Colombia’s second city used to be the world’s murder capital. Now it is a model of urban regeneration, complete with an innovative transport system – including a 385-metre escalator to and from the once-notorious neighbourhood of Comuna Trece
Once, Medellín was known for one thing only and one thing only: barely two decades ago, when cocaine king Pablo Escobar had a bounty on the heads of police officers and was doing his level best to bring Colombia’s second city to its knees, it was the murder capital of the world. In 1991, Medellín witnessed 6,349 killings, a murder rate of 380 per 100,000 people (for comparison, San Pedro Sula in Honduras, currently the world’s most deadly city outside a war zone, recorded a homicide rate of 169 per 100,000 in 2012).
But now Medellín’s murder rate has fallen by more than 80% since its peak and the city has become something of a global model for successful transformation. Earlier this year, it won an international award sponsored by The Wall Street Journal, Citibank and the Washington-based Urban Land Institute as the world’s most innovative city.
Key to the city’s progress have been a number of groundbreaking urban planning and public transport initiatives. These are part of an overall plan aimed at helping to reduce crime and fight poverty by reclaiming for their residents slums that sprang up around the city to house people displaced by Colombia’s brutal, decades-long civil war. By reconnecting the city’s poorest and toughest neighbourhoods – the Comunas – with its regenerated centre, officials hoped not only to make residents safer but to give them a greater sense of pride and belonging.
“This displaced population didn’t feel like they were part of the city,” Laura Isaza, a Medellín city hall consultant, told Public Radio International. “They used to say: ‘I live in this neighborhood and I don’t live in Medellín.’ And that was one of our first steps: to gain their confidence and to make them feel that they are part of our city.”
Problems, including petty crime and gang violence, remain, but generally the strategy seems to be working. New schools and libraries, parks and public squares have been built around the city. There is an immaculate new metro system. And in the Comunas, often built on hillsides too steep for buses or cars, a network of lifts and cable cars now carry tens of thousands of people a day from Medellín’s mountaintop slums to the metro, cutting the journey time downtown – and particularly back home afterwards – to 45 minutes from as much as two-and-a-half hours.
The most visually striking example of this policy is the giant, 385-metre long escalator installed in Comuna Trece. Opened in 2011 (when the city authorities had to organise practice visits to shopping malls because so few of the area’s 12,000 residents had ever used one), the £4m, six-section moving staircase has just been given a stylish orange roof, allowing people to ride up and down the hill, listening to piped music, in six minutes, rather than climb the equivalent of a 28-storey building, which took half an hour.
Slicing boldly if incongruously through a shantytown that was once known as the most violent neighbourhood in the world’s most violent city, the escalator, which is free to use, has become the symbol of a rebirth that has encouraged employers such as Hewlett Packard, Kimberly Clark and Unisys to open new facilities in Medellín – and attracted politicians, planners and police officials from cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg and Washington to see how it was done.