Sustainable Development in Medellin, Colombia: a story of transformation through education.

Photo by chilangoco | flickr.com

Photo by chilangoco | flickr.com

The story of Medellin, Colombia, affectionately nicknamed “The City of Eternal Spring”, is complicated, to say the least. In the mainstream media, the city has often been portrayed as a hub for drugs and violence, an image established almost entirely by the actions of a single man named Pablo Escobar: to many, a saint and public benefactor; to most, public enemy #1.  But this story is not about the man that once brought an entire government to its knees. It is about the resilience of Medellin’s people to redefine themselves and the city they so adore, through innovation, education and sustainability. Together, these initiatives have proven to be drivers for desirable social change and improved quality of life for the city’s nearly 3.6 million citizens.  

Today, Medellin is a model for sustainable city planning through its long-term investments in infrastructure and education—not only nationally but on a global scale. In 2012, the city was the winner of the prestigious Sustainable Transport Award from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). Earlier this year, Medellin was named the Most Innovative City in the World for 2013 by the Wall Street Journal and Citi Bank, beating out New York City and Tel-Aviv to take the top spot.

As part of their plan to re-brand Medellin, city planners have for the past 10 years recognized the need to make the city equally accessible to the entirety of its citizens, especially its poorest populations. Through this planning philosophy, the city’s long-divided social classes are now easily able to integrate in everyday economic and educational activities. The city’s poorest, many of which reside in shanty houses on the face of the Aburra Valley, can now access the city’s booming economic centre thanks to 28 kilometers of outdoor escalators and an innovative gondola system that carries over 3000 citizens per hour per direction up and down the valley, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  

Additional transit innovations include a bus rapid transit system named Metroplus, complete with nearly 15 kilometers of dedicated lanes; an extensive above-ground tram system servicing much of the metropolitan area, and a city-wide ride-sharing program that has been adopted by over 170 major institutions. Central to the goal of sustainable social planning is the advocacy of emission-free transportation and exercise, which has materialized by means of the EnCicla initiative, a free bike-sharing program that offers an integrated alternative to the city’s public and mass transportation systems.

On the whole, it is difficult to pinpoint a single initiative that makes the Medellin Experience so unique. By making sustainability and investment in social programs a central component of city planning, citizens of Medellin are now able to enjoy a system that connects them to the world around them, thereby strengthening community ties, enhancing economic conditions and establishing an ever-growing sense of pride and solidarity between social classes. Despite its hardships, Medellin`s forward-thinking initiatives continue to inspire hundreds of cities all over the world, and serve to further the goal of reconstructing Colombia`s image to one of a country rich in its natural resources and abundant in its physical and human warmth. 

Manuel Arias