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The remaking of Medellín

The Jardin Botanico-Orquideorama in Medellín, Colombia.

The Jardin Botanico-Orquideorama in Medellín, Colombia. Photo: Sergio Gómez

In a powerful example of how public architecture can produce social change, Medellín, the Colombian city long known for its entrenched poverty and violent drug cartels (including one led by notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar), has embarked on an ambitious program to reinvent itself through design. The project is highlighted in New York Cooper-Hewitt Museum’s “National Design Triennial” exhibition,  on view now until Jan. 9, 2011.

Inspired by the revitalization of Barcelona neighborhoods before the 1992 summer Olympics, Medellín’s Mayor Sergio Fajardo introduced an aggressive police campaign to root out drug cartels. He and Director of Urban Projects Alejandro Echeverri then enlisted a team of local architects, urban planners, social workers and community members to develop large public buildings and parks in what were some of the city’s most impoverished and dangerous neighborhoods. These public spaces, they believed, would reach more people than residential public housing developments.

The result is a latticework of beautifully designed buildings and parks that encourage community engagement and provide various social services. The bulk of the development occurred in just the last five years. In that time, the city built five new libraries (which also function as community centers offering childcare facilities, job-placement bureaus and credit services), installed 10 new schools and upgraded more than 130 others. Funding comes almost entirely from revenues from the city’s public services, which voters played a role in distributing.

Over the last decade, the Colombian government has seen moderate success targeting left-wing guerrilla groups and reducing violence in the country, and Medellín is no exception. With the national push to create safer cities, these local initiatives have gained traction and are showing positive results. In fact, murder rates in Medellín reportedly dropped nearly 90 percent since the early 1990s. And today, the city has begun to leave behind its reputation as the “murder capital of the world” and embrace a new identity as — somewhat incredibly — a tourist destination.

Medellín’s architectural renaissance has gained it a kind of cult following in design circles, and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum’s exhibit features some of its most discussed achievements.

“We chose two projects among literally hundreds,” says deputy curatorial director Matilda McQuaid.  The first is Jardin Botanico-Orquideorama, a botanical garden with, “an amazing cluster of wooden canopied trees that are used to grow orchids … it’s come to symbolize Medellin in many ways.”  The second is the Parque Explora, a science museum and aquarium across the street from the Orchederma. “They relate to each other, they both have this direct relationship to the street, which is part of the urban planning there; the streets were brought back to life as safe places for pedestrians and street vendors who are really taking back the city.”

In fact, streets that were vacant just a few years ago are now teeming with people. A road that once marked the dividing line between rival drug gangs has been transformed into a wide boulevard that sees consistent foot traffic, McQuaid says. Above it, the city built a cable car that connects several hillside communities to the city center and reportedly transports more than 30,000 people a day.

For McQuaid, it’s the sheer speed of the transformation that’s inspiring.  “I mean look at Ground Zero and how long it’s taken. The Medellín project was the result of a large group of people working together to really change a city.”

Related video: “Why Design Now: Medellín, Colombia”

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