Homes for All #10: Medellín with Alejandro Echeverri

Homes for All is a video series commissioned by Stadsleven in which correspondents from all over the world report on the state of the housing market in their city. In episode 10, Alejandro Echeverri, director of URBAM, Center for Urban Studies at Universidad de EAFIT, shows how the Columbian city of Medellín has moved on from its violent past with bad living conditions.

Blog written by Sanne van der Beek

The Escobar-effect

Medellín, about 260 miles from Bogotá, is the second largest city in Colombia, with more than three million people in the metropolitan area. If you’ve watched the popular Netflix series ‘Narcos’, you’ll recognize Medellín, or specifically the neighborhood Envigado, as the hometown of the notorious druglord Pablo Escobar. In the eighties and nineties, Medellín was infamous for the violence of Escobar and his drug cartel.

At one point, Medellín was the most dangerous city on earth, and a lot of people lived in fear. From 1990 to 1993, more than 6.000 people were murdered each year – and not just in the slums. But Escobar was also a hero to many poor people, because in 1982 he built hundreds of new houses for the slumdwellers. 

‘Medellín Without Slums’, the name of Escobar’s programma, was the first effort to improve living conditions for the poor. In doing so, he helped set the conditions for urban change to happen, writes Alex Warnock-Smith in The Guardian, because “he gave the city’s comunas a political voice and a vehicle through which to demand change. […] Escobar’s legacy, in planning terms, was this transformation of the spatial divide between formal and informal territories, between rich and poor, into a violent opposition of territories.”

Now, the popularity of ‘Narcos’ creates a new popularity as well as a financial impulse: Escobar-tourism is a real hit. Every year, thousands of tourists tour the city to visit places which tell stories about Escobar. 

Understandably, the municipality is less excited about this and wants to clean up its reputation as a drugs city sooner rather than later. Also, Medellín’s property market still suffers from lingering images of “the drug days”, according to this article in The New York Times. “As a result of that perception, Medellín homes sell at a steep discount compared to those in Bogotá and Cartagena. High-end properties in Medellín are priced at about $190 a square foot; those in Bogotá are around $318 a square foot.” But sales in Medellín have been steadily increasing in recent years, and prices have risen an average of 7 percent a year since 2003.

Medellín, a miracle of urban reinvention

1991 was a turning point in Medellíns remarkable urban history. In that year, the country’s new constitution gave local governments greater autonomy to elect their own leaders. That gave local people with local knowledge more control over urban development. The government also recognized that Medellín’s security issues and the deep divide between the slums and the inner city could not be dealt with through policy alone: the city needed urban design.

It started a ‘social urbanism approach’ through effective small-scale projects with the goal of stitching the city together again in a way that treated the inner city and the slums as equal. 

One example is the cable car that gave residents of the poor neighborhoods on Medellin’s steep hillsides easy access to the city center in the valley. Infrastructural changes like the cable car were accompanied by the creation of libraries, community buildings and cultural centers in the poorest places of the city which were previously underutilized or inaccessible. Those became social places where people could come together, interact and learn, but they also changed the image of the city by creating iconic buildings like the Biblioteca de Espagna, a public library. In his ‘Homes for All’ video, Alejandro Echeverri shows many of these urban interventions with which he was actually directly involved. 

Medellín is much praised for its visionary approach to creating an equal and safe city. In 2013, it was named the most innovative city in the world by the influential non-profit Urban Land Institute. In 2016 it was awarded the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize for sustainable urban solutions. The Nominating Committee commended the efforts of Medellín’s leaders, saying that they will send a powerful signal that “inclusive and collaborative governance can overturn even the most difficult circumstances”.

Want to know more?

You can find other episodes of our Homes for All video series here.