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Ernest Beck

Medellín, Colombia



Medellín's former mayor Sergio Fajardo perched over the city he helped to improve

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.

Jardin Botánico-Orquideorama with its canopy of wood-framed hexagons

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.”

Medellin's Parque Bibilioteca España

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.”


Posted in: Architecture, Cities + Places, Development

Comment 14  |     |     |   Like 0  |   Tweet 0
Comments [14]
How come I've never heard this equation before? Put the best stuff in the worst place? Takes the "broken windows" theory and puts it on its head. Don't just fight the graffiti -- build inspirational things. This is how we ought to be spending public dollars on architecture. I think I really like it because it's not about changing a neighborhood to displace the impoverished, but rather to change them.
Nice piece, Ernest.
John Edson
10.23.09
12:38

Nice place to visit.... Great blog...
SkinCare
10.23.09
01:21

isn't the coffee in columbia amongst the best in the world? the Jardin Botánico-Orquideorama with its canopy of wood-framed hexagons looks truly amazing!


CHRIS
10.23.09
01:27

The "best things in worst neighborhoods" idea is a fascinating one, but the article glosses right over one point of logistics that I'm stuck on: say your worst neighborhood is one where a thousand people live packed on top of each other. Where do you find the space to build that new school or orchid center? Do you eminent-domain it, figuring that the good of the larger community is worth displacing people?

Living in a city (San Francisco) which has been dealing with very limited space and wildly out of control rents for years, I salute Medellin's efforts but I can't help being wary about the side effects of redevelopment.
Hannah
10.23.09
08:26

hi, im a graphic designer and i live in Medellín.
you cant imagine the people´s reaction to the change, everybody now has confidence in our city, and they share this feeling with everyone that visite us. you cannot miss this city! its really enjoyable
jose betancur
10.25.09
12:39

nice info, thanks for sharing
logo design
11.17.09
04:33

The "best things in worst neighborhoods" idea is a fascinating one, but the article glosses right over one point of logistics that I'm stuck on: say your worst neighborhood is one where a thousand people live packed on top of each other. Where do you find the space to build that new school or orchid center? Do you eminent-domain it, figuring that the good of the larger community is worth displacing people?

Living in a city (San Francisco) which has been dealing with very limited space and wildly out of control rents for years, I salute Medellin's efforts but I can't help being wary about the side effects of redevelopment.
wow leveling guide
01.16.10
04:07

Nice to see some positive comments about Sergio Fajardo' work.
People can criticise it - but it's not much use unless they present an alternative idea.
If you haven't visited Medellin - it's well worth a visit. http://www.themedellinmap.com
jam
03.02.10
11:54

The transformation of Medellin, Colombia over the past few years has help change the image of Colombia throughout the world as experience travellers discover the passion that is Colombia. To learn more about Medellin http://www.medellintraveler.com Sergio Fajardo for president of Colombia!
Ambrose Santiago
03.16.10
10:03

I am intrigued with the public display of the designs. Looks nice. After I read this article, I want to visit Medellin. I believe it is worth visiting.
Fletch
04.05.10
01:50

Excellent project and great editorial. Both remind us of a simple truth often lost among life's detritus: a job well done can have immeasurable effect. The integral approach and execution appear to enable extremely productive returns to the communities of Medellín. Hats off to Fajardo and Echeverri. And thank you to Beck for sharing it with us!
Douglas Schapero
05.25.10
03:17

I love this article. Sergio Fajardo's work still carried momentum in Medellin - though I would love to see him come back. ZORBA is one of many small companies in Medellin that might not have existed without his vision: http://www.zorba.com.co/tours-medellin.html
ZORBA
07.24.10
12:34

I've been out of Colombia for almost 20 years and from afar, I've seen its metamorphosis. Every time I return to visit my country I marvel at the amazing changes it's going through. I've always known Colombia's treasures and beautiful cities, but now the world is discovering them. Go visit Colombia and get a real feel for what it is, a vibrant, beautiful, young and colorful country striving to be better in its own eyes and in those of the world. We need more "Fajardos" and "Echeverris" in Colombia and more projects like these, that offer beauty and hope to areas were ugliness and desperation once reigned. I'm very proud, today more than ever, to be Colombian...
yayababic
07.27.10
02:24

Great Article! Its really interesting how the use of culture and community can really change a city for the better. And the architectual images that you posted are simply breath-taking. Great read!
LVL Guides
03.17.11
01:15



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