Social urbanism in Medellín: social dynamics between public policies and community activism



Social urbanism in Medellín: social dynamics between public policy and community activism.

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, 148).

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; Brand 2013) 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 unique spaces.

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 ‘transformation’ process.

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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