Learning from Medellín with Alejandro Echeverri

“I think, if you want to write a new narrative at some specific moment in the story of a city, it is important that you have to feel the transformation and see the transformation. So the physical transformation is important but always there is more a spiritual thing, as happens with emotional connections and inspirational things.” ______Architect Alejandro Echeverri.

EcheverriPhotoIf you have an interest in Latin America or in urban matters, you will have read by now that the city of Medellín, Colombia has undergone a startling transformation in the past fifteen years. In the 1980s and 1990s, the name of Medellín evoked fearsome drug cartels, violence and terrorism.

But in the 2000s, Medellín took a dramatic turn for the better. In 2012, it was selected from 200 contenders as Innovative City of the Year in a survey organized by the Wall Street Journal and the Urban Land Institute. Today, it features regularly among lists of forward-looking cities and must-see destinations.

One of the most important actors in this giant leap is the Medellín architect Alejandro Echeverri. With the inspired leadership of Mayor Sergio Fajardo and a team of architects, engineers, communicators and social workers, Echeverri in his post as Medellín’s Director of Urban Projects set out to bring real improvements through a strategy of “social urbanism” which included large and small projects in the most troubled parts of the city.

Echeverri who is currently a 2016 Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design shared his thoughts with Sami Karam in this 50 minute podcast. A few highlights are transcribed below.

On giving value to local conditions: “It is better to add than to erase.”

From the start, Echeverri and his team avoided the top-down approach favored by past urban planners and worked to develop what he describes as a holistic collaboration between architects, community representatives, social workers, city administrators and the private sector.

At another time in another city, planners might have decided to clear existing low-income settlements and to restart with a clean slate, for example by building high-rise apartments in a parklike setting. Many such projects in the US and Europe are seen today as expensive failures where traditional relations of community and family break down and where crime and vandalism are chronic problems.

An important differentiator in Medellín was to leave existing homes and communities in place. Echeverri explains:

“First came respect and [the idea] to give value to the local conditions, give value to the memories. There is a lot of value. Sometimes because you have some different preconceptions and you belong to a different world, it is difficult for you to see the value of these things. I am talking not only about the value of the physical environment. I am talking about the value of the social engagement, the economy, most of it informal, but they have a lot of solidarity, networks and so on… The process of Medellín, the singularity is some special sensibility about local conditions and houses and thinking that it is better to add than to erase.”

“These projects don’t just have the goal of increasing the quality of life for people, but also to increase their pride and self-esteem.”

On gondolas, transit stations and library parks

Among the most visible physical improvements was the introduction of metro cable cars or gondolas that connect poor areas on the hillsides (the barrios) to the subway in the city below. The new transport system facilitated the commute to work, school etc. but as importantly, it created nodes of communal activity around the transit stations.

Metrocable and Biblioteca Espana. Photo via Wikimedia Commons by Ben Bowes.

Echeverri says:

“We wanted to do a holistic intervention around each station, combining physical transformation and programs of education, innovation, entrepreneurship and so on. So we used each station as a magnet to develop a public space. We focused as well on the itineraries of the common people, how the people use the barrios, from the houses to the schools to the stations and how to improve that condition and give them more public services and public spaces and new cultural facilities.  So, working with the community, and thinking that big infrastructures are important but the same importance is given to the small details, small interventions. And the intervention has to be with the people as well.”

In addition to the gondolas, as many as nine library parks designed by Colombian architects were built in poorer areas and stand today as symbols of a fresh approach to education and culture. One of the them, the Parque Biblioteca España is shown in the photo above.

How do you measure success?

With a decline in violence, all of Colombia has enjoyed a resurgence in investment and tourism. In 2011-15, foreign direct investment was over three times what it had been a decade earlier (source: colombiareports.com). In 2015, the number of foreign visitors, 76% of whom were vacationers, was over 2.5x higher than in 2005 (source: colombiareports.com). Bogota was the number one destination with 45% of visitors, followed closely by Medellín with 39%.

Photo from Proyecto Urbano Integral / Alejandro Echeverri + Valencia Arquitectos.

Echeverri sees vindication and success in these figures and adds the following:

“The externalities that happened after we recovered the confidence and spirit of society permitted many other interests to start to see Medellín as an opportunity. International companies started to appear. Medellín started to be again one of the main cities for events in Latin America. A lot of researchers and universities were interested again to have partnerships with different institutions of Medellín. So, it is like a virtual cycle but we still have a structural problem. The challenge is big.”

“The main [way we measure success] is how the quotidianity [the daily life] happens today in our city. I am talking about the quotidianity, about the every day life in different parts of the city, mostly in some of the problematic areas, where the kids and the  people and the mothers could be out and move and have facilities of education and could spend half of the time in the public transport system going to work. When the kids go out of the houses or the schools, they don’t see the informal armies, the paramilitaries, that used to be in charge of the public space. So they have different opportunities. We still have problems and so on but the every day life changed a lot. Change the priority because the city today is thinking of education and innovation and not of violence and security.”

Can some lessons be applied to other cities?

With urbanization increasing all over the world, most cities face considerable challenges in infrastructure, housing and security. Echeverri believes that some ideas can be borrowed from Medellín’s experience.

“Every city has some singularity and some local conditions. But always, you find everybody is in agreement on what are the problematic issues and problematic areas of the city, but the political decision to solve those problematic areas and issues doesn’t happen. So focus on problematic areas, be strategic and continuous. Work with ethics, it is important. I strongly believe in the connection with the local conditions, the connection of the public policy and urban transformation with where the people live and where the people have an identity, where the life of the city is happening. I am talking about barrios and neighborhoods.

“To develop a holistic intervention in strategic areas is not easy but it is very powerful if you can combine simultaneously a package of actions: physical transformations, I am talking about public transport systems, public spaces, spaces for culture, education etc., a programmatic package in relation with innovation, local economies.”

To be sure, Echeverri is not declaring victory. He says that there remains much work ahead to cement and prolong the city’s achievements of recent years. He stresses the necessity of having a suitable organizational structure and institutional partnerships between the municipality, the private sector and academia. Other topics covered in the podcast include funding issues and the need for political continuity.

“You cannot change the story of a city in eight years or ten years.  I believe that the process of transformation of Medellín started and was very consistent because some processes happened in a good way but it needs continuity, more years to develop. You improve some specific conditions in some areas but you cannot transform and recover all the problems. For example, the housing problem which is still there.”

There is much more in the podcast. Listen to the whole thing.