A steep hill to climb

Overcoming the topography was just the start of the struggle to improve life in the poorest districts of Medellín, Colombia, say city-makers Alejandro Echeverri and Francesco Orsini

The process of ‘informalisation’, understood as the creation of precarious neighbourhoods, has been a characteristic of Medellín’s history over the last century due to migrations arising from the industrialisation in the Aburrá Valley.

A new migratory wave – caused by political violence in Colombia in the 1950s – pushed the city’s annual growth to 6%. From 350,000 citizens then, 3.5m live in the metropolitan area today. Towards the north and the high parts of the eastern and western slopes, the informal city began to position itself; here are the unfinished homes of the city’s low-income people. The middle and upper classes occupy the centre and south of the valley, on top of the planned surface of the formal city. Medellín defines its path in two realities, two opposing ‘cities’, dramatically segregated by location and geographical relief.

A wave of violence in the 1980s, rural displacement, and the emergence of narcotics trafficking, saw the phenomenon begin to take on a new political and social dimension. The neighbourhoods of the northern slopes of the valley, commonly termed ‘comunas’, became the natural habitat of the illegal gangs, bands of assassins who acted according to the orders of narcotics traffickers and common delinquents. State control barely existed in these sectors.

Trying to transform 

Ever since the 1990s, public administrations, the academy and non-governmental organisations have been studying and implementing programmes to transform the quality of life in marginal neighbourhoods, and to recompense part of this social debt accumulated during decades of inequality. It is evident that inequality, violence and segregation was an integral part of the city.

Under the leadership of the mayor, Sergio Fajardo, the city decided in 2004 to bet on a public policy that focused on reducing the profound social debts that had accumulated over decades, and on the violence. Structural transformations that integrally combined programmes of education, culture and entrepreneurship were implemented, together with a ‘face-lift’ of some neighbourhoods in the most critical zones of the city. 

The plan for the northern slopes was defined by the concept of Social Urbanism, together with Integral Urban Projects, as one of the strategies of change. An Integral Urban Project is an instrument of planning and physical intervention in zones characterised by high levels of marginality, segregation, poverty and crime. Medellín’s northeastern community was chosen as ideal for the pilot programme. 

Metrocable, the cable transport system, which began operating in 2004, was the essential base in the territorial strategy. The Integral Urban Project helped to site and bring the stations to life, with the aim of amplifying the impact of the Metrocable. Neighbourhood consolidation allowed the territory to be structured and ordered via works and public projects such as community furnishings, parks, streets, paths and pedestrian bridges to connect the neighbourhoods, which also improved accessibility. The northeastern Integral Urban Project focused on the provision and improvement of public infrastructure as the motor for social transformation.


‘The urban project became the dynamic force for inclusion and social development as alternatives to the violence and indifference of decades. Bridges over creeks became means of integrating communities’

The magnitude and complexity of the areas of intervention, sometimes with more than 150,000 habitants concentrated in 10 or more neighbourhoods, required a detailed analysis of the territory. The urban project became the force for inclusion and social development as alternatives to decades of violence. Bridges over creeks, for example, as well as simple connecting pathways, became means of integrating communities; Santo Domingo library, due to its strategic location and educational programmes, became the community’s principal reference point as well as promoting knowledge and education as alternatives to arms.

Social engagement

As well as the participation processes, the Integral Urban Project team co-ordinated numerous social programmes. Among other things, primary and secondary educational services extended their coverage, projects were promoted that protected the vulnerable, the youngest population groups were encouraged to join recreation, culture and sport programmes, and other specific programs targetted citizenship formation with regards to the use of public space, respecting human rights, etc.

Social Urbanism, introduced in 2004, looks to take a qualitative leap from the traditional way in which improvement is understood. It uses tools such as the Integral Urban Project which makes structural transformations in the strategic activities sectors of poorly consolidated neighbourhoods, and housing projects, to integrate marginal communities.

It is clear that despite all that has been done, much ground remains to be covered. Medellín’s comunas are far from ideal habitats: inequality, lack of opportunity, degradation of the physical and natural environmental, and  insecurity and violence are still the common denominators that characterise them. The projects described here are the important first seed in the physical and social integration between the informal city and the conventional one; one of the principle challenges facing Medellín and the other cities of Colombia in the search for a more equitable society.

Architect Alejandro Echeverri is director of Urbam at EAFIT University and past director of urban projects for Medellin
Francesco Orsini was subdirector on Bio2030 in Medellin and is now project manager at Urbam