Imagine building a city for a million people
every week for the next 40 years.
Imagine what that would take.
Colombia isn’t the largest country in South America
and Medellín isn’t even the largest city in Colombia.
But there’s something happening here that’s
made it a window into the future of cities.
Wilson Mejía and Angela Puello aren’t just
small business owners.
They’re participants in an unusual urban experiment.
One that’s happening in a place whose
past might never lead you to
believe it’d be a model for the future.
The city with the highest murder rate in the world.
If you know anything about
Colombia’s second largest city,
it’s probably that in the 80s and early 90s
Medellín was headquarters for a homicidal
drug cartel headed by Pablo Escobar.
And the bombings and bloodshed from the drug
trade regularly spilled into the streets.
In Colombia, the murders continue in the
cocaine capital of Medellín.
40 deaths have been reported there in
the last 24 hours.
Some of the worst violence plagued Medellín’s slums.
For decades, these makeshift neighborhoods
were hacked out of outlying hillsides
by migrants who were too poor to
find homes in the city center.
Perhaps the most notorious of
these was Santo Domingo
where Wilson Mejía lived when he was a kid.
Wilson’s family first arrived when he was 3 years old,
joining one of many waves of rural migrants
who flocked to Medellín. Some were pushed from the
countryside by Colombia’s decades-long civil war.
Others were pulled by the promise of better jobs.
But the only place they could live were the illegal
shantytowns beyond the reach of police or city services.
And yet the city continued to be overwhelmed by newcomers.
In five decades, Medellín’s population exploded
from 300,000 people to nearly 3 million.
And Medellín’s story is in many ways the whole world’s story.
Our planet is moving to town and faster all the time.
It took more than 10,000 years from the dawn of human
settlement to 1800 for the human population
to become just under 3 percent urban.
And by 1950 we were 30 percent urban.
By 2050, some projections say 70 percent
of humanity will end up living in cities.
So if there’s a legacy for the future generations,
it is the fact that they’ll be living in cities.
So what cities…what kind of cities?
And many of the new arrivals will end up making
their living in the informal hand-built shantytowns
that are sprouting in cities across the developing world.
Often, you’re talking about 50 percent,
60 percent of the people living informally.
So we are not talking about the exception, right?
So the city is that.
The population living in slums in the
large cities in the global south
represent at this very moment a billion people.
Wilson’s family eventually left Medellín as
the city became more violent.
But many more migrants kept coming.
And many of them arrived during an economic downturn
when Medellín’s factories were in decline
and the drug trade was on the rise.
The city was at the point of collapse.
It was that serious.
But contrary to the expectations of many observers,
the crisis in Medellín forced a change.
Voters fed up with the violence, elected a series of
reformist mayors, who joined with activists, urban planners and business owners
to invest heavily in upgrading some of the poorest informal neighborhoods to connect them with the rest of the city.
The key policies
bridged this psychological divide between the city center
and the very poor comunas on the hillsides
which were fairly detached from the city.
One of the most innovative of these policies bridged
this gap literally.
Medellin had built an above ground metro system to help people get around the middle of town on the valley floor.
And nine years later they added these.
Building a cable car from the city center to the
poorest neighborhood, Santo Domingo,
in the hills was hugely significant in
crossing this psychological barrier.
It’s among the first in the world to be
used for urban mass transit.
And it was part of a multi-billion dollar campaign
to knit the property and the people of
informal neighborhoods into the formal city.
At times, as much as a quarter of Medellín’s
budget came from a publicly-owned power utility
which drew money from all over the region
to upgrade city slums.
In addition to the cable car,
there were other crucial investments
that provided additional opportunities to people.
Schools for the kids, libraries, microcredit.
If we are to look at the cost, there were
probably eight times as big as the
cost of building the first cable car.
Thirteen years ago, the recovery convinced
Wilson to move back to Medellín.
Just down the hill from the new metro cable station,
he and Angela opened
two bars and a restaurant on the same street.
Angela’s younger sister, Karen,
she helps out at the restaurant
and she rides the cable car every
time she commutes to nursing school.
Today, urban researchers from around the
world have studied how Medellín
upgraded and connected its shantytowns to the formal city.
The lessons are easy enough to understand,
but they may not be as easy to replicate.
It boils down to politics, basically, and
the political will to create cities without slums
that accommodate low-income people, that accommodate growth.
Cities are where the economic activity of a nation
occurs if the cities are well-functioning and well-run.
Perhaps the most fundamental change is how Medellín
has accepted that informal settlements
and the people who live there aren’t marginal to the city’s success,
they’re essential to it.
Over time, and this is a basic principle of law, over time people get rights.
The changes have allowed the Mejía family to find their own ways to make the neighborhood a little better.
They employ a couple of people. They offer food deliveries to busy neighbors.
And for folks looking to relax, there’s now a spot close to the metro station
where you can grab a drink with friends, hear live music or watch the game.
It’s not rocket science. We know what to do. We have the knowledge about how you lay pipes.
We know how to set up transportation systems. But, can you get places to do it? That’s the question.
Even here success remains fragile.
Workers may be laying foundations for new metro cable lines in Medellín’s more established neighborhoods.
But, just up the valley, new shantytowns are growing.
Residents of this one called Nueva Jerusalén face many of the same challenges the Mejía family did decades ago.
They pay an armed gang for plots of illegally occupied land.
Homes are built by hand and a lot of freight comes in on foot.
The old way of thinking about slums was that they were a problem,
an intractable horrible problem that had to be dealt with by eliminating them.
But the reality is that they’re the solution.
And if they’re given the opportunity to contribute, they will be the key to sustainable cities in the future.