But the city’s transformation established roots before Fajardo took office, in thoughtful planning guidelines, amnesties and antiterrorism programs, community-based initiatives by Germany and the UN and a Colombian national policy mandating architectural interventions as a means to attack poverty and crime.
What sets Medellin apart is the particular strength of its culture of urbanism, which acts now almost like a civic calling card. The city’s new mayor, Anibal Gaviria, spent an hour describing to me his dreams for burying a congested highway that runs through the middle of town, building an electric tram along the hillsides to stem the sprawl of the slums, adding a green belt of public buildings along the tram, rehabilitating the Medellin River and densifying the city center — smart, public-spirited, improvements.
It’s as if, in this country whose relatively robust economy has underwritten many forward-thinking projects, every mayor here has to have enormous architectural and infrastructural plans, or risk coming across as small-minded or an outsider.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Gaviria, local designers, businessmen and community leaders sketched for me a picture of a city in which violence, much of it today by small drug traffickers, remains a big problem and victories are fragile. People in Medellin were cautious about the future, about easy solutions and seeing architecture as an end in itself. At the same time, they stressed the social and economic benefits that public architecture and new public spaces can create, and the wisdom of long-term, community-based policies of urban renewal.
“A holistic approach,” is how Alejandro Echeverri, one of the principal architects of the city’s transformation under Fajardo, described the philosophy.
I came here from Bogota, whose renewal programs starting in the late 1990s — like earlier ones in Barcelona before the Olympics in 1992 — set the stage for Medellin’s revival. But now Bogota is suffering, as strains multiply on its famed rapid bus system and residents’ faith in the city’s future plummets.
Medellin, by contrast, still counts on an almost fierce parochial pride, a legacy of decent Modernist architecture dating back to the 1930s, a cadre of young architects being aggressively nurtured and promoted, and a commitment by local businesses to improve social welfare that begins with the city’s biggest business: its state-owned utilities company, EPM.
You can’t begin to grasp Medellin’s architectural renaissance without understanding the role of EPM, the Empresas Publicas de Medellin, which supplies water, gas, sanitation, telecommunications and electricity. It’s constitutionally mandated to provide clean water and electricity even to houses in the city’s illegal slums, so that unlike in Bogota, where the worst barrios lack basic amenities, in Medellin there’s a safety net.
More than that, EPM’s profits (some US$450 million a year) go directly to building new schools, public plazas, the metro and parks. One of the most beautiful public squares in the middle of Medellin was donated by EPM. And atop the slums of the city’s Northeast district, EPM paid for a park in the mountaintop jungle, linked to the district by its own cable car.