Medellín’s ‘social urbanism’ a model for city transformation

The transformation of the Colombian city of Medellín from the most violent in the world in the early 1990s to one of the most progressive stood out like a beacon at the World Urban Forum, hosted there last month.

Medellín was on the brink of self-destruction, sparked by drug-related conflict fed by profound inequality, but a consensus emerged that social divisions had to be repaired and political differences subsumed in the broader public interest.

This loose social compact laid the foundations for a remarkable turnaround in the city’s fortunes, including a tenfold reduction in the homicide rate. Forum presentations brought alive the massive effort to combine forces across the political and ideological spectrum. City institutions linked up with other spheres of government to push a bold vision of “social urbanism”, an idea intent on breaking the cycle of industrial decline, poverty and drug-linked turbulence by tackling the root causes of these problems.

A consistent commitment to social inclusion and equality lies at the heart of this tacit agreement. City residents and their representatives seem to have recognised a sense of shared destiny in relation to violent crime, which was destroying everyone’s prospects of prosperity and wellbeing, as well as many lives.

The city’s turnaround strategy emphasised a developmental approach, rather than a welfare focus on social grants. This developmental approach is based on investing in people, places and jobs, through first-class public facilities and infrastructure, and was recognised when Medellín was anointed “the most innovative city in the world” in 2013.

Visiting different districts using the extensive public transport network, I saw how precarious squatter settlements known as comunas or barrios have become vibrant neighbourhoods with decent amenities. Fear of shoot-outs and other insecurities seem to have been replaced by a general buzz of activity, small-scale enterprise and relaxed confidence.

Mayor Sergio Fajardo articulated the idea of social urbanism during his 2003-2007 administration with his radical declaration: “Our most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas.” The result has been a series of integrated urban projects that form part of a comprehensive plan to strengthen the fabric, dignity and quality of life for hitherto marginalised communities.

The city’s dedication to neighbourhood revitalisation and livability has meant investing in impressive multipurpose libraries, schools and learning centres, health facilities and attractive public spaces with art and cultural artefacts. Citizen involvement and participatory budgeting include local residents at all stages of design and delivery. They feel suitably proud of the end product.

Efficient public transport is crucial to this agenda. The municipality has invested in an innovative network of light rail, dedicated bus ways, gondolas and escalators, all carefully engineered to fit the city’s challenging topography of a deeply incised Andean river valley.

As a Metrorail commuter back home in South Africa, I was struck by how easy it is in Medellín to change from one transport mode to another, and by the extremely reliable and frequent service. The high quality and cleanliness of all the facilities and vehicles is also very noticeable, with no signs of graffiti or vandalism.

Some of the gondola stations were strategically sited in the middle of trouble spots in the comunas so as to dispel such problems: it is now a thoroughfare with public surveillance. Such spatial interventions touch a lot of people’s lives and build a new civic culture based on respect for what governments can do, matched by what citizens should feel responsible for.

A commitment to integrated urban planning pervades many of the city’s recent initiatives. Major new housing schemes have been built around some of the transport stations to increase residential densities and accessibility.

Neighbourhood renewal has also meant legalising the unauthorised comunas that spread up the steep hillsides around the city because of the shortage of land on the valley floor. The supply of formal housing has been boosted by encouraging the growth of private building contractors, housing co-operatives and social renting companies, which helps to ensure a healthy diversity of housing types and tenures.

Meanwhile the river has been channelled and a tree-lined parkway created along its banks. One of the main roads through the city is closed to traffic on Sundays, which is very popular with joggers, cyclists, skateboarders and people walking dogs.

Medellín’s innovative urbanism goes beyond a physical makeover. Economic development has been driven by a series of catalytic projects to redevelop former industrial sites and rundown buildings for a range of new uses: incubators for business start-ups, a convention centre to host major events and tourism, and new headquarters for large regional and international corporations. These generate jobs in the city core. The city also provides generous business support to micro enterprises.

Municipal entities supplying key utilities have been encouraged to diversify and expand their operations to other jurisdictions, making them more competitive and boosting local employment. Their revenues helped to finance the city’s social and infrastructure programmes, and compensate for the low tax rate. Such initiatives are partly responsible for cutting unemployment in the city to single figures for the first time in 20 years.

A recent report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London applauded Medellín’s pioneering efforts to establish a new economic paradigm beyond neoliberalism. It described the municipality as a developmental local state, actively trying to guide and shape the market by seeking out opportunities for investment and growth, rather than merely reacting to events.

Of course some things have not gone smoothly and mistakes have been made. For instance, the old central railway station was redeveloped rather than upgraded and connected to the new public transport system.

The task for observers seeking to learn from Medellín’s metamorphosis is to understand the circumstances lying behind its deep-seated commitment to social transformation.

To begin with, it seems that the stark crisis induced by the powerful drug cartels, paramilitary groups and disaffected gangs during the 1980s and 1990s created a spirit of resilience and unity among the local population. Their determination to resist the armed conflict and stand up to the militias instigated an unprecedented level of collaboration to reconstruct the city and create a more humane society.

Mature political leadership has been another ingredient of success. Galvanised by the city’s downward spiral and painful loss of life, a cohort of civic leaders emerged who have set aside party-political differences in the broader societal interest. Medellín’s basic development strategy has been maintained from one administration to the next by informal agreements between the main parties to respect prior decisions based on sound principles. Rebuilding a city depends on long-term commitment and continuity.

Extensive dialogue and engagement with the different sectors of civil society and local communities have also helped to build social trust and reassurance. Mutual understanding across key civic institutions means there is a platform of stability and respect, resulting in higher levels of practical co-operation and tangible investment.

The shared sense of purpose and ambition has been fostered by national recognition of the role of cities in Colombia’s economic competitiveness and social cohesion. The 1991 Constitution promoted extensive decentralisation of powers and resources, enabling the developmental local state admired by the ODI to emerge. Leaders from all three spheres of government demonstrated impressive unity and resolve at the conference. It was hard to detect any differences of emphasis, approach or rivalry between them.

Devolved responsibilities for economic and social advancement have been backed by investment in an institutional capacity, building both within the public sector and among NGOs and social movements. Stakeholder alliances have helped the city government to harness the effort and energy of many different social partners.

A valuable lesson for South Africa is the advantage to be gained from empowering cities to take on strategic responsibilities beyond basic service delivery functions. The

metros and other state entities need to transcend their operational silos by recognising and responding to the underlying systemic causes of crime, drugs and other social problems.

Similarly, policy interventions are more likely to succeed if they reinforce the fundamental drivers of economic development and social progress. In short, city institutions need a compelling vision of a more promising future and the capabilities to implement it.

South African cities also have much to learn from the long-term collaborative relationships of state institutions in Medellín. Inter-governmental co-operation and joint working is essential, although this cannot transform cities and society on its own. Out of the tough predicament of mass unemployment and deep inequality, ways need to be found of inducing a stronger spirit of social solidarity, trust and respect between and within local communities. This is a vital foundation on which to build bold, transformative policies and programmes.

Professor Ivan Turok is the deputy executive director at the Human Sciences Research Council.

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Ivan Turok
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