How Medellín Got Its Groove Back
March 16, 2009
Medellín, the second-largest city in Colombia, has been known and labeled for decades as a place of violence and anarchy related to the drug-trafficking conflict. During the late 1990s, and especially since the turn of the millennium, it has been reinventing itself through controversial urban plans and experimental architecture. Proposed primarily by the local government and supported by a group of forward-thinking architects (many of them Colombians with young practices), these plans and projects have resulted in a profound process of change that serves as a relevant model for other cities.
Enacted in 1997, Law 388 compelled all Colombian city councils to draft a public-space renovation plan, called Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial (POT), and put it into action within a three-year term. The POT marked a turning point for decision makers, urban planners, and architects of every important Colombian city. Bogotá, the country’s capital — which also had a tarnished image and had undergone decades of unplanned growth — set an example with its successful urban renovation plan and consequent social transformation. In this city, which has a population of more than 7 million and an area of 612 square miles, change has been affected greatly through infrastructure and reconnection with the surrounding natural environment. In Medellín, which has less than half that population and an area of just 147 square miles, change was envisioned as stemming from meaningful architectural projects that hopefully would trigger other work, eventually resulting in a resuscitated urban social dynamic. (This initiative marked the city’s second notable planning effort of the century. During the 1950s, the Medellín Master Plan, spearheaded by architects Paul Lester Wiener and José Luis Sert, was largely abandoned due to the repercussions of political and financial instability.)
But the differences between Bogotá and Medellín go beyond scale and population. Historically, Bogotá has been developed under traditional canons of architecture and construction techniques, while Medellín, known as the country’s industrial capital, has been characterized by innovation and change. In fact, Medellín is the only Colombian city served by a modern urban rail system. The Metro, which was instituted in 1995, connects with an elevated gondola system, or Metrocable, which was added in 2004 to provide access to one of the city’s most impoverished and previously inaccessible hillside communities. In the nine years between the construction of the Metro and the Metrocable, Medellín began to implement a series of architectural and urban projects that have helped to establish and solidify its new, positive image.
Mayor Sergio Fajardo, who was elected in 2003 and reelected in 2005, has been credited with assembling professionals and academics who, together, have defined the general basis for the transformation of not only this city but the entire region of the Aburrá Valley. In 2006, following the completion of a number of successful architectural and urban projects in Medellín, the leading regional administrative entity, Area Metropolitana, sanctioned the Metropolitan Directives of Territorial Planning, which seeks to qualify and redefine guidelines for the preservation and/or construction of natural features and public and private structures and help blur, through democratized spaces, the strict lines that traditionally have been drawn between the classes. With these objectives in mind, the consortium has helped initiate policies and projects that range from new waterfronts and plazas to social programs, such as public libraries and schools, strategically placed in degraded neighborhoods.