Medellín


For many years, Pablo Escobar's hometown was known as the most dangerous city in the world, with up to eighteen violent deaths a day. But then the "City of Eternal Spring" underwent a radical transformation and became a global model for urban change. Architecture has played a key role in this process, but the city's new buildings are only the outer image of a deeper transformation based on the values of social urbanism.

Let’s begin with what could be the conclusion: We still have a long way to go in Latin America, home to the world’s highest rates of inequality and violent death. We have a long way to go in terms of social participation, political education, cultural transformation and the real construction of democracy; we still need to stamp out mafia culture and put an end to the illegality that is so rife in all spaces, all the time. We are still greatly lacking in transparency; we need to comprehend that the public sphere is in fact a collective task; we must endeavour to manage our different territories, industries and populations in more comprehensive and integrated ways.

We still need to recognise the importance of not only protecting life, but also improving the quality of life. We need to embrace the real meaning of equity, inclusion, opportunity, trust, quality and shared living, i.e. the kind of concepts that ought to define our societies; instead, we are burdened by impunity, poverty, destitution, corruption, inequality, exclusion, danger, violence. We need to realise that the word dignity should take precedence in all public policies, in public budgets, strategies, programmes and projects, in public buildings: dignity should be the keyword in all public initiatives. We still need to make progress in the dual, parallel task of both strengthening our institutions and bolstering living standards if we are ever to reach true social equilibrium.

In Medellín, we have been working hard to imbue our public sphere with a profound sense of hope. And, in just a few years — albeit with plenty of ups and downs — this hope has materialised in the form of potent actions for change. But perhaps the most significant aspect of Medellín’s projects for social and urban transformation is the fact that most of them are also greatly symbolic in character. These three terms are so apt for this architecture magazine: hope, action and the symbolic.

In this text, I will speak about urban and social matters, about projects that provide structure, spark change and bring added value to their cities. I will discuss public building works in contexts of cultural transformation. I will insist that we are faced with the challenge of transforming our cities, amid the even greater challenge of transforming our societies.

Medellín, Colombia

I come from Medellín, Colombia, and I’ve spent a great many of my 61 years there. That sentence alone speaks volumes: I have always lived in a country at war. A country with rural and urban guerrillas, with paramilitary groups, with hugely powerful drug-trafficking gangs and everything that such an explosive cocktail brings with it: for most of my life, I’ve lived in a fearful city, a fearful country, ravaged by bloodshed and violent death. Moreover, Colombia is one of the world’s most economically unequal countries, with extreme disparity: our 2022 Gini coefficient is 0.556,1 the second worst in the whole of Latin America (only Brazil has a lower score) and the seventh worst in the world. Furthermore, Colombia currently has a rate of 25.4 violent deaths per 100 thousand inhabitants, which means we are still one of the ten most violence-ridden countries on the planet.

Medellín used to symbolise the very worst of this: for twenty years, it had the highest violent death rate in the world. In 1991, for example, 6,700 people met a violent death in Medellín, a rate of 382 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants and an average daily figure of 18.3 such murders. There were over 66,000 violent deaths in a period of just twenty years, in a city of 2 million inhabitants at the time (the population stands at 2.5 million in 2023, within a greater metropolitan conurbation of ten cities which now have a combined population of 4.2 million). Death and fear as everyday realities. The Medellín Cartel, led by Pablo Escobar Gaviria, was, for some years, the largest criminal group in the world.

Today, Medellín no longer symbolises the very worst. Quite the opposite: in recent years, it has garnered praised as one of the world’s most-transformed cities. In 2016, Medellín won the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize2 — sometimes dubbed the “Nobel Prize for Cities” — in recognition of its profound social, educational, cultural and urban changes, beating fellow finalists Auckland, Sydney, Toronto and Vienna. Previously, in 2013, Medellín had been declared Innovative City of the Year, over New York and Tel Aviv. These accolades, among others, helped raise Medellin’s profile on the international stage, and it soon became a reference and role model for many other cities. However, I would argue that rather than a role model, we are more like a social and urban laboratory: for three decades now, we have been testing structural and circumstantial solutions to tackle our immense poverty and inequality, and face up to our atrocious political and urban violence.

Today, Medellín no longer symbolises the very worst: we have managed to reduce our violent death rate by 96.7% over the last thirty years, thanks to profound public-private-community projects, and also due to the widespread acceptance of the fact that the whole city needed to change into what it has now become. Essentially, Medellín’s transformation goes to show that it is possible to come together and work to rectify collective failures (the kind of failures which, in our case, came to define us). We’ve managed to transform; we’ve managed to shed our skin over these years. But also, fortunately — and not without huge difficulties, and still with many gaps to fill and problems to deal with — our soul is transforming too.

Knowing this context (perhaps an unfamiliar one for readers) is crucial in order to understand the true scale and achievements of Medellín’s recent projects. That is, constructing a public building in a European city is not the same as constructing one in Colombia; district regeneration schemes are necessarily different in Latin America and Europe; planning an urban development project in a society with greater economic equality and low rates of violence, as in most of Europe, is nothing like doing so in contexts of appalling violence and poverty.

The umbrella term

Whenever “social urbanism” is discussed, there tends to be a focus on the meaning of the second word, i.e. “urbanism”: that’s the noun, the core part of the phrase. In contrast, the adjective “social” is generally regarded as subordinate to it, a complement, an add-on, only there to qualify the type of urbanism in question. And this is why, when talking about projects in communities that are living amid abject poverty and violence, people usually call them “urban projects”, with an emphasis on the physical buildings. I would suggest, from now on, that when you talk about “social urbanism”, you treat the two words with the same force: both aspects must be considered equally crucial.

For a long time in Medellín, we used to say that we needed to get on with building physical, urban projects that entail the social contents and outcomes. However, for the last few years, I have been arguing that this was the wrong approach, and we should have been saying something slightly different, something similar but inverted: what we are doing now, and what we need in our Latin American contexts, is to activate a profound project of social, educational and cultural transformation, which in turn entails any urban building schemes and outcomes. In other words, within social urbanism, the physical, urban buildings should be subordinate to the broader social project — not the other way round.

Today, we are aiming for greater social inclusion and cohesion, in our otherwise exclusionary, hostile cities and societies. We need to think about who we are as a society, and reflect on all aspects of it — education, the environment, sport, leisure, health, economics, gender, population, etc. — and from there build a society-making project. If we take these social dimensions as a starting point, we can then work out which physical buildings and urban projects will help us create the kind of society that we want to live in, the kind of society that we want to be. This is why I talk about social architecture and social urbanism: whenever Medellín is brought up in conversation, people tend to mention its physical developments and urban planning, the architecture of the city’s new public constructions: our library parks, our “units for shared living”, our schools, cultural centres and nurseries. But behind this urbanism, behind the physical architecture we can see in photographs, a great deal of profound social, educational and cultural work has taken place, as well as public communications — essentially, we want to help the city rewrite its own story. All of this deeper structure is the real proof of Medellín’s recent transformation.

Let me put it another way: many people come to Medellín to see our physical architecture, but they often end up following the map of our aforementioned social architectures instead: they visit our community organisations, cultural projects, youth collectives; they learn about stories of resilience in the streets; they visit memorials to the victims of all the violence we have lived though. At the 2014 World Urban Forum, held that year in Medellín, the architect Daniel Chaín (Buenos Aires’s Minister for Urban Development at the time) said: “I came to this city some years ago to see its public buildings, which are renowned all over the world, and I loved them. I’ve come back now, and this time I’ve had the chance to explore Medellín following the map of what they refer to here as its ‘social architecture.’ I’ve been able to talk to many different people and many neighbourhood/cultural organisations, and I say to them: what’s happened here in Medellín is a genuine cultural shift, and that’s what people should come here to see, feel and enjoy.”

I’d like to expand on this point: if and when social urbanism projects fail, it’s often because, basically, they’re just urban projects: the social side is treated like a feeble addendum, something expendable, a mere short-lived and anecdotal tool, of little force. That is to say, in many projects carried out within and alongside local communities, the social aspect is seen as mere adornment, an accessory, not something built to last. Thus, it is becoming ever clearer that if you take out the “social” from “social urbanism” then the ensuing projects end up half-hearted, or they fail, or they become unsustainable. Recognising the due importance of social, educational and cultural processes really is vital, in all such urban schemes.

Our cities need new social agendas, and their social transformations must go deeper. Therefore, these social agendas should be the determining factor when it comes to deciding what kind of urban works are needed in a given place. At Habitat III (the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, held in Quito in 2016), they set out a New Urban Agenda — however, I think that was a mistake, given the more pressing need for a New Social Agenda. What might a city be like if it were designed from a social perspective, one of inclusion, of bringing society together?

The Map of Amazement

Today, visitors to Medellín can discover the city by following the map of its transformations. In fact, we have become — unexpectedly, without planning it so — the most popular city in Colombia for foreign tourists, as well as a special destination for digital nomads. One of the reasons why they choose Medellín is because the whole city can be explored, even those neighbourhoods that used to suffer the most violence, and which had, for many years, become impenetrable. This map of transformations includes the map of sheer amazement: that is, buildings and public facilities of very high-quality architecture and construction, and which have had a great impact on the daily lives of communities.

The public sphere is a driver of equality for people and places: improved access to good public spaces and services has been one of Medellín’s formulae for success in recent years. Today, there is almost 100% coverage for water, sewage, energy and telephone services; 90% coverage for domestic gas; 100% asphalted streets; and first-rate facilities for education, culture, sports and recreation, throughout the city. The public transport system has brought integration and cohesion to the area, and has sparked many processes. This system, without which many of Medellín’s social and cultural dynamics would not exist today, includes two Metro lines (one of 26 km and the other of 9 km, while a third, 13-km bypass line is currently under pre-construction); a 4.2-km tramway; six Metrocable lines (urban cable cars, totalling 12.5 km) and several Metroplús bus lines (BRT, with metro connections). The best public transport in Medellín serves those parts of the city with the highest rates of poverty.

A strategy for cohesion

One of the greatest challenges for the public authorities is how to get the whole municipal cabinet working together, in interconnected ways, and how to ensure that the different departments begin to look beyond their particular sector, be it health, education, culture, etc., and also work, fundamentally, on populational and territorial aspects. In Medellín, we designed the PUIs, the Integrated Urban Projects, as a tool to get all the municipal departments joining together and collaborating. In order to pinpoint whereabouts in Medellín the PUIs should be implemented, we prioritise areas according to the following four criteria:

  • Areas with the lowest Human Development Index: urban and social development must be considered as a way to tackle poverty and, particularly, inequality.
  • Areas with the highest rates of violence: we prioritise the neighbourhoods that have suffered most violence, which we used to call “violent neighbourhoods”; in reality, their communities are victims of this violence.
  • Areas with the greatest populational density, especially those with a high number of children under the age of 6: public initiatives should also seek results in 15, 20 years, to foster and support upcoming generations.
  • Areas or neighbourhoods of particular symbolic importance for the city, due to their history, or because they symbolise a certain reality: neighbourhoods that evoke, for all people, the sensation that “if change was possible there, then it’s possible anywhere”.

The main characteristic of the PUIs is the simultaneous nature of the interventions: these are large urban and social projects, carried out at the same time in one geographical area of the city, and which are developed not separately but rather in a joint, integrated way. Furthermore, the PUIs are based on analyses of the neighbourhoods in question, and on maps that highlight, for example, the potentialities and opportunities for the community in each area. The PUIs become a way to learn about, acknowledge, assess and strengthen what already exists in these communities. They are not projects designed at a remote desk by engineers and architects; they are designed by professionals from all physical and social areas, with a high, ongoing degree of community participation. Those coordinating the PUIs start the process by running workshops about imaginaries, by traversing the neighbourhood with a gender-based perspective, and by drawing up maps of what’s lacking in the area and any relevant economic opportunities. They also engage in processes to recognise and strengthen the area’s social/collective organisations and community leaders.

The PUIs are located in a range of neighbourhoods (“comunas”, as we call them in Colombia), and one of the objectives is to improve the urban and social links between the area in question and the rest of the city, and vice versa: the idea is that the city too can reconnect with neighbourhoods that have been excluded from so many dynamics, i.e. the neighbourhoods people never used to visit because of the violence there, places that nobody ever wanted to go to. The concept of social and urban cohesion makes a lot of sense here: it’s about integrating, connecting, rather than intervening in a neighbourhood or area of the city in a way that maintains it as a social and cultural ghetto. We cannot think of the city in a disjointed, fragmented way.

Symbols of transformation

In Medellín’s Integrated Urban Projects, public buildings of high architectural quality have played a fundamental role: they symbolise the processes of transformation, and have become the new reference points and hallmarks of the city. They include public buildings that have emerged from important international competitions, as well as other projects conceived in the design workshop of the EDU, Medellín’s Urban Development Company (the company reports to the municipal government, but functions like a decentralised entity). Hundreds of architecture, engineering and design professionals have been trained in the EDU’s workshop, and today their work has been built not only throughout Medellín, but also in the many other places around the world where they have since taken their work.

In a city where over half of the houses are the product of informal construction, these new buildings of high-quality architecture enhance the lives of local communities. This approach sends out a powerful message: in today’s Medellín, public works are built and maintained to a very high standard; they foster social inclusion and bring great added value, and the public sphere acts as a generator of equality. Until twenty years ago, the most significant buildings in Medellín were those of private companies: the Coltejer BuildingA (Coltejer being Colombia’s main national textile company), for example, was a symbol of the city’s modernity. The same was true of temples of different religions, particularly Catholic churches. The fact that, today, public buildings are now the most important ones in Medellín, is among the city’s finest achievements. And this is particularly noteworthy given the fact that these public buildings are located in neighbourhoods where investment of this kind was previously unthinkable. In turn, these neighbourhoods have a newfound importance due to the very presence of such superb buildings.

In the last twenty years, there has been a boom in quality architecture built in our neighbourhoods, especially in the ones most beset by poverty and violence. Most of these new public buildings — which are now our city’s picture postcards — are educational and cultural centres: they include 10 library parks; 21 UVAs (“units for shared living”, i.e. spaces for culture, education, recreation and sport); the Casa de la Música; the Moravia Cultural Development Centre; the EPM Library (Public Companies of Medellín); 34 nursery schools, as part of the Buen Comienzo (“Good Start”) programme; 20 high-quality state schools; Ruta N (the headquarters for our technological developments); the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (on a site that was formerly a women’s prison, for 120 years); the Medellín Museum of Modern Art (a private institution, but based in a public building that was, for many years, part of the city’s steelworks); MOVA, the Innovation Centre for Teachers; the Museo Casa de la Memoria (a museum of Medellín’s recent history) and the Plaza Mayor convention centre. There are also several new parks which too have become emblematic: Parque de Los Deseos, Parque de los Pies Descalzos (Barefoot Park), Parques del Río, the Parque Explora science zone, the Botanical Garden, the Parque Arví nature reserve, the Atanasio Girardot Sports Complex, Parque de la Inflexión (in memory of the victims of Pablo Escobar) and many more.

All of these projects are part of a larger quest for social inclusion, in an attempt to ensure that culture and education lead the way when it comes to transforming our society. And, as I noted above, these projects are not meteorites that fell from the sky and crash-landed in Medellín: they are the fruit of very wide-reaching and profound processes of participation, coordination, creation, recognition and evaluation of the identity of our city’s people and neighbourhoods. The new buildings form part of broader urban and social projects; they are the product of negotiations between many distinct areas of the municipal government, as well as alliances with private businesses and foundations, and with hundreds of social and community organisations.

These buildings, works of physical architecture and engineering, are in fact born of profound projects of social architecture and engineering. This is the key to understanding Medellín today. It’s the reason why other cities around the world find our transformation processes quite so remarkable. And it’s also the reason why we ask those who are interested in Medellín’s transformation to look not only at what we’ve done, but also, and especially, how we’ve done it: we would invite them to look into the background of all these works, and everything involved in the whole process behind them.

Just as I’m beginning to wrap up this text, on the sunny evening of 8th December 2023, I receive a 17-second video, taken in the Moravia neighbourhood. This was Medellin’s municipal rubbish dump for twenty years, until 1984. Then, for another twenty years, until 2004, it became one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, an area plagued by violence. The video shows a 9-year-old girl, called Criyane, all dressed up for her first communion. Criyane is asked the following question by Cielo Holguín, community leader in Moravia and specialist in urbanism and the environment: «For you, what’s the most important thing in your neighbourhood today?» And the girl responds, without hesitating: «culture».

When a little girl like this, in a neighbourhood still beleaguered by poverty, says that culture is the most important thing, I think her answer sums up everything that I’ve been talking about here. I hope that my words, along with the wonderful photographs taken by the architect Isaac Ramírez, help you get an idea of what has been happening in Medellín, Colombia.

Photos by Isaac Ramírez Marín

Medellín

12/14/2023

Jorge Melguizo, Translation: George Hutton


For many years, Pablo Escobar's hometown was known as the most dangerous city in the world, with up to eighteen violent deaths a day. But then the "City of Eternal Spring" underwent a radical transformation and became a global model for urban change. Architecture has played a key role in this process, but the city's new buildings are only the outer image of a deeper transformation based on the values of social urbanism.

Let’s begin with what could be the conclusion: We still have a long way to go in Latin America, home to the world’s highest rates of inequality and violent death. We have a long way to go in terms of social participation, political education, cultural transformation and the real construction of democracy; we still need to stamp out mafia culture and put an end to the illegality that is so rife in all spaces, all the time. We are still greatly lacking in transparency; we need to comprehend that the public sphere is in fact a collective task; we must endeavour to manage our different territories, industries and populations in more comprehensive and integrated ways.

We still need to recognise the importance of not only protecting life, but also improving the quality of life. We need to embrace the real meaning of equity, inclusion, opportunity, trust, quality and shared living, i.e. the kind of concepts that ought to define our societies; instead, we are burdened by impunity, poverty, destitution, corruption, inequality, exclusion, danger, violence. We need to realise that the word dignity should take precedence in all public policies, in public budgets, strategies, programmes and projects, in public buildings: dignity should be the keyword in all public initiatives. We still need to make progress in the dual, parallel task of both strengthening our institutions and bolstering living standards if we are ever to reach true social equilibrium.

In Medellín, we have been working hard to imbue our public sphere with a profound sense of hope. And, in just a few years — albeit with plenty of ups and downs — this hope has materialised in the form of potent actions for change. But perhaps the most significant aspect of Medellín’s projects for social and urban transformation is the fact that most of them are also greatly symbolic in character. These three terms are so apt for this architecture magazine: hope, action and the symbolic.

In this text, I will speak about urban and social matters, about projects that provide structure, spark change and bring added value to their cities. I will discuss public building works in contexts of cultural transformation. I will insist that we are faced with the challenge of transforming our cities, amid the even greater challenge of transforming our societies.

Medellín, Colombia

I come from Medellín, Colombia, and I’ve spent a great many of my 61 years there. That sentence alone speaks volumes: I have always lived in a country at war. A country with rural and urban guerrillas, with paramilitary groups, with hugely powerful drug-trafficking gangs and everything that such an explosive cocktail brings with it: for most of my life, I’ve lived in a fearful city, a fearful country, ravaged by bloodshed and violent death. Moreover, Colombia is one of the world’s most economically unequal countries, with extreme disparity: our 2022 Gini coefficient is 0.556,1 the second worst in the whole of Latin America (only Brazil has a lower score) and the seventh worst in the world. Furthermore, Colombia currently has a rate of 25.4 violent deaths per 100 thousand inhabitants, which means we are still one of the ten most violence-ridden countries on the planet.

Medellín used to symbolise the very worst of this: for twenty years, it had the highest violent death rate in the world. In 1991, for example, 6,700 people met a violent death in Medellín, a rate of 382 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants and an average daily figure of 18.3 such murders. There were over 66,000 violent deaths in a period of just twenty years, in a city of 2 million inhabitants at the time (the population stands at 2.5 million in 2023, within a greater metropolitan conurbation of ten cities which now have a combined population of 4.2 million). Death and fear as everyday realities. The Medellín Cartel, led by Pablo Escobar Gaviria, was, for some years, the largest criminal group in the world.

Today, Medellín no longer symbolises the very worst. Quite the opposite: in recent years, it has garnered praised as one of the world’s most-transformed cities. In 2016, Medellín won the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize2 — sometimes dubbed the “Nobel Prize for Cities” — in recognition of its profound social, educational, cultural and urban changes, beating fellow finalists Auckland, Sydney, Toronto and Vienna. Previously, in 2013, Medellín had been declared Innovative City of the Year, over New York and Tel Aviv. These accolades, among others, helped raise Medellin’s profile on the international stage, and it soon became a reference and role model for many other cities. However, I would argue that rather than a role model, we are more like a social and urban laboratory: for three decades now, we have been testing structural and circumstantial solutions to tackle our immense poverty and inequality, and face up to our atrocious political and urban violence.

Today, Medellín no longer symbolises the very worst: we have managed to reduce our violent death rate by 96.7% over the last thirty years, thanks to profound public-private-community projects, and also due to the widespread acceptance of the fact that the whole city needed to change into what it has now become. Essentially, Medellín’s transformation goes to show that it is possible to come together and work to rectify collective failures (the kind of failures which, in our case, came to define us). We’ve managed to transform; we’ve managed to shed our skin over these years. But also, fortunately — and not without huge difficulties, and still with many gaps to fill and problems to deal with — our soul is transforming too.

Knowing this context (perhaps an unfamiliar one for readers) is crucial in order to understand the true scale and achievements of Medellín’s recent projects. That is, constructing a public building in a European city is not the same as constructing one in Colombia; district regeneration schemes are necessarily different in Latin America and Europe; planning an urban development project in a society with greater economic equality and low rates of violence, as in most of Europe, is nothing like doing so in contexts of appalling violence and poverty.

The umbrella term

Whenever “social urbanism” is discussed, there tends to be a focus on the meaning of the second word, i.e. “urbanism”: that’s the noun, the core part of the phrase. In contrast, the adjective “social” is generally regarded as subordinate to it, a complement, an add-on, only there to qualify the type of urbanism in question. And this is why, when talking about projects in communities that are living amid abject poverty and violence, people usually call them “urban projects”, with an emphasis on the physical buildings. I would suggest, from now on, that when you talk about “social urbanism”, you treat the two words with the same force: both aspects must be considered equally crucial.

For a long time in Medellín, we used to say that we needed to get on with building physical, urban projects that entail the social contents and outcomes. However, for the last few years, I have been arguing that this was the wrong approach, and we should have been saying something slightly different, something similar but inverted: what we are doing now, and what we need in our Latin American contexts, is to activate a profound project of social, educational and cultural transformation, which in turn entails any urban building schemes and outcomes. In other words, within social urbanism, the physical, urban buildings should be subordinate to the broader social project — not the other way round.

Today, we are aiming for greater social inclusion and cohesion, in our otherwise exclusionary, hostile cities and societies. We need to think about who we are as a society, and reflect on all aspects of it — education, the environment, sport, leisure, health, economics, gender, population, etc. — and from there build a society-making project. If we take these social dimensions as a starting point, we can then work out which physical buildings and urban projects will help us create the kind of society that we want to live in, the kind of society that we want to be. This is why I talk about social architecture and social urbanism: whenever Medellín is brought up in conversation, people tend to mention its physical developments and urban planning, the architecture of the city’s new public constructions: our library parks, our “units for shared living”, our schools, cultural centres and nurseries. But behind this urbanism, behind the physical architecture we can see in photographs, a great deal of profound social, educational and cultural work has taken place, as well as public communications — essentially, we want to help the city rewrite its own story. All of this deeper structure is the real proof of Medellín’s recent transformation.

Calle Carabobo Nord, from Centro Desarrollo Cultural Moravia to  Parque Explora – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
Centro de Desarrollo Cultural de Moravia, Rogelio Salmona – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
Parque Explora, in the northern part of downtown Medellín, Alejandro Echeverri – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
MOVA, Centro de Innovación del Maestro, adjacent to Parque Explora, Opus, paisaje, arquitectura, territorio – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
Ruta N, Alejandro Echeverri + Emerson Marín – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
Parque Biblioteca Belén, in the Belén neighborhood, Hiroshi Naito – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, Ciudad del Río neighborhood, Ctrl-G + 51-1 Arquitectos – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
olegio Las Independencias, in the Las Independencias neighborhood, +UdeB Arquitectos – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
Parque de los deseos and Casa de la música,  +UdeB Arquitectos – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
Workshop with the community inside the edificio de acceso Jardín Botánico and Café del Bosque access building, Ana Elvira Vélez + Lorenzo Castro – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
Parque de los pies descalzos y Museo interactivo epm in downtown Medellín, Ana Elvira Vélez, LAUR-FAUPB, Felipe Uribe de Bedout, Giovanna Spera – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
Colegio Antonio Derka, in the Santo Domingo Savio neighborhood, Obranegra Arquitectos – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
Colegio Antonio Derka, in the Santo Domingo Savio neighborhood, Obranegra Arquitectos – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
Parque Biblioteca Fernando Botero, in the rural area of San Cristóbal, G Ateliers Architecture – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
Parque Explora, in the northern part of downtown Medellín, Alejandro Echeverri – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
Museo Casa de la Memoria, Boston neighborhood, Juan David Botero – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
Prado Park, Prado neighborhood in the downtown area, Edgar Mazo – © Isaac Ramírez Marín
01 | 18
Calle Carabobo Nord, from Centro Desarrollo Cultural Moravia to Parque Explora – © Isaac Ramírez Marín

Torre Coltejer

Let me put it another way: many people come to Medellín to see our physical architecture, but they often end up following the map of our aforementioned social architectures instead: they visit our community organisations, cultural projects, youth collectives; they learn about stories of resilience in the streets; they visit memorials to the victims of all the violence we have lived though. At the 2014 World Urban Forum, held that year in Medellín, the architect Daniel Chaín (Buenos Aires’s Minister for Urban Development at the time) said: “I came to this city some years ago to see its public buildings, which are renowned all over the world, and I loved them. I’ve come back now, and this time I’ve had the chance to explore Medellín following the map of what they refer to here as its ‘social architecture.’ I’ve been able to talk to many different people and many neighbourhood/cultural organisations, and I say to them: what’s happened here in Medellín is a genuine cultural shift, and that’s what people should come here to see, feel and enjoy.”

I’d like to expand on this point: if and when social urbanism projects fail, it’s often because, basically, they’re just urban projects: the social side is treated like a feeble addendum, something expendable, a mere short-lived and anecdotal tool, of little force. That is to say, in many projects carried out within and alongside local communities, the social aspect is seen as mere adornment, an accessory, not something built to last. Thus, it is becoming ever clearer that if you take out the “social” from “social urbanism” then the ensuing projects end up half-hearted, or they fail, or they become unsustainable. Recognising the due importance of social, educational and cultural processes really is vital, in all such urban schemes.

Our cities need new social agendas, and their social transformations must go deeper. Therefore, these social agendas should be the determining factor when it comes to deciding what kind of urban works are needed in a given place. At Habitat III (the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, held in Quito in 2016), they set out a New Urban Agenda — however, I think that was a mistake, given the more pressing need for a New Social Agenda. What might a city be like if it were designed from a social perspective, one of inclusion, of bringing society together?

The Map of Amazement

Today, visitors to Medellín can discover the city by following the map of its transformations. In fact, we have become — unexpectedly, without planning it so — the most popular city in Colombia for foreign tourists, as well as a special destination for digital nomads. One of the reasons why they choose Medellín is because the whole city can be explored, even those neighbourhoods that used to suffer the most violence, and which had, for many years, become impenetrable. This map of transformations includes the map of sheer amazement: that is, buildings and public facilities of very high-quality architecture and construction, and which have had a great impact on the daily lives of communities.

The public sphere is a driver of equality for people and places: improved access to good public spaces and services has been one of Medellín’s formulae for success in recent years. Today, there is almost 100% coverage for water, sewage, energy and telephone services; 90% coverage for domestic gas; 100% asphalted streets; and first-rate facilities for education, culture, sports and recreation, throughout the city. The public transport system has brought integration and cohesion to the area, and has sparked many processes. This system, without which many of Medellín’s social and cultural dynamics would not exist today, includes two Metro lines (one of 26 km and the other of 9 km, while a third, 13-km bypass line is currently under pre-construction); a 4.2-km tramway; six Metrocable lines (urban cable cars, totalling 12.5 km) and several Metroplús bus lines (BRT, with metro connections). The best public transport in Medellín serves those parts of the city with the highest rates of poverty.

A strategy for cohesion

One of the greatest challenges for the public authorities is how to get the whole municipal cabinet working together, in interconnected ways, and how to ensure that the different departments begin to look beyond their particular sector, be it health, education, culture, etc., and also work, fundamentally, on populational and territorial aspects. In Medellín, we designed the PUIs, the Integrated Urban Projects, as a tool to get all the municipal departments joining together and collaborating. In order to pinpoint whereabouts in Medellín the PUIs should be implemented, we prioritise areas according to the following four criteria:

  • Areas with the lowest Human Development Index: urban and social development must be considered as a way to tackle poverty and, particularly, inequality.
  • Areas with the highest rates of violence: we prioritise the neighbourhoods that have suffered most violence, which we used to call “violent neighbourhoods”; in reality, their communities are victims of this violence.
  • Areas with the greatest populational density, especially those with a high number of children under the age of 6: public initiatives should also seek results in 15, 20 years, to foster and support upcoming generations.
  • Areas or neighbourhoods of particular symbolic importance for the city, due to their history, or because they symbolise a certain reality: neighbourhoods that evoke, for all people, the sensation that “if change was possible there, then it’s possible anywhere”.

The main characteristic of the PUIs is the simultaneous nature of the interventions: these are large urban and social projects, carried out at the same time in one geographical area of the city, and which are developed not separately but rather in a joint, integrated way. Furthermore, the PUIs are based on analyses of the neighbourhoods in question, and on maps that highlight, for example, the potentialities and opportunities for the community in each area. The PUIs become a way to learn about, acknowledge, assess and strengthen what already exists in these communities. They are not projects designed at a remote desk by engineers and architects; they are designed by professionals from all physical and social areas, with a high, ongoing degree of community participation. Those coordinating the PUIs start the process by running workshops about imaginaries, by traversing the neighbourhood with a gender-based perspective, and by drawing up maps of what’s lacking in the area and any relevant economic opportunities. They also engage in processes to recognise and strengthen the area’s social/collective organisations and community leaders.

The PUIs are located in a range of neighbourhoods (“comunas”, as we call them in Colombia), and one of the objectives is to improve the urban and social links between the area in question and the rest of the city, and vice versa: the idea is that the city too can reconnect with neighbourhoods that have been excluded from so many dynamics, i.e. the neighbourhoods people never used to visit because of the violence there, places that nobody ever wanted to go to. The concept of social and urban cohesion makes a lot of sense here: it’s about integrating, connecting, rather than intervening in a neighbourhood or area of the city in a way that maintains it as a social and cultural ghetto. We cannot think of the city in a disjointed, fragmented way.

Symbols of transformation

In Medellín’s Integrated Urban Projects, public buildings of high architectural quality have played a fundamental role: they symbolise the processes of transformation, and have become the new reference points and hallmarks of the city. They include public buildings that have emerged from important international competitions, as well as other projects conceived in the design workshop of the EDU, Medellín’s Urban Development Company (the company reports to the municipal government, but functions like a decentralised entity). Hundreds of architecture, engineering and design professionals have been trained in the EDU’s workshop, and today their work has been built not only throughout Medellín, but also in the many other places around the world where they have since taken their work.

In a city where over half of the houses are the product of informal construction, these new buildings of high-quality architecture enhance the lives of local communities. This approach sends out a powerful message: in today’s Medellín, public works are built and maintained to a very high standard; they foster social inclusion and bring great added value, and the public sphere acts as a generator of equality. Until twenty years ago, the most significant buildings in Medellín were those of private companies: the Coltejer Building (Coltejer being Colombia’s main national textile company), for example, was a symbol of the city’s modernity. The same was true of temples of different religions, particularly Catholic churches. The fact that, today, public buildings are now the most important ones in Medellín, is among the city’s finest achievements. And this is particularly noteworthy given the fact that these public buildings are located in neighbourhoods where investment of this kind was previously unthinkable. In turn, these neighbourhoods have a newfound importance due to the very presence of such superb buildings.

In the last twenty years, there has been a boom in quality architecture built in our neighbourhoods, especially in the ones most beset by poverty and violence. Most of these new public buildings — which are now our city’s picture postcards — are educational and cultural centres: they include 10 library parks; 21 UVAs (“units for shared living”, i.e. spaces for culture, education, recreation and sport); the Casa de la Música; the Moravia Cultural Development Centre; the EPM Library (Public Companies of Medellín); 34 nursery schools, as part of the Buen Comienzo (“Good Start”) programme; 20 high-quality state schools; Ruta N (the headquarters for our technological developments); the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (on a site that was formerly a women’s prison, for 120 years); the Medellín Museum of Modern Art (a private institution, but based in a public building that was, for many years, part of the city’s steelworks); MOVA, the Innovation Centre for Teachers; the Museo Casa de la Memoria (a museum of Medellín’s recent history) and the Plaza Mayor convention centre. There are also several new parks which too have become emblematic: Parque de Los Deseos, Parque de los Pies Descalzos (Barefoot Park), Parques del Río, the Parque Explora science zone, the Botanical Garden, the Parque Arví nature reserve, the Atanasio Girardot Sports Complex, Parque de la Inflexión (in memory of the victims of Pablo Escobar) and many more.

All of these projects are part of a larger quest for social inclusion, in an attempt to ensure that culture and education lead the way when it comes to transforming our society. And, as I noted above, these projects are not meteorites that fell from the sky and crash-landed in Medellín: they are the fruit of very wide-reaching and profound processes of participation, coordination, creation, recognition and evaluation of the identity of our city’s people and neighbourhoods. The new buildings form part of broader urban and social projects; they are the product of negotiations between many distinct areas of the municipal government, as well as alliances with private businesses and foundations, and with hundreds of social and community organisations.

These buildings, works of physical architecture and engineering, are in fact born of profound projects of social architecture and engineering. This is the key to understanding Medellín today. It’s the reason why other cities around the world find our transformation processes quite so remarkable. And it’s also the reason why we ask those who are interested in Medellín’s transformation to look not only at what we’ve done, but also, and especially, how we’ve done it: we would invite them to look into the background of all these works, and everything involved in the whole process behind them.

Just as I’m beginning to wrap up this text, on the sunny evening of 8th December 2023, I receive a 17-second video, taken in the Moravia neighbourhood. This was Medellin’s municipal rubbish dump for twenty years, until 1984. Then, for another twenty years, until 2004, it became one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, an area plagued by violence. The video shows a 9-year-old girl, called Criyane, all dressed up for her first communion. Criyane is asked the following question by Cielo Holguín, community leader in Moravia and specialist in urbanism and the environment: «For you, what’s the most important thing in your neighbourhood today?» And the girl responds, without hesitating: «culture».

When a little girl like this, in a neighbourhood still beleaguered by poverty, says that culture is the most important thing, I think her answer sums up everything that I’ve been talking about here. I hope that my words, along with the wonderful photographs taken by the architect Isaac Ramírez, help you get an idea of what has been happening in Medellín, Colombia.

Photos by Isaac Ramírez Marín

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