Lokniti Editors Sanjana Patro and Srilakshmi Nambiar in conversation with Mr. Alejandro Echeverri, on Medellin Colombia’s social urbanism.
The city of Medellin in Colombia was a drug trafficking hub from the late 1960’s till the early 1990s. A contraband economy, paralysis of justice and a mismanagement of the security apparatus led to a rise in crime and violence, especially in the barrios (neighbourhoods) of the city. These unsafe barrios gave Medellin the tag of the ‘Most dangerous city in the world’. The city’s economy was also grappling with high levels of inequality.
However, things began to change for the better in the 1990’s, with the help of strategic policy intervention called ‘Social Urbanism’. This process included strengthening the state machinery and public services. Special thrust was given to improving public transportation in the city. The metro lines and cable cars provided the much needed link between the northern hilly areas of the city to the plains. It also focused on active community engagement, along with bringing together academics, the government and experts from various fields.
An architect by training, Mr. Alejandro Echeverri was closely associated with this transformation of Medellin. He has served as the director general of the Urban Development Company from 2004- 2005 and the director of urban projects for the Mayor’s office of Medellin from 2005-2007 under Mayor Sergio Fajardo. He is currently a professor of architecture at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana. Among his many architecture awards, his work with Mayor Fajardo in urban renewal won them both the Curry Stone Prize for Transformative Public Works from Architecture for Humanity in 2009. Their urban renewal projects have been praised not just for revitalizing poor neighborhoods but also for the quality and innovation of the architecture itself.
In this interview with Lokniti, Mr. Alejandro Echeverri shares his experience and answers our questions around the parallels that he sees between India and Colombia and the ideas that India can borrow.
Q1. What is social urbanism? How did this concept evolve in the case of Medellin?
A1. The history of social urbanism is related to planning and urban design in Colombia. It is used to describe the process that happened in Medellin, after the crisis of the 1980’s and 1990’s which was dominated by high levels of inequalities in the barrios or the neighbourhood. The government was exploring policies which would work towards greater social justice to counter the high levels of inequity that was prevalent. In this context, social urbanism grew.
In 2004, the government was looking at methods to combine public policy and strategic implementation, particularly in conflict ridden areas. Issues such as ways to combine urban design, landscape design, with programs focusing on culture, education, and economic activities were also explored. Hence, they started the ‘URBAM Project’, to design and apply public policy in a specific territory. Inclusion was the most important part of the agenda, and leadership came from the government. The experience came from a practical reality and the experience they had initially in the government. Real transformation was achieved as a combination of several improvements like the physical space and lives of the people.
Q2. The “ambition to control” drives planning exercises which are centralised or top-down in nature. However, as you pointed out earlier, strategic planning and pragmatic efforts can counter such tendencies. How does this manifest itself in the frame of social urbanism?
A2. Social urbanism is more connected with action and implementation. It is a combination between the improvement of the physical space of the city with an improvement in the quality of the life of the people. It belongs more with the history of the people, their personal experiences, and how the people could be a part of those processes. So this is not a policy that came from far, or a top down approach. Since implementation is very important for any policy, one thing that is strategic is how to coordinate different institutions of the government in the strategic territories that they select.
It is improvement not only in housing, public space, and public transport system in terms of public transformation, they were also trying to improve the quality of education, focus on policies which improve inclusion and diversity, and improve capacity of children and the people. Thus, it is a holistic approach.
Q3. In Colombia the ‘Empresas Públicas de Medellín’ (EPM) is a public utility company providing water, domestic gas and electricity in the city. However, in India we have seen public-private led partnership or private sector sharing space with the public sector. How has Medellin been able to sustain its public sector?
A3.In Colombia and Latin America, in the 1960’s and 1970’s all public services used to belong to the government. But in the 1980’s and 1990’s with the notion that everything has to be privatised, Latin America went through a vast change, where the public services went to private owners. One of the reasons could be because many of the public services were very inefficient. However, in Medellin since the public sector was extremely efficient, they were never privatised. The main reason can be attributed to people. These public entities had really good managers and they managed to protect the companies from external politics. The public servants had technical capacity to deal with any crisis at hand.
Q4. What ideas or recommendations would you give for having the same model in India?
A4.There is no ideal model. However, Medellin could help like an example if you could understand how things and processes happen, and each case has different realities and singularities. Both countries share a lot of things- problems and opportunities. We have to understand how to work simultaneously to solve both formal and informal problems, and thus it is necessary to put intelligence into practice. This intelligence should have the capacity to innovate and give rise to the belief that problems can be solved.
Both countries have high levels of inequalities, there is a high process of migration, and they settle mainly in the periphery of the city, as a result of which informal rings appear. There is a need to have greater proximity with reality. Colombia has very fragile politics and there is a high complexity of things. Additionally, in the case of Colombia, they had the case of violence. These complexities permit us to innovate in a lot of things. We can reframe the concept of planning and give this concept more proximity to reality, and thus combine planning and action.
A lot can be learnt through pilot projects, which then can be implemented at the national level if required. It is necessary to engage the community at each point. Moreover, citizens participate in these things if they find spaces to collaborate and to develop dialogues and some processes. It is necessary to take impartial decisions and to improve the politics, as such a system will help to sustain innovation.
(Sanjana Patro and Srilakshmi Nambiar are 2017-19 participants of the Master Public Policy programme at National Law School of India University. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org respectively)