Building New Cities Medillin, Colombia, of All Places, Shows How Urban Areas Can Succeed for Everyone, Writes Economist Joseph E. Stiglitz

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), June 8, 2014 | Go to article overview

Building New Cities Medillin, Colombia, of All Places, Shows How Urban Areas Can Succeed for Everyone, Writes Economist Joseph E. Stiglitz


ast month, a remarkable gathering occurred in Medellin, Colombia. Some 22,000 people came together to attend the World Urban Forum and discuss the future of cities. The focus was on creating "cities for life" - that is, on promoting equitable development in the urban environments in which a majority of the world's citizens already live, and in which two thirds will reside by the year 2050.

The location itself was symbolic: Once notorious for its drug gangs, Medelln now has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most innovative cities in the world. The tale of the city's transformation holds important lessons for urban areas everywhere.

In the 1980s and 1990s, cartel bosses like the infamous Pablo Escobar ruled Medellin's streets and controlled its politics. The source of Escobar's power was not just the hugely profitable international cocaine trade (fueled by demand in the United States), but also extreme inequality.

On the steep Andean slopes of the valley that cradles the city, vast slums, virtually abandoned by the government, provided a ready supply of recruits for the cartels. In the absence of public services, Escobar won the hearts and minds of Medellin's poorest with his largesse - even as he terrorized the city.

One can hardly recognize those slums today. In the poor neighborhood of Santo Domingo, the city's new Metrocable system, consisting of three lines of aerial gondolas, serves residents hundreds of vertical feet up a mountainside, ending their isolation from the city center. The commute is now minutes, and the social and economic barriers between the informal settlements and the rest of the city are on their way to being broken down.

The problems of the city's poor neighborhoods have not been erased, but the benefits that the infrastructure improvements have brought are brilliantly evident in the well-kept houses, murals and soccer fields perched near the gondola stations. The cable cars are only the most iconic of the projects for which Medellin last year won Harvard University's Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design, the most prestigious award in the field.

Beginning with the mayoralty of Sergio Fajardo, who took office in 2004, the city has made major efforts to transform its slums, improve education and promote development. Medellin constructed avant-garde public buildings in areas that were the most run down, provided house paint to citizens living in poor districts, and cleaned up and improved the streets - all in the belief that if you treat people with dignity, they will value their surroundings and take pride in their communities. And that faith has been more than borne out.

Throughout the world, cities are both the locus and the focus of society's major debates, and for good reason. When individuals live in close quarters, they cannot escape major societal problems: growing inequality, environmental degradation and inadequate public investment.

The forum reminded participants that livable cities require planning - a message at odds with prevailing attitudes in much of the world. But without planning and government investment in infrastructure, public transportation and parks, and the provision of clean water and sanitation, cities won't be livable. …

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