City officials are forever launching plans to remake blighted neighborhoods, but the results are mixed. Some projects are considered wildly successful, like Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, while others elicit contempt, such as downtown Detroit’s Renaissance Center. So when two city officials in Medellín, Colombia – now former mayor Sergio Fajardo and former director of urban projects Alejandro Echeverri – launched a plan to rejuvenate the entire city, once one of the world’s most notorious drug and murder capitals, the bar seemed almost insurmountable.
Yet today Medellín is safer, more tourist-friendly and more economically and socially stable than ever before, due in part to what the two men accomplished by matching design with innovative social policies and political determination. Their public works plan, says David Mohney, secretary for the $100,000 Curry Stone Design Prize, which picked Echeverri and Fajardo as the 2009 winners for Transformative Public Works, “was about bringing design to the table to deal with problems and audiences it doesn’t often deal with, and improving the lives of a broad range of people.”
The city’s renewal wasn’t limited to a particular area, but encompassed many neighborhoods, including some of the poorest. Moreover, in an unusual strategic shift that would have shocked urban developers of Robert Moses’s generation, the people living in these slums were consulted about the plans. At the same time, the city allocated money to sweeping social programs, such as education and micro-lending to small businesses.
Stunning architecture was also part of the project, including Sergio Gomez's Jardin Botánico-Orquideorama, an orchid garden housed in a 42,200-square-foot building with a canopy of wood-framed hexagons. And in keeping with Fajardo’s oft quoted remark that, “our most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas,” the Parque Biblioteca España, a striking library designed by Giancarlo Mazzanti that resembles three massive black boulders, was sited on a hilltop in a barrio once known only for drug violence and death. An elevated gondola tramway connects many poor and neglected neighborhoods to the rest of the city. Schools and community centers were built, and expenditures on education received a massive increase, totaling 40 percent of the city’s annual $900 million budget. Commenting on the power of design to leverage social change, Fajardo, who is now running for president of Colombia, told Newsweek magazine in 2007, “People who say that a beautiful building doesn’t improve education don’t understand something critical. The first step toward quality education is the quality of the space. When the poorest kid in Medellín arrives in the best classroom in the city, there is a powerful message of social inclusion.”
To be sure, good design and public works have not cured all the city’s ills (although the murder rate has declined dramatically — from a height of 381 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 1991 to 29 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2006 — and Medellín has become a tourist destination). Still, what Echeverri and Fajardo have done is to provide a model for how design can be part of a solution for the public good. “It wasn’t just about design,” Mohney explains, “but the political infrastructure which accepted it and promoted it.” Hopefully, he adds, awarding the prize to Echeverri and Fajardo “will inspire other people in political power to have the courage to take on such issues.”