POD CASt Urban Planning: Informal Settlements & Conflict w/ Dr. Jota Samper

Dr. Jota Samper

Assistant Professor, Environmental Design, University of Colorado Boulder (Boulder, CO, USA)
Co-founder, Mobility/Movilidad
  • B.A. Architecture, Universidad Nacional de Colombia
  • M.A. City Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Ph.D. Urban and Regional Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Research Interests:
  • Sustainable urban growth
  • The intersection between urban informality (slums) and urban violent conflict
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you first tell me about your research interests?
I’m an architect by training, originally from Colombia. Then I moved to the United States to practice architecture and then became an urban planner. I followed that path because I was very interested to see how architecture could serve marginalized communities. Then I realized that the field that does that better is the field of planning. As an architect, I felt that focusing on the built form alone limited what I wanted to achieve.
Through that experience, I connected to two things that were important to me. I came from Medellin, Colombia; a city with a large amount of informal settlements. The marginalized of the city live in these informal settlements that are called slums. I grew up in Medellin during the 1990s, at a time when it was known as the most dangerous city in the world. So, my two big interests are these two things that may seem separate, high levels of violence in cities, and the place where the marginalized live. My research has been very interested in trying to find correlations between these two issues and to explore ways that my discipline could help improve the lives of those living there.
Your Master’s thesis focused on Medellin. Can you explain what were you studying and the findings that were particularly interesting to you?
My Master’s research focused on evaluating policies that the new mayor, Sergio Fajardo, had implemented in the city of Medellin. The big motivation for the research was that this mayor and the people that were studying what he was doing, were finding there was a correlation between the reduction of violence and the urban projects that he had implemented. So, Medellin became the poster child of using urban renewal in poor areas as a way to control violence and conflict. This became really popularized, cities started coping the things that Medellin was doing, like Caracas and Rio De Janeiro. Essentially, I was going back and looking at that process and trying to analyze what you could really learn from it.
The big finding was that there was correlation between those issues, but mainly the reduction in violence comes from, not the projects itself, but from other actions at the national level. There were peace policies at the national level that influenced the homicide rates, which were drastically reduced in the city. However, the research also found that there were some elements of that urban intervention, beautiful urban projects and the scale of them, that really improved the quality of life of the people living in these violent and poor neighborhoods. They created spaces, that I call safe spaces, that were places where community and state could actually meet again. They were designed and secure in a way that made perverse actors, such as gangs, drug dealers, or paramilitary, very difficult to coopt.
What are some examples of the safe spaces that were built in Medellin?
It was a set of different projects, and the projects were called urban-integrated projects. The urban-integrated projects were a combination of physical strategies and policy strategies dedicated to an entire district of a city, which was around 20+ neighbourhoods. They included: new schools, renovating of old ones, transportation systems, electrical escalators for going up and down the hills, libraries, renovating health facilities, and community centres. What was incredible about it was the number of projects. In just the renovation of schools alone, there were 147 schools renovated in a period of 4 years. That was just one of the components of all the other different elements. The second incredible part of it was the quality of the projects. Not only were new schools built, but the schools were very well designed by well-known architects, some of them even earned international awards. What was valuable about this was it was a political statement of the state saying, those who are the poorest deserve the best infrastructure that the state can provide. That was a really important political tool, going to communities where the state usually had very contested relationships.
Your research focus is on the intersection between urban informality and conflict. What are you currently looking at in this space?
I’m now in the process of finishing a book called, Eroding Resilience. This book is the result of studying forty years of the development of informal settlements in Medellin, a city I know very well. What I did there, I looked at how informal settlements started and how they evolved over time. Then I did a second mapping of how criminal organizations evolved in each one of those neighbourhoods. In the book I explain how the two timelines relate to each other.
Informal settlements are the most common form of urbanization on the planet. One-third of the entire urban population on the planet live in informal settlements. That means that more than one billion people live in an informal settlement today. It’s the way cities are made in most of the world. And it’s not going away, actually it’s accelerating as the planet is becoming more urban. By the year 2050, it’s expected that three billion people will be living in informal settlements. For every two urban dwellers, one will be living in an informal settlement. The sad part about this is that planners, architects, and policy makers, the ones who are supposed to be working on the urban form, know very little about it. We have spent a lot of time designing policies to destroy informal settlements and to replace them with other things, but we have spent very little time trying to understand how they evolve. So, what I’m trying to do now is develop tools to understand those spaces and to see ways in which we could intervene in them. And also, to make them more safe.
Do you have any book or documentary recommendations?
I’m part of a non-profit organization called Mobility/Mobilidad. We have five-minute videos that tell the stories of community members in Medellin, Colombia. If you’re interested in understanding informality, one great way to understand that is through the stories of people who live in these places.
This book narrates the story of forty-years of informal settlements in Rio de Janeiro.
This is a great book for those who are interested in the connection between space and conflict
Where can people find you online?
If you want to listen to the full interview, visit your favourite podcast platform (eg. Apple Podcasts) or this site’s podcast tab.


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