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U3 Advisors attends World Urban Forum

In April, I had the privilege of traveling to Medellin, Colombia to attend the World Urban Forum – a non-legislative UN Habitat led gathering that is widely regarded as the premier conference on Cities. Over 10,000 people attended the bi-annual gathering, which felt like a cross between a World’s Fair, a Trade-Show, and a political summit. While the conference proved to be a melting pot of topics, ideas, and people, I came away from my 3 days in Colombia more captivated by the city itself.

For those of you familiar with Medellin, you may be aware of its infamous past as the center of Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel. The city was once considered one of the most dangerous in the world with 6,300 homicides in 1991. Escobar was killed in 1993 and the city has been dramatically transformed over the last 20 years. Today, Medellin is much safer, very clean, and incredibly friendly (as someone who speaks very little Spanish, I met complete strangers who went out of their way to help me get around the city).

Medellin’s resilience has not gone unnoticed and the city has been recognized as one of the most innovative in the world. Part of Medellin’s transformation has been its focus on inclusion and equitable development. I spent Sunday traveling on the city’s modern Metro system to visit Santo Domingo – a hillside neighborhood that was once the center of Escobar’s drug cartel. The steep topography of the neighborhood makes it difficult for cars or buses to reach the low-income residents – and requires a long walk up-hill for anyone returning from a long day of work or school in the central city. As part of Medellin’s Social Urbanism platform, a public-private partnership constructed Line K of the Medellin Metro – a 1.8km gondola or Metrocable that provides seamless connections to the city’s Metro.

I rode the Metrocable to the top of the hill – the Santo Domingo stop. I was worried that the ride up the hill would feel like a tourist attraction, with hundreds of visitors staring down at the low-income neighborhoods below. Instead, the Metrocable proved to be both a useful public transport system and a point of pride for local residents – offering some of the best views in the city from the compact, glass enclosed cars.

At Santo Domingo, I wandered through a vibrant street fair to the Biblioteca Espana – a modern library designed by Colombian Architect Giancarlo Mazzanti that represents another aspect of urbanismo social: placing the city’s “most beautiful buildings” in the city’s poorest areas – a declaration of former Mayor Segio Fajardo.  Despite the fact that the building’s exterior is temporarily covered in scaffolding due to leaks, it represents a significant investment in a neighborhood that was once the most dangerous in the city.

On the ride back down the mountain, I couldn’t help but reflect on how a city could be transformed in such a short period of time. The lessons of Medellin’s urban makeover are relevant to many cities (including my hometown of Philadelphia which despite a recent transformation still suffers from a poor global reputation).  Visionary leadership, innovative transportation models, and progressive urbanism have re-made Medellin’s reputation.  In turn, this has benefited Medellin’s citizens both in quality of life and local pride. When citizens begin to love their city again, the ripple effect can be exponential. More cities should take-note of this Latin American comeback kid.

This post was originally featured on the blog Architect This City


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