Columnist: Million-Vote Poll Affirms Medellin's Rebirth

March 18, 2013

By Neal Peirce

Why would Medellin, Colombia, once known as the bloody base of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and murder capital of the world, be voted the City of the Year in an Internet poll with close to 1 million votes cast?

And especially, how could Medellin garner more votes than the two other finalist cities -- Tel Aviv, Israel's modern star city, and New York, the global economic powerhouse?

Most likely it's Medellin's amazing escape from its notoriously violent past. As the city's mayor, Anibal Gaviria, noted when the final vote results were announced by the sponsors, Citi and The Wall Street Journal's marketing department:

"Medellin stands today as an example for many cities around the world, because despite having lived very dark and difficult times 20 years ago, we have been undergoing a true metamorphosis. Going from pain and fear to hope, and now from hope to be a place filled with life, the city has known how to innovate in every step, both in social programs, urban developments or the combination of both."

Managing the process for the Internet poll was the nonprofit Urban Land Institute (ULI), which has broadened its historical focus on real estate to the varied and broad avenues for city advances worldwide. ULI selected the first 200 cities for the competition and then chose the finalists through a combination of public votes and its own research. The final choice rested on 100 percent public voting at wsj.com/ad/cityoftheyear. About 980,000 viewers responded.

The clearest signal of Medellin's arc of recovery isn't new construction downtown, as substantial as it's been. It is social inclusion -- an ambitious series of cable cars (gondolas) serving hillside communities, added to the city's public transportation system. Including, most recently, a $7 million escalator climbing one of the very steepest mountainsides. And why? To connect favelas -- shanty towns, many wretchedly poor and isolated -- to the center city and its job opportunities.

Long commutes -- previously up to two hours -- now take just minutes. And human lives are dramatically improved. As noted U.S. urbanist Michael Mehaffy described the escalator project on ULI's website.

"Where once residents trudged up a dangerous, sewage-laden path -- a hike the equivalent of scaling a 28-story building -- they now pass uniformed attendants as they step onto covered escalators, taking them up a steep, visually stunning axis."

Along the way are new small plazas where homegrown businesses have sprung up, enhanced by lush plants and public art. And the improvements aren't unique: Across the steep hillsides of Medellin's once deeply isolated favelas, the city has been investing in new libraries, parks and schools, many with striking architecture. Several stations have advisory services for micro-enterprises. A crucial message is conveyed: This city's residents, however poor, are respected and valued.

Much of current-day Medellin's progress began under its former mayor, Sergio Fajardo, now governor of the surrounding province of Antioquia. Fajardo subscribed to the theory of "urban acupuncture" developed and articulated by Brazil's famed former mayor of Curitiba, Jaime Lerner.

The idea, as I heard Lerner explain it on a 2000 trip to Curitiba, is fundamental respect for all citizens, even in the poorest neighborhoods. The city provides health clinics, decent schools, strong public transit links -- a respect that engenders "co-responsibility," neighborhoods in turn developing their own housing, cottage industries and resistance to gangs and crime.

Medellin has also successfully adopted "participatory budgeting." Under the system, first developed in 1989 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, citizens are invited to debate and make real choices on how city-allocated funds will be spent in their areas. The system is especially important for people living in isolated slums on the city outskirts.

Life is not perfect in today's Medellin. Crime, though radically reduced from its past levels, is still disturbingly high (more than 1,000 murders last year in a city of 2.7 million people).

But Medellin's spirits have soared. The center city thrives, there's a new science museum, and the modern metro rail system has eased pollution and crowding in the city's main traffic arteries. Government and businesses have collaborated in several public-private partnerships.

And Medellin has recently received yet another recognition: the decision of U.N.-HABITAT, the United Nations agency focused on cities and their future, to hold its next biennial World Urban Forum, in 2014, in Medellin. About 8,000 to 10,000 city leaders and observers, from across the globe, will be present. They'll see the wealth of Medellin's offerings. But it's a safe bet that most of them will also be climbing onto the cable cars, perhaps even riding the new favela-serving escalator -- to see firsthand how Medellin is showing respect for, engaging and investing in its challenged neighborhoods.

Medellin certainly plans to take full advantage of the occasion. As Mayor Gaviria told the last World Urban Forum (in Naples, last September) Medellin sees the 2014 event as "an opportunity to share our metamorphosis with the whole world."

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.