Medellín: a City Planned for the Other 90% (Guest Post by Juliana Rincon)

Medellín, Colombia, is a city that I've fallen in love with, and it loves me back. Whenever I walk its streets, ride the metro, or take a bus, I feel that the city was planned with me, and with all the thousands of others who, like me, don't own a car and depend on public transportation to move around, in mind.

An example: Carabobo used to be a chaotic avenue full of seedy joints and the constant rumble of old buses expelling diesel fumes. The beautiful art deco buildings along the avenue were left unnoticed as people rushed to their destinations enclosed in the safety of a vehicle. At the far end of the street was a no-man's land where you could see homeless people warming their hands with bonfires made in steel drums, and where everything and everyone had a price. Beautiful buildings were abandoned, scavenged and then abused as crack houses, businesses where struggling to maintain customers, and something had to be done.

Nowadays, no buses run through this main avenue; only people are allowed here. Instead of the sky being overcast by clouds of combusted fuels, it is shaded by trees and palms. The former crack house is a cultural and educational center, and the architectural jewels along the way are lit up to showcase their details, while thriving businesses inhabit their spaces. It is a complete pleasure to travel up and down this public space, designed to be fully accessible for every type of citizen.

Walking down the paved walkway, you can see people sitting on park benches and resting their tired feet, bags and bags of purchases from a variety of stores sitting beside them. Textured bricks mark pathways for the blind to follow with their canes, traffic lights with sound and vibrations assist the pedestrians who might not be able to hear or see the lights change color. You don't need to step off the curbs and onto the street -- they are both at the same level, making it easy for people in wheelchairs to enjoy this space as well. No bicycles are allowed, but riders are welcome to dismount and walk their bikes through this area if they wish to.

It seems that common sense solutions are usually completely ignored by governments in Latin American cities, and it is refreshing to see that this isn´t the case with Medellín. The government is rebuilding its city for the inhabitants: they have discovered that when people have public spaces they can enjoy and where they can relax, breathe in clean air, and stretch their legs, they work harder, better, and are generally happier. The poorer inhabitants of the city don't have time or money to take vacations to the rural areas; they don't have the means to visit beaches and certainly don't have membership to country clubs...so the city decided to give them spaces where they could take their families, where they could lay on the grass, sit on a bench and kick back on a Sunday.

The city has placed trust in the people, with the firm belief that if you make citizens take ownership of these new spaces, they'll take care of them and make sure others respect the spaces as well. Store owners and workers down Carabobo street signed an agreement stating that they would take responsibility in keeping their surroundings clean, reporting uncivilized behaviors and vandalism if, in exchange, the city would do maintenance and have enough policemen in the area to ensure shoppers' safety. These store owners now thank this project for their new situation: they have a lot more clients and shoppers now that people can walk at their leisure and window shop; they have met other store owners in their block; they don't have to deal with car fumes and the noise from honking vehicles and motors; and they have come together as a community, united with one goal: to keep Carabobo looking clean, safe and beautiful for many other generations to enjoy.

However, this didn't happen overnight. The business owners in Carabobo at first were terrified that once no vehicles could come by and park in front of their stores, sales would plummet. They didn't want to deal with the months of construction, not knowing if their businesses would survive this metamorphosis. The government decided to include these concerned entrepreneurs in the discussion and planning process so they could become involved with the project and take ownership of it. On October 27th 2006, an agreement was signed, and they first saw the butterfly emerge from its cocoon.

Last week the Hiperbarrio team headed downtown to record a little bit of our experience walking down Carabobo. We took pictures, shot videos and then sat down on one of the many benches to enjoy the day. It was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday morning, and if you ever come to Medellín and visit, I would definitely recommend for you to do the same.

If you want to learn a bit more about Carabobo, you can see the government's plan for Carabobo Street with pictures of the transformation, before, during and after, or look through the pictures we took that day with the Hiperbarrio team. Below, you can watch a YouTube video where the Carabobo community celebrates one year since the cooperation agreement was signed. (The narration is in Spanish).


Big thanks to Juliana Rincon, one of the organizers of Medellín's HiperBarrio project, for writing this guest post! Photo credits go to her group and the government plan sited in the post, in that order.


Anonymous said...

This sounds like another great example of what can happen when the people who have a real stake in what happens are involved in the planning process instead of just relying on developers and "experts." Great post.

Jules said...

Thanks Frank! It all has to do with building new experiences on existing community networks, not trying to, as we say down here, invent lukewarm water :)

Jeffrey Swartz said...

For more on what has been happening in Medellín over the past few years, see the article in the current issue of Barcelona Metropolis, "Social Urbanism: the Metamorphosis of Medellín".


Medellín was the winner of the 2009Curry Stone Design Prize.