What can South Asian cities learn from Colombia’s Medellin?

Cable Car in Medellin
The Metro Cable in Medellin has facilitated greater access to mobility, services, and opportunities through connecting poorer neighborhoods with facilities and services throughout the city. Joe Qian/World Bank

Written By:  SANGMOO KIM and JOE QIAN

Cities are created for human experiences and not for satellites in the sky. So why are there so many cities that while look impressive on a map, exclude so many of their residents from enjoying the full extent of their benefits? The key may be that details matter for inclusion of cities.
Inclusion means that all people and communities have access to rights, opportunities, and resources. Urbanization provides cities the potential to increase prosperity and livability. However, many suffer from poor environments, social instability, inequality, and concentrated pockets of poverty that create exclusion. In South Asia, as in other regions, segregation within cities cause poorer areas to suffer from the lack of access to facilities and services that exacerbate misery and crime.

Medellin, Colombia was once the most dangerous city on the planet with astounding gaps between the wealthy and the poor, vastly different access to services, and the highest homicide rate in the world. Its turnaround has been impressive. Much of the progress has been attributed to the thoughtfulness of its planning to ensure greater inclusion. What can South Asian cities learn from this South American city?

Planning policies and action have often been concentrated on the broad structures and functions of cities. However, drilling down the details can realize an inclusive urban environment that improves life for all in public spaces. In our definition, inclusive cities provide:

  • Mobility: A high level of movement between different neighborhoods that provide opportunities for jobs, education, and culture;
  • Services: All neighborhoods have a basic level of facilities and affordable necesities such as housing, water, and sanitation;
  • Accessibility: Urban spaces are designed so that everyone can easily and safety enjoy public spaces.

What happened in Medellin, Colombia? Medellin offers an inspiring example of how improved planning and sound implementation can increase social inclusion. Two decades ago, Medellin was the homicide capital of the world. Illicit drugs were a major export and hillside slums were particularly affected by violence. In response, the government created public facilities inclusive of libraries and schools, public transportation links, and recreational spaces in the poorest neighborhoods; and connecting them with the city’s commercial and industrial centers. As a result of a planning model that seeks to serve all residents, the city has become safer, healthier, more educated and equitable.

Public transportation is connecting disadvantaged residents to greater opportunities. The public transport network and the physical layout of the streets seeks to enhance social connections and interaction, helping people get where they need to go more easily and safely. It boasts a world-class transport system, the Metro system; made up by the Metro, Metrobus, Metrocable and escalators, that are highly integrated with pedestrian and cycling access. Public transportation has allowed the formerly disadvantaged residents in slum neighborhoods to have access to jobs, amenities, and opportunities across the city. The Metro system has also promoted social equality by reducing commuting times and costs, spawning vibrant local economies in poorer neighborhoods, where shops and restaurants have sprung up around transport hubs.

Metro system and bridges in MedellinPublic spaces enhance inclusion. Public spaces are the “living rooms, back garden, and corridors” of urban areas. They are especially essential in poorer neighborhoods, as they extend small living spaces and provide areas for social interaction and for economic and social activities. Medellin has transformed its deprived neighborhoods into safe, accessible, inclusive places by providing high-quality public spaces within and between neighborhoods. Both residents and visitors enjoy life in public spaces – including streets, squares, playgrounds, and public libraries – with clean and safe facilities.

When walking around, one notices the details and dimensions of its public spaces; including street furnishings, signage, paving materials, types of trees, seating designs, surrounding buildings, curbs, gutters, ramps, and crosswalks that have made a huge difference in the city. In addition to serving vehicle and pedestrian traffic, Medellin’s streets serve as pathways for public transport. They also foster access to water, electricity, and drainage along with providing street lighting and facilities for street vendors.

Built environments matter, details determine inclusion. Spatial and land-use planning at all levels matter in social inclusion. Knowing how to connect, distribute and design urban spaces is important, as it helps connect poorer and wealthier parts of a city together. Fortunately, the international development community has started recognizing public spaces as a critical component in social inclusion. Among the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), one is universal access to safe, inclusive public and green spaces with a focus on women, children, older persons and persons with disabilities by 2030. To realize this, planning at the neighborhood, street, and human levels have great potential to create environments that provide residents of deprived neighborhoods the opportunities to fully participate in the social, economic, cultural life of a city. Details matter for inclusion.

What lessons from Medellin can be applied in your city?

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