In its new guise, Medellin – known among residents as La Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera (the city of eternal spring) – boasts state-of-the-art transportation systems; carefully designed public parks, libraries, and schools; as well as innovative commercial and industrial centers. All of which, according to Jorge Perez Jaramillo, director of administration and planning for the city of Medellin, embody the city’s new ideal: urban development that is progressive, practical, sustainable, and – of course – pleasing to the eye.

A hallmark of Medellin’s urban transport system
A hallmark of Medellin’s urban transport system

More importantly, though, each and every facet of Medellin’s innovative planning – from the spectacular Metrocable, a cable car service that connects the outer, difficult-to-access reaches of the city to its center, to the Biblioteca Espana, an advanced and award-winning library that seemingly sticks out of the side of a mountain – has been designed and realized as part of a broader plan to foster long-lasting equitable economic and social development. A sort of development that, in Jaramillo’s words, is meant to include every citizen of Medellin, no matter where they live or what their socio-economic status might be. The scheme’s over-reaching goal is to improve the life of everyone.

These cable cars have not only connected underprivileged parts of Medellin to the city center, they have also had a profoundly positive impact on the lifestyles of people living in those areas, as various social and economic indicators have shown.
These cable cars have not only connected underprivileged parts of Medellin to the city center, they have also had a profoundly positive impact on the lifestyles of people living in those areas, as various social and economic indicators have shown.

“The development of our city and the progress of humanity go hand-in-hand,” he says. “The Metrocable, for example, is a physical entity. But it is also an important tool for social inclusion and this is what we want above all else here in Medellin: Social inclusion and a better life for everyone in this city.”

Although it has been close to two decades since Medellin, once home to notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, was freed from the shackles of the narco-trafficking that tainted the city’s image around the world, the memory of those times still makes most residents shudder, Jaramillo adds. After all, it all but removed Medellin from the tourist map and, most importantly, made day-to-day life incredibly difficult for its citizens. If there is a common goal that all of the residents share, then, it is to move as far away as possible from their city’s sordid history.

This library was the very first one built in Medellin and one of the most important tourist attractions in Medellin today.
This library was the very first one built in Medellin and one of the most important tourist attractions in Medellin today.

“We went through years of an economic model based on the drug trade that enabled quick and easy wealth for a select few, but resulted in the alienation and social exclusion of the majority,” Jaramillo says. “Ten years ago, we got going on this project to change our city for the better and so far, the engine has not stopped running.”

In fact, the desire to keep on innovating and improving has only grown in Medellin. Today, the success of iconic, first-generation undertakings like the Metrocable, the Parque Biblioteca Espana, or “Las escaleras electricas,” an amazing set of escalators that connects people living in steeper parts of the surrounding mountains to their place of work, has elicited enough interest and funding from a variety of sources to keep things moving, Jaramillo explains. The fruitful collaboration between public and private sectors that fueled these landmark projects will continue to create new opportunities to leverage the best in engineering, architecture, and design talent from both within and outside of Medellin.

These escalators are an important part of the integrated public transport system that is a long-term project in Medellin. They have greatly improved the access to the city for people who live in the outer, steeper reaches of Medellin.
These escalators are an important part of the integrated public transport system that is a long-term project in Medellin. They have greatly improved the access to the city for people who live in the outer, steeper reaches of Medellin.

Medellin’s impressive strides in social urbanism have been recognized around the world: In 2013, the city was awarded the American Urban Land Institute’s Most Innovative City prize and the city is about to host the annual World Urban Forum.

More importantly, Medellin’s success has inspired other South American cities to replicate some of these features and approaches in their quest for a more equitable and inclusive growth model. Rio de Janeiro and Caracas, for example, have built cable cars, while other cities are looking toward the Medellin model for encouraging a viable business community that supports local players, attracts foreign investment, and improves the living conditions of local citizens.

Schools of this nature are coming up in some of Medellin’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods.
Schools of this nature are coming up in some of Medellin’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods.

Beyond extending the existing Metrocable and overhauling the remaining public transport system (including the addition of a modern metro system) to allow for quicker and more efficient urban mobility, Medellin now has plans to create new parks and green zones, cycle paths, schools, kindergartens, and libraries. All with the goal of furthering social inclusion, economic equality, and improved everyday quality of life.

In Medellin, every citizen is important, Jaramillo says.

In his view, the city’s history has underscored the value of human life. “There was a time when homicide was commonplace, but now, in the first two years of Mayor Aníbal Gaviria’s tenure, we have had 50 days with zero homicides.” So, if Medellin can continue on its path of social and cultural change, and if it becomes a place people actively want to live in, then there are greater things in store for the city and its populace.

Text: Savita Iyer-Ahrestani
All photos, incl. the header image: Alcaldia de Medellin