Fighting crime with community planning

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The Metrocable over top the Santo Domingo barrio. Image by Steven Dale.

Medellin, Columbia was recently voted 2013 city of the year by Urban Land Institute for its groundbreaking innovations in urban design. This was quite the turnaround considering that it was once deemed the most dangerous city in the world due to the high homicide rate of 376 out of every 100,000 people. In New York that would be about 32,000 murders a year.  Medellin’s past is full of drug cartels, cocaine manufacturers and paramilitary violence. The turnaround is nothing short of miraculous, and with the help of urban design principles this once violent city has been turned into one of the most innovative thinking cities and an example for other burdened cities throughout South America.

The city increased six fold from 1950 to 2005 in conjunction with the rapid urbanization of all of South America. Immigrants that fled from other war stricken parts of South America settled in Medellin’s hills that surround the city. Local government failed to provide these communities with basic services, and guerrilla troops from drug cartels took over. These communities became places with high crime rates and drug havens for the major cartels. Medellin desperately needed good planning to incorporate the growing population demands. The transformation began with the vision of mayor Sergio Fajardo. One of the new initiatives was participatory budgeting. Residents here have voted to direct a share of government financing to new schools, clinics and college scholarships.

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Medellin Botanical Garden, wooden architecture, courtesy Medellin Official Travel Guide

Not only this, but Mayor Fajardo pushed an agenda that linked education and community development with infrastructure and glamorous architecture.  Andalucía, part of the Northeast slums, formerly ruled by gangs who held opposite sides of a garbage-clotted creek, it’s now remade with a sports complex and school, new sidewalks, new mid-rise housing blocks and a bridge over the creek. Modern architecture has been connected to revitalizing not only the look of communities but the equality more than anything. New York Times author Micheal Kimmelman wrote an article titled, “Fighting Crime with Architecture.” He talks about how civic pride has been promoted through the architecture that has recently popped up in Medellin. A botanical garden has been completely renovated from a once walled off area of gang activity to a new design that turned it into a welcoming public space. At the entrance is the Orquideorama, a towering wood mesh-work canopy rising 65 feet above a latticed patio. This has re-created this public space into a celebrated park for people of all economic backgrounds to come and visit.

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Botanical garden Entrance, courtesy Paul Smith, New York Times

One of the most significant structures that has been newly created is the cultural center called Moravia. It was designed by prize-winning architect Rogelio Salmona. This neighborhood culture center is a space for music, art and cultural activity meant to improve the quality of life of the Moravia area.

The word Moravia stems from a people moving towards a government dump site. Many different South American cultures gathered around this dump to use the materials that were dumped. The government paid little attention to this like most other slums. In the 2002’s Mr. Fajardo started to initiative to turn the dump into a park, and developments like the cultural center.

One of the most innovative ideas in Medellin was the creation of the urban gondola. The gondola connects rich with poor neighborhoods, spurring private development and is also shared symbol of democratic renewal. There are currently three metro-cable lines, Linea J and Linea K are both urban commuter lines that link directly to the city’s rail system. Linea L connects residents to Parque Arvi, a large park located on the outskirts of town. The gondola in Medellin is considered the first urban gondola system. Both Metrocable lines J and K serve neighborhoods located in the mountain foothills that surround the city. Linea K is located in a well-established area while Linea J extends into a barrio that is currently experiencing rapid growth. Getting these gondolas was a blessing for most cutting 2 and a half hour commutes down to 45 minutes.

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Photo Medellin as seen from the Linea L, Parque Arvi nature preserve. Image by Steven Dale.

Not only is there a great commuting network of gondola’s but there is also an outdoor escalator. The mountainside slum of Comuna Trece is too steep for cars or buses, and people who traveled to work or to town from here had to hike up the hill every day, equaling a 28 story building.  Not only is this beneficial for residents, but it attracts tourism to this slum creating an opportunity for economic development.

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Photo courtesy Yahoo News

Although all these neighborhood development projects have cut violence by huge numbers, things still aren’t completely safe. They are changing for the better though, and this extraordinary effort is why Medellin was listed 2013 City of the Year by Urban Land Institute.

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