Social urbanism in Medellín: social dynamics between public policies and community activism
Social urbanism in Medellín: social dynamics between public policy and
Jota Samper Ph.D.
In the 1990s, as the United States was
bombing Baghdad, Medellín was the most dangerous city in the world. Since 2003,
the city has undergone an internationally renowned urban transformation, part
of a nationwide peace process. Implemented under several consecutive mayor
administrations (04-07, 08-11, 12-14), the city, now perceived as an entirely
different place with a homicide rate ten times lower, is seen as an example of
how to engage with conflict and violence through spatial and urban policies.
Today the city’s spatial practices have become the model for intervening in
cities where a large concentration of informal settlements and challenges of
scarcity of resources exist. To this process of “Medellin’s Transformation,”
planners, politicians, and media have called “Social Urbanism.”
Social Urbanism definitions have evolved
since its inception. Under its contemporary interpretation Alejandro Echeverry
coined the term Urbanismo Social, then Fajardo’s newly appointed Director of
the Empresa de Desarrollo Urbano (EDU). (Samper 2010). Echeverri and Orsini
center social urbanism as the learning experiences from the urban upgrading
practices by the Empresa de Desarrollo Urbano EDU in Medellin from 2004 to
2007. These practices focused on the “The
construction and improvement of the habitat in these [Meddellin poorly served] territories
that had low levels of consolidation” (Echeverri and Orsini 2012,
From then on, Social Urbanism has
evolved to encompass most state center urban interventions in Medellin to the
present. Sotomayor explains that “ Social Urbanism commits considerable
municipal resources to improving services and infrastructure in areas of the
city where the Human Development Index (HDI) ranks lowest. Some examples of
social Urbanism’s public works projects include an integrated transit system
via airborne gondolas (the first of its kind in the world), outdoor electric
escalators, and a network of library-parks, state-of-the-art schools, day-care
centres and other amenities in low-income peripheral neighborhoods. Social Urbanism
is also characterised by modern urban design and flashy architectural
statements, as the symbolic capacity of architecture is evoked to challenge old
stigmas associated with violence in spaces of previous relegation. As such,
social Urbanism aims to connect and integrate self-help neighbourhoods into the
broader dynamics of the city, while giving visibility to these formerly
neglected communities.” (Sotomayor 2015, 374).
These urban project practices had become models to export to other cities with
similar urban challenges of informality (Franco and Ortiz 2020;
and state warfare strategies through urban upgrading to reduce urban violence
in informal settlements (Jota Samper 2012).
Scholars have defined Social Urbanism as a
place brand exercise (Doyle 2019;
Kalandides and Hernandez‐Garcia 2013), particularly as the brand of the city of Medellin (Brand 2010). In
one of its most popular and misunderstood interpretations, Social Urbanism is
an urban strategy to deal with urban violence (Maclean 2015). Detail
readings of urban practices in Medellin reveal that the impact of
infrastructure interventions on security in Medellin is more nuanced and less
clear cut and not all positive (Jota Samper 2018) Social Urbanism is now lauded as a Latin American movement “for the
more extreme cases of the megacity of the world” (Leite et al. 2019).
I examine this concept of Social Urbanism
as applied to the socio-political and urban transformations performed from 2003
to the present in Medellin. Under this umbrella term of social Urbanism, I
combine the political line that created the policies of the government plan of
the “Medellín, la ciudad mas educada” during the mayor Fajardo and later administrations
such as mayor Salazar and Gaviria in Medellin with the thinking of other groups
and institutions who are not affiliated with this political line but sympathize
with its goals. Urbanismo Social is a concept that tries to universalize the
learning experiences of the case of Medellín so that it can be exported in
terms of its basic principles to other contexts worldwide. In this article, I
look at the limits and challenges of narratives and branding of social Urbanism.
The current dissemination of Social Urbanism, presents the state as a heroic
savior; this personification is dangerous and misleading and led to the erasure
of social capital built over decades in informal marginalized communities. Here
I intend to provide a more layered understanding of such urban practices' real
value as synergies between public policy and communitarian activism.
What is Social Urbanism in the practice
The social urbanism strategy uses specific
urban projects to inject investment into targeted areas in a way that
cultivates civic pride, participation, and a more significant social impact.
Medellín's application of these ideas presents fully in executing the
Integrated Urban projects (known in Spanish as Proyectos Urbanos Integrales
[PUI]). The PUI comprises three areas of intervention. Firstly,
inter-institutional coordination via the EDU, who manages the different
Municipal offices. Secondly, community participation throughout public
meetings. Among all Latin American urban upgrading projects, the PUI stands out
as an example of engaging with marginalized communities. Finally, the PUI
included a wide variety of projects that included public space, environmental
remediation, housing, and transportation. The PUI projects are one of the most
important contributions to the physical landscape of Medellín. The four PUIs up
to today had become a model for dealing with informal settlements, and the
project sites are attractions both for scholars and practitioners interested in
dealing with issues of urban informality as to tourists who come to see these
The social in social Urbanism as a practice
in Medellin refers to upgrading poor marginal areas and not restructuring the
city's top-down planning practices. In
fact, “Urbanismo Social” is indeed an urban regeneration strategy that intends
to deliver a higher quality of architecture and urban interventions to the city
in general but particularly to the city's most impoverished areas traditionally
abandoned by the state. In the practice of Social Urbanism citizens are
involved, and there are many levels of participation in the Urbanismo Social; however,
it is far removed from the idea of a bottom-up planning approach as might be
defined by western planning literature with high levels of community
participation as part of the planning process. The Urbanismo Social is still a
“top-down” design approach, performed by the educated elites guided toward the
poor (Jose Samper 2010). Nevertheless, this process, in the context of the city of Medellín
is a radical Urban innovation. It is radical in the sense that the government
is working directly and intensely with residents of poor communities building
public infrastructure with a higher level of quality than the state has ever
done before. I argue that the emphasis of a top-down planning process in the
disguise of radical participation of civic society in the projects' production
presents the highest risk to exporting the Medellin model to other locals.
The dangers of social Urbanism
The Medellin model has been a victim of its
own invention. The city has invested significative efforts through media and
publications to visibilize its positive changes (Escobar Arango 2006). The internationalization of the projects and urban changes of Medellin
through the application of Social Urbanism has permeated the media exhorting
the Medellin’s miracle in publications from the Economist (The
Economist 2014), the
Guardian (Brodzinsky 2014; The Guardian 2015) to The Washington Post (Faiola 2008). The city projects and practices have received many awards from the
2012 world's most innovative city in a competition organized by the non-profit
Urban Land Institute (BBC
News 2013). The Veronica
Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design in 2013 (GSD 2013) and many others. The city’s campaign to tell the story of the
transformation of Medellín, often positions itself in terms of ‘heroic rescue’
of the communities that the marginalized populations have built with their own
hands. In general, this cosmology of publications has as goal to show the positive
aspects of the ‘transformation of Medellín’ and as spearheaded by the state.
The city public relations and media
campaign about this stunning humanitarian project are problematic not just
because of its myth of ‘rescue’ but because it makes invisible the labor,
artistry, and expertise of thousands of community members in dozens of
neighborhoods surrounding the city who, for decades had built their own
communities, schools, roads, drain pipes, electricity, pipes, community
restaurants, churches and without state support. The ‘City as Rescuer’ image
also deprives us of what we might learn, what needs to be learned from the
informal dwellers. The Medellin’s informal settlement neighborhood founders’
stories contradict a bifurcated one-dimensional image of the state as an overarching
savior or evil invader of their neighborhoods. Instead, the settlers’ stories
complicate the state’s public rhetoric of rescue with another interpretation:
they view what the city government terms ‘the transformation of Medellín’ as
one of the most recent (and largely welcome) state interventions in a series of
on-going community collaborations that these same men, women, their families,
and neighbors have been directing for decades (Jota Samper and Marko 2015).
The abundance of this publicity production
and, more importantly, the ‘mobility’ of such output has an unintended
consequence that it erases local and less mobile narratives. These less mobile
narratives come from the community members themselves and their perspectives
and expertise regarding building and re-building their neighborhoods before,
during, and after the state has engaged in urban reform. This narrative erasure
process reproduces and reinforces a new foundational story of the past, present,
and future of the informal settlements in Medellín, which erases the conflicts
and battles of informal dwellers to claim their ‘right to the city’. By
promoting the city as ‘savior’ of the informal settlements and other
impoverished neighborhoods throughout the city, this implies then that the
community members who survived displacement due to violence and re-built their
lives by building their own neighborhoods are just victims and not agents in
the positive change.
Placing the city of Medellín as the savior
has a perilous potential to render invisible the creativity, expertise, and
stamina of the thousands of informal dwellers who built their communities in
the first place. In other words, these informal settlements over the last half
a century have transformed what had been a nearly unpopulated view of the Andes
mountains surrounding the valley of the city of Medellín. Now when you look up
from the city in the valley down below, it is nearly impossible to see a wide
expanse of mountains without a building. It is possible to say, then,
that these dwellers constructed the first transformation of Medellín. They have
been no less involved in the city’s more current and very different
The risk of these erasure processes takes
away the social capital and agency of civil society, in particular, that of
communities building the informal settlements. It also erases all previous
state and community interactions. During informal settlement formation,
informal dwellers made physical and essential communitarian and public service
institutions. When the state steps in, the community and the state often start
collaborating, or the services provided by the government absorbs the original
community-built projects. PUI projects often took the place of existing
communities built infrastructures such as plazas and soccer fields.
The Social Urbanism narrative creates two
opposing stories about the construction of the city of Medellín. On the one
hand, informal and poor communities struggle against private and public actors
to claim their land and their belonging to the place that they have conquered. On
the other hand, the state's new pro-poor policies that re-colonize these areas
and bring new and upgrade existing services that improve living conditions and,
in their rush to publicize their efforts, bury decades of community engagement
and belonging. One key point missing in these competing narratives of belonging
to the city of Medellín is that one cannot exist without the other. Successful
projects of both physical infrastructure and policies are in fact, successful
because they are implemented within cohesive communitarian social structures
and within consolidated neighborhood urban public networks. This process of acknowledging
the interactions of both narratives and interactions is called “Consolidated
Synergies” (Samper and Marko 2015).
Social dynamics between public policy and community activism
The main warning of the Medellin Social Urbanism
case's dangers is to misunderstand its real process and contributions. The
failed project of the greenbelt in Medellin demonstrates such incapacity to
understand the value of the infrastructure projects and how it needs to relate
to the marginal communities where these projects are located. The greenbelt was
an environmental remediation infrastructure proposed by the Medellin municipality
to deal with informal settlement encroachment challenges into the city's upper
hills. While presented under the same goals and strategies of Social Urbanism,
this project forgot the role that citizen participation plays in the development
of informal areas. In contrast, this project forced an elitist top-down vision
on the informal communities and dismissed any of the communities' processes and
values, if build the green belt would have displaced thousands of families
without solving any of their problems. The green belt was a project that would
have created green infrastructure interventions to produce or exacerbate urban
socio‐spatial inequities in Medellin's self‐built settlements (Anguelovski,
Irazábal‐Zurita, and Connolly 2019). Fortunately, civil
society's strong opposition stopped what would have been the largest slum
eradication project in the contemporary history of Medellin.
It cannot be denied that the Medellin
model's innovation comes from the sustained effort to place high-quality
infrastructure in traditionally underserved and informal areas of the city. I
argue here that a second urban innovation less explored can be found in
Medellin is that of the synergies between the public policies such as those exalted
in the social Urbanism and the communitarian activism of the communities who
already have been fighting to be included in the production of the city. I
argue that in Medellin, new urban innovation lies in those moments of
co-creation between community groups already existing in these communities and
the infrastructure placed by state organizations. I see two primary forms of
co-creation from which other places, and even Medellin itself, need to learn.
The first one is that of synergy by
addition outlined here is when state projects build upon the civil society's
own infrastructure projects. Medellin untold history is filled with these moments
soccer fields, plazas, schools, healthcare facilities, new pathways, and stairways
are built upon existing community build projects. Those projects' partial
success is that they are building on the fabric of the citizen participation in
claiming their right to the city. The second type is synergy by exposure when
the state's new innovative structures visibilize local organizations' civic
capital and creativity. The case of the graffiti tour in Comuna 13 is maybe one
of the most valuable to explore such types of synergies (Jota Samper and Escobar 2020). Here, the state projects' success presented a stage from which
long-rooted community projects of arts and entrepreneurship could be shown to
the general public.
The critical lesson from Medellin is about
the synergy between state infrastructure projects and community-led cultural
projects. These cultural projects, many of whom started as a response of
residents to the violence in their communities, used the project's success to
export the positive values upheld by the community. Through the synergy of the
success of urban projects and the uniqueness of the community cultural
projects, a new hybrid are created that catapulted both efforts to a new space
in which state, local community organizations, and foreigners help better the
community. The more we export this synergic narrative of co-creation instead of
one of state savior, the less risk we would have in commit more abuses to
marginal communities in the name of social Urbanism.
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