjado became mayor, in 2003. Son of an architect and Professor of Mathematics at University of Bogota himself, he managed to bring together all these people who have been working out of civil society in the ’90s. He was a great team builder and by adopting a — let’s measure, let’s do — approach he got all the parties around the table, including the private sector. One of the first things he and his team did was defining a number of ethical principles. And everybody had to sign up for that. Transparency and zero corruption were two of them, and he took that very seriously.

Collaborating with some enlightened urban designers and architects, he argued that instead of something that runs above the neighborhoods, like the cable car, what you need is to have interventions run through those neighborhoods to weave their fragmented parts together, so the team come up with these sophisticated neighborhood interventions, something like “urban acupuncture.” They named them proyectos urbanos integrales — integral urban projects, or PUIs.

How did the integral urban plans — the PUIs — 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.

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. Meantime they’d already started building the library, an enormous new school, a support center for small business, etc. Finally, the PUI was able to deliver 80 percent of its planned products at the end of four years.

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)

Education & Public Spaces

Maybe the most important thing Farjado did is that he made education the central axis of his fight against social inequalities. That’s both a physical thing — putting in new schools, renovating older ones. 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.

His team 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, many of which 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?

The physical interventions were not targeting crime. The guiding political decision was to fight inequality. That translated, among other things, in bringing quality public services into these neighborhoods. It’s likely that good schools and libraries, , will have a preventive impact. Kids age 5 will have these facilities and be less at risk of slipping into crime careers.

*Based on the 4 parts article of Christopher Swope, How Medellín revived itself.

See our presentation for Latin America here.

You can also follow our journey on European Smart Cities: Berlin, Lisbon, Barcelona and Istanbul.