If the city of Medellín carries any association, it’s likely that of violence: Throughout the 1990s, Colombia’s second-largest metropolis was posting yearly murder rates in the thousands. Infamous drug cartels terrorized neighborhoods, and nationalist paramilitaries engaged in urban battle with revolutionary guerrillas.
Today Medellín is setting an entirely different sort of example. According to Momentum (May-Aug. 2009), the municipality’s murder rate has dropped 90 percent in a decade, and instead of being a poster city for public dysfunction, it’s an exemplar of civic rehabilitation. The transformation took root in 2002, when newly elected President Álvaro Uribe began demobilizing paramilitaries and marshaling resources to quell fighting. It flowered in 2004 under new Medellín Mayor Sergio Fajardo’s simple philosophy: Immediately supplement every reduction in violence with a concrete community improvement.
The son of an architect, mathematician-turned-politician Fajardo “grasped how important good design can be in creating a more optimistic, sustainable, socially just city,” the publication, produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, reports. “In keeping with the mantra ‘to the poorest people, the most beautiful buildings,’ some of the city’s most impoverished and brutalized neighborhoods became homes to top-notch new schools and housing (as well as new police stations).”
The city also built “library parks,” hybrid spaces complete with public computer stations. Biblioteca Parque España sits atop a hillside in Santo Domingo Savio, formerly one of the region’s most dangerous neighborhoods. It serves as both a beacon of civic pride and a functional space for community activities.
Fajardo also oversaw the development of an aerial tramway that connected the isolated neighborhood to the city’s established transit system, “breaking real and psychological barriers to overcoming poverty and despair.” Social programs and support for small businesses complemented these developments.
It’s a success story built on a simple ethos that ought to have developed countries taking a look in the mirror, Momentum observes. In New Orleans, home to about 300,000 people, there were 179 murders in 2008, which is on par with Medellín’s worst years. At the same time, support for infrastructure repair has been sporadic, at best. Imagine if Fajardo were in charge.