Sharing Without Sharing: The Strange Case of Medellín

The Medellín skyline. Credit: laloking97. Below is an excerpt of the new book, Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities.  

Medellín has come a very long way in the past 20 years. Colombia’s second city has become a thriving medical, business, and tourist center. Its change strategy was led by the philosophy of "social urbanism" developed by the Medellín Academy. In the mid-1990s, this established a focus on empowering citizens, beginning in the poorest neighborhoods. Medellín is now one of the best examples of an emerging Sharing City in the world -- not just in the global South -- yet has achieved this distinction without adopting any discourse of "sharing" or a "sharing economy." Rather, its experience demonstrates the importance of the shared public realm and the scope for enlightened political leadership.

Today, Medellín is a city of about 2.4 million people, with a metro area population of 3.5 million. But, as our story begins, in the 1980s, it was home to a violent and powerful drug trafficking organization called the Medellín Cartel, headed by the infamous Pablo Escobar. By 1982, cocaine had surpassed coffee as Colombia’s biggest export, as cartels transported billions of dollars’ worth of the drug to the United States. In 1991, the murder rate climbed to 380 per 100,000 people, with over 6,000 killings, making the city the "murder capital" of the world. Violence paralyzed the city, leading to widespread abandonment of the public realm and most aspects of civic participation. But -- after Escobar was killed in 1993 by Colombian special forces -- city leaders, community activist groups, and residents alike dedicated their efforts to reclaiming the city through a fresh start.

Medellín’s sprawling hillside neighborhoods, called comunas, are largely informal settlements created by displaced populations who had fled their homes in other parts of the country due to violence and conflict. The result was a highly segregated city. Laura Isaza, a consultant to Medellín City Hall, notes, “This displaced population didn’t feel like they were part of the city. They used to say, ‘I live in this neighborhood and I don’t live in Medellín.’ And that was one of our first steps: To gain their confidence and to make them feel that they are part of our city.”


A Medellín comuna. Photo credit: szeke via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA.

While revitalization in Medellín first took root through national Colombian policy mandating architectural interventions to combat poverty and crime, its regeneration is widely considered to have blossomed between 2003 and 2007 under mayor Sergio Fajardo, who made the bold declaration that the city’s “most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas.” Economist Joseph Stiglitz highlights that indeed:

Medellín constructed avant-garde public buildings in areas that were the most run-down, provided house paint to citizens living in poor districts, and cleaned up and improved the streets -- all in the belief that, if you treat people with dignity, they will value their surroundings and take pride in their communities.

Architect Alejandro Echeverri, who worked with Fajardo on the city’s transformation, highlights the role of the department of urbanismo social (which translates as social civic planning or social urbanism). During the mid-1990s, Echeverri explains, “A small group began to think in terms, not of top-down policy, but of one that would begin with the poorest neighborhoods ... It was both a concept and a physical strategy.”

Social urbanism prioritized historically neglected neighborhoods on the urban agenda. The new strategy reclaimed shared public spaces and connected the isolated comunas to each other and to the rest of the city. Social urbanism explicitly prioritizes equity in its approach, yet -- especially through its focus on public transit -- also delivers environmental benefits.

The social urbanism strategy uses specific projects to inject investment into targeted areas in a way that cultivates civic pride, participation, and greater social impact. Medellín describes these projects as Proyecto Urbano Integral, or integral urban projects. They become catalysts for surrounding public space and infrastructure interventions to poverty and violence, and are viewed holistically as part of a comprehensive plan for targeted neighborhoods.

Integral urban projects that enhance accessibility and connectivity for residents of the comunas have come in the form of impressive upgrades to the city’s public transit, which was named one of the top systems in the world by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy in 2012. The Metro de Medellín network serves over half-a-million passengers each day. One of its most impressive features is the Metrocable: nine cable car or gondola systems that transport passengers up and down the steep mountainsides of the city, linking comunas that have been built on hillsides too steep to allow for buses or cars. Prior to completion of the cable lines in 2010, residents living in the steep city slums faced a long, dangerous commute down the mountainside, which could take hours on foot. Today, this commute looks very different. For less than one U.S. dollar, a comuna resident can take a comfortable and scenic 25-minute ride down the steep slopes with direct transfer to the metro cars below.


The seven-station escalator. Photo credit: DaniBlanchette via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA.

The real poster-child of Medellín’s transportation system is not the Metrocable, but the seven-station outdoor escalator that runs through Comuna 13. In the upper reaches of this neighborhood, the streets are so steep that they give way to staircases, amounting to the equivalent of climbing a 28-story building for some residents. Opened in 2011 and financed through a public-private partnership, the escalator sweeps people up to the top within a matter of minutes -- free of charge. Similarly to the Metrocable stations, strategic placement of this escalator is perceived by many as a symbol of rebirth and investment in a neighborhood that has experienced extensive neglect and violence.

Further efforts are being made to assuage residents concerned that these "flashy new projects" might be distracting attention from social issues that, despite great improvement, continue to plague the comunas, including gang violence and drug trafficking. The design and placement of the cable lines and stations strategically disrupted drug trafficking routes while also providing affordable, quick access to amenities in the city center for residents. Public facilities such as health centers, schools, and libraries have also been developed at the cable-car stations. Public space is being used for both security and possibility, dramatically improving citizens’ capabilities

In Medellín, increasing accessibility and connectivity through the metro system has also funneled a new stream of commerce and investment into the areas surrounding these new nodes of transit hubs. Many of the new parks, schools and other public buildings are integrated into the infrastructure of the metro system itself. For example, so far, the Metro has created 320,000 square meters of green space throughout the city, equivalent to 40 professional soccer fields.

Yet improved transit and connected developments are just one part of the Medellín effect. Library parks have been constructed in marginalized parts of the city, providing free access to computer and information technology, and educational classes, as well as space for cultural activities and recreation. One such, the Parque Biblioteca España, was built in the neighborhood of Santo Domingo, just a short walk from a Metrocable station, and has become a potent emblem of the city’s social urbanism projects and greater transformation. The structure looks futuristic from the outside, with three massive, linked black boulder-like buildings perched 1,500 feet overlooking the valley below, yet the physical transformation of the public space holds more and deeper meanings for many residents.

Colombian architect, Giancarlo Mazzanti, who designed the library, calls it a “symbol that produces dignity.” Writing in The Guardian newspaper, Sibylla Brodzinsky recounts a visit to Medellín and a conversation that occurred on the grass of the Parque Biblioteca España with an 18-year old resident, who explained that areas of the city that are the most abandoned are at the greatest risk for violence, and “today we are no longer abandoned here.” Once considered one of the most violent parts of the city, Santo Domingo is now both a tourist destination and local gathering place. The library park and the many other public places constructed through social urbanism now provide spaces for social engagement and cohesion between fragmented neighborhoods and socioeconomic classes.

Not everything in Medellin is perfect, however. Efforts to extend social inclusion in housing have been less successful. The Social Institute for Housing and Habitat of Medellin (ISVIMED) is responsible for managing social interest housing in the Municipality. It builds new social housing and supports housing improvements, and oversees regularization of property and land ownership in some comunas. Some retitling initiatives provide "indivisible" collective ownership of plots in multiple occupation, but most focus on individual titling. However, there is some evidence that individual titling has been abused by criminal gangs, and we would support Jota Samper’s suggestion that the city should instead consider wider use of collective titling -- for housing and adjacent open spaces, perhaps in forms where equity is shared with the municipality.


Medellín’s public transit. Photo credit: laloking97 via Foter.com / CC BY-SA.

Medellín’s experience with inclusive economic development is also more mixed, although some see the emergence of a cooperative-focused approach. It has also refocused its local economic development initiatives, away from conventional microfinance, establishing a network of municipal business development agencies, the Centers of Zonal Development of Companies (CEDEZOs) to support small businesses to develop and collaborate. Medellín also supports both marketing and workers cooperatives, such as the Coomsocial health center which has 150 worker members across two sites and provides health care to tens of thousands of residents under contract to the city. “With huge inequality still prevalent in Medellín,” reports local economic development consultant Milford Bateman, “the hope is that the promotion of worker cooperatives will provide important examples of an enterprise structure in which it is perfectly possible to combine economic efficiency with high levels of equality, dignity and democracy.”

Nor are all Medellin’s major projects universally popular. The city’s current mayor, Aníbal Gaviria, recently announced another ambitious project, the Cinturón Verde Metropolitiano, or Metropolitan Green Belt, a proposed 46-mile long (75 kilometer) park along the upper slopes of the valley surrounding the city. The project, echoing the UK’s post-WWII Green Belts, aims to contain urban expansion by curbing development of informal settlements along the upper ring of the city’s hillsides, while also providing access to green space and recreation and a new monorail route. Since many residents already live above the proposed Green Belt line, they will have to be relocated. This project is facing criticism from some who feel poorer residents are being displaced for the sake of another project in the name of innovation that will garner global media attention.

However, most major projects are not only popular, but are shaped by citizen participation. Revenue from the city’s public services company, Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), funds many of the integral urban projects. Some $450 million of the utility company’s profits go to improving social welfare through these public projects. EPM had 20 new projects planned for completion in 2015, all of which are being designed and planned through a participatory process with the community to ensure the spaces meet public needs. Bateman notes that locals appear “genuinely proud of ‘their’ company's contributions to the city's economic development and culture.”

Medellín is one of the largest cities in the world to successfully practice participatory budgeting. However, so far, only five percent of the city’s budget is set aside for this form of economic democracy. Mayor Gaviria says civic participation in participatory budgeting and other city planning projects nurtures civic pride where citizens feel “they participate in the construction, design and approval of public works and government programs.” One notable beneficiary of participatory budgeting is Son Bata, an Afro-Colombian music group that has morphed into a community center and cultural initiative. In this center, neighborhood children find refuge in the safe, colorful building and receive free music classes. With its participatory budgeting allocation, which covers 30 percent of its operating budget, Son Bata has been able to contract with music professors, purchase instruments and construct a music studio.

Son Bata is not the only arts-based cultural initiative that is pushing back against the gang violence that still exists in the comunas. Just as the city’s investment in the public realm has been an effort to reclaim public spaces from violence and negligence, La Casa Morada, a shared studio space for musicians in Comuna 13, strives to keep culture alive and fill the city’s spaces with life by holding concerts for the public in its front yard. Similarly, the Moravia Center for Cultural Development, located in a neighborhood that developed on one of the city’s former garbage dumps, focuses on engaging youth and their families in music, theater and other art programs.

Yeison Hendo of the Moravia Center describes their strategy as “using education and culture as a means to create conditions of peace and tolerance.” New York Times reporter Michael Kimmelman, on a visit inspired by the city’s use of architecture to combat crime, described the Moravia Center as the most remarkable building of all, with a “dance studio and theater opening onto the outdoors, the library and courtyard, flanked by low ramps, providing a desperately needed safe and attractive public space.” The combination of participatory budgeting and grassroots efforts to provide at-risk youth with alternatives to joining a combo, or local street gang provides an excellent example of the potential for community and civic co-creation to build empathy and transform the urban commons, even in the most challenging of circumstances.

All of these initiatives earned Medellín the USA’s Urban Land Institute’s "Innovative City of the Year" title in 2013. The competition, developed in partnership with Wall Street Journal and Citi, recognizes the most innovative urban centers by public vote, and Medellín beat out finalists including New York City and Tel Aviv. It is an incredible feat for Medellín to have risen to "model city status" for urban equality planning strategies, but the fragility of the social and economic conditions implicated in this urban transformation should not be overlooked.

While poverty, violence, and crime have been reduced, these challenges are still very much alive. Many residents feel overwhelmed by the city’s sudden fame and are not fully convinced that the welfare of poorer residents is the true driving force of its social urbanism agenda. Nonetheless, the case of Medellin case highlights well the importance of design for equity; investment in a shared and intercultural public realm, government funded public services providing key shared infrastructures; and the importance of the arts for growing empathy and shifting cultural norms. Overall, the progress achieved through the social urbanism strategy and grassroots community initiatives has made great strides in reclaiming the city for all its citizens.

In Medellín, communal and civic sharing of the urban commons has been rebuilt, not in the commercial mould of the sharing economy of cities like San Francisco, where venture-capital funded platforms all too often commodify human relations and continue to marginalize the excluded and disconnected in society, but in a social urbanist Latin American model which makes no use of the term or discourse of sharing. To us, this “sharing without sharing” appears to provide a more fertile foundation for communal sharing, with civic, charitable, and cooperative intermediaries deploying technologically mediated sharing in ways that build sustainability and solidarity. By sharing the whole city, Medellín suggests a universal model for future Sharing Cities.

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Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyeman are co-authors of Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities excerpted aboveShareable readers can use code MSHARING30 to get a 30 percent discount when the hard copy or ebook (or both!) are ordered from the MIT Press. While the code only works on the MIT Press site, it can be used more than once and for multiple copies of the print version.

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