Medellin: the new celebrity?

By Luisa Sotomayor

Urban practitioners in Latin America, and elsewhere, share an interest for cities that innovate, adapt, or resurge following a downfall. In fact, a characteristic of planning practice is an impetus to borrow from exogenous ‘best practices’ and ‘models’. Planning policy actors are constantly out shopping for new ideas. They are also eager to interpret the outcomes of international experiences and urban innovations, and to translate these ideas into local solutions (Healey, 2010; McCann & Ward, 2011). From time to time, certain cities attain a paradigmatic status, as they are thought to epitomize the challenges and values of an era (Gonzales, 2011; Thrift, 1997). Within the elite group of contemporary ‘model cities’, Barcelona and Bilbao are considered models of urban regeneration (Monclús, 2003); Portland and Curitiba are praised for environmental planning and growth management (Irazábal, 2005); Porto Alegre is emblematic of citizen participation (Abers, 2000); and Bogota became famous for sustainable mobility and urban administration (Gilbert, 2006), although lately, Bogota’s model seems to have fallen apart.

In the new millennium, eyes are turning towards a previously unlikely candidate: Medellin, Colombia. Until recently, Medellin was portrayed as an urban dystopia. A starkly divided city, it maintained for years some of the highest violence and inequality rates in the region. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, however, this mid-sized city of 2.5 million inhabitants is currently changing its international image as it recovers from an unprecedented crisis. Between 1991 and 2010, the city decreased dramatically its violent rates, which in 1991 were the highest in the world. This meant a reduction close to 80% in the number of homicides (per 100,000 inhabitants), from 433 in 1991, to 52 in 2012 (Franco et. al., 2012; Personería, 2013). Likewise, the city’s inequality (as per the gini coefficient) dropped down a 7,8%, moving from 0,542 in 2008 to 0,500 in 2012 (Medellín Como Vamos, 2013). Although inequality is still above the Colombian average (0,49%), which is also one of the highest in the region, it is undeniable that the city is evolving.

BLOG Metrocables y espacio publico 2

Picture No. 1: Parque Biblioteca España and Metrocables, Integral Urban Project, Northeastern Area. Photo by Luisa Sotomayor.

Seeking to reduce the socio-spatial divide, since 2004, municipal authorities embarked on an ambitious investment strategy for marginalized neighbourhoods. This strategy, called social urbanism, involved a plan to integrate the city informal areas into the urban fabric (Brand and Dávila, 2011).  It was devised to reassert state governance, build social and physical infrastructure, improve service delivery (with an emphasis on early childhood and schooling), and increase mobility and public spaces in underserved neighbourhoods. In the circuits of inter-city referencing, Medellin is becoming a beacon of local state activism (Bateman et al., 2011); green mobility innovations through cable-car technology (Brand & Dávila, 2011); and equitable strategic planning (Sotomayor, 2013). It is also cited as an example of urban resilience in a context of violence (Davis, 2009; Patiño, 2011); and has been praised for good governance practices and efficient service delivery (Fukuyama & Colby, 2011; Guerrero, 2011).

escaleras comuna 13

Picture No. 2: Giant Escalators in Las Independencias, Comuna 13. Photo by Esteban Agudelo.

Word of Medellin’s resurgence has quickly spread out. In the last five years, the city was awarded over 40 international prizes. Prestigious institutions are conferring these recognitions, including UN-Habitat, The Gates Foundation and Harvard University. Among the most recent distinctions is the Urban Land Institute’s naming of Medellin as the ‘Most Innovative City in the World’. International journalists are also reporting the transformation with headlines such as “Reinventing the world’s most dangerous city”,[1] “From drug violence to tourist destination”,[2] or “A city rises along with its hopes”[3]. Indeed, Medellin has achieved a celebrity status.

Picture No. 3: Filmmakers shooting a documentary show for the Discovery Channel near the Parque-Biblioteca España. Photo by LuloFilms.

The new panorama contrasts sharply with previous narratives of the city. Over the last three decades, the dynamics of the global drug-dealing business along with media reports highlighting the misdeeds of legendary drug lords –most of them now deceased or in US jails–, positioned Medellin as “murder capital of the world”. While it became a cliché to refer to Medellin from a violence and narcotics perspective, such labeling not only delineated international imaginaries, but also contributed to oversimplify both external and local understandings of the city’s complex troubles (Roldán 2003; Drummond et. al., 2012). As Mary Roldán (2003) argues, the emergence of the narcotics trade was inherently shaped by historic violence, social inequity, and economic fractures spanning various decades and multiple geographic scales.

There are several elements contributing to Medellin’s current resurgence, many more than what I could possibly address here. Some of them respond to exogenous factors, such as, state modernization and urban reform legislation, national security policies, or the changing dynamics of the international drugs trade, per se. There are also shadier reasons that cannot be ignored. These involve truces imposed by organized criminal structures, or the violent retake in 2002 of territorial control by the public forces as commanded by former right-wing president Alvaro Uribe (2002-2006; 2006-2010). Beyond those ambivalent contours, Medellin’s recent history is also characterized by progressive local governments anchored on a thick layer of community based activism, civic society organizations, and social movements. We could say that, starting in 2004 a ‘synergistic relationship’ (à la Evans, 1996) between society and the local state was forged.

Civic participation is presumably scarce in places where fear dominates the public sphere. Indeed, over the last thirty years, too many NGO actors and community leaders were threatened or killed in Medellin. During fieldwork, I found that against a great deal of adversity, however, neighbourhood-based groups, social movements, academics, NGO actors, among others, have struggled to exercise and reclaim their citizenship, whether in invited (more formal), or in invented (more spontaneously and contestatory) spaces of participation (Miraftab, 2009).

Spaces of urban policy innovation: the NGOization of government

In the context of decentralization, local governments in Colombia acquired a gamut of responsibilities, administrative competences, and fiscal capacities, which turned mayors into prominent figures (Dávila, 2009). The power entrusted in mayors has raised the appeal of the post, occasionally attracting unconventional candidates pursuing the ‘opinion vote’. This was the case of former mayors Sergio Fajardo (2004-2007) –an academic–, and Alonso Salazar (2008-2011) –a journalist and social researcher–. Venturing for the first time into politics, Fajardo and Salazar increased the technical capacity of the state by improving the city’s tax collection and the performance of city owned companies such as Empresas Públicas de Medellín (Medellín Municipal Utilities Company).

Under Fajardo’s and Salazar’s leadership, planners mobilized the state by taking higher risks, by using their social networks to outreach to local communities, and by institutionalizing democratic innovations emerging from civic society. Ideas advocated by planners during previous policy rounds also found a window of opportunity for growth during this period of innovation and NGOization of the local government. Such is the case of the Metrocables. In parallel, the institutional centrality of the state in local communities also increased, considering than during the 1990s state institutions were itinerant at best, and totally absent at worst (Leyva, 2010).

Current challenges

Currently, Medellin is getting ready to host the 2014 World Urban Forum 7 and share its best practices with the world.  Certainly, the city’s ‘urban transformation’ has been accompanied by a strategy to publicize the changes and reposition this ‘rising star’ within the circuits of inter-city competition. As the city celebrates itself, less is said, nevertheless, about the fragility of the social processes implicated in this aggressive urban reconfiguration. Although poverty, unemployment, and violence have been reduced, their impacts at the neighbourhood level continue to be perplexing. The 2012 annual report by Personería (the Ombudsman Office), points out that while the number of homicides has diminished, violence is still exerted through threats, illegal recruitment, and displacement. For instance, in 2012, 9.941 people were forced by gangs to abandon their houses, 1507 more cases than in 2011. There were also six massive displacements, four of these involving vulnerable populations, such as Afro-Colombians and Indigenous groups (Personería, 2013). Undeniably, many difficulties remain in the areas of security, justice, police reform and human rights.

Beyond issues of justice and security, three additional critical challenges will determine the sustainability of current efforts at reform in the long run, first, to close the wide gap for affordable housing; second, to create local economies able compete and win over criminal enterprises; and third, to improve governance coordination with neighbouring municipalities. In turn, these challenges will only be addressed as long as both, municipal authorities and civic society can ‘keep the impulse’ and maintain a commitment to socio-spatial justice.


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[1] Ed Vulliamy, The Guardian, Sunday June 9, 2013. Retrieved on August 15, 2013 from:

[2]Nancy Trejos, The Washington Post, Friday November 19, 2010. Retrieved on August 15, 2013 from:


One response to “Medellin: the new celebrity?

  1. Pingback: LAURA CESAFSKY: Bogotá’s TransMilenio, Urban Design and the Nature of Built Environment Objects | Spatial Planning in Latin America·

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