Jerom Theunissen Photography


March 17-23 

City in Context

Medellín is a city that shows how good governance, strategic investment, and people-centered development can make for radical urban transformation and improvements in quality of life. The city of 2.4 million has had a dark past: In the 1990s, the city was engulfed in a nationwide civil war with the FARC guerilla group, while also the home base of Pablo Escobar’s infamous drug cartel. The city was ranked the world’s most dangerous city with more than 300 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Since then, the city has become a gleaming Latin American example of effective urban investment in education, mobility, public enterprise, and social integration. With the principles of inclusive development, the city sought to directly address wealth division, lack of equity and opportunity to improve quality of life for people who previously were victims and perpetrators of violence.

A major factor in the success of Medellin’s transformation was the coordination of formerly isolated efforts of the public administration, the private sector, and the community. This began with the first “Strategic Plan for the Metropolitan Area of Medellin” in 1995. What’s more, reforms to the Colombian constitution in 1997 granted cities like Medellin the autonomy to transform the city as its stakeholders saw fit. With the support of the 21-member city council,the Mayor of Medellin collaborated with a diverse conglomerate of public agencies that each focused on specific issues to pursue the strategic plan. These included Empresas Publicas de Medellin (EPM),a city-owned industrial group that oversees utility services; Empresa de Desarollo Urbano (EDU), an autonomous agency that was charged with managing urban development projects; Metro de Medellin, a state- and city-owned corporation that operated the region’s mass transportation systems; Plaza Mayor, the city’s convention center; Agency for Cooperation and Investment of Medellin (ACI), created in 2002 to consolidate cooperation and economic development on the international and national scale; and finally the Metropolitan Area of the Aburra Valley (Metropol), an administrative entity which serves as a cooperative platform across the metropolitan area’s ten municipalities. With a wide range of entities at the table, I was curious to find out how collaboration amongst them enabled the city's transformative urban development to take place over the last twenty years.

Photo: A urban development expert from the Empresa de Desarollo Urbano (EDU) shows me around Medellin's downtown.

The city’s transport development mirrored the troubles found within the city in the early 1990s. Inequitable access to jobs meant that the urban poor had few options to get around, which led to some residents turning to gang involvement and crime to earn money. Seeing an opportunity to unify Medellin’s diverse urban landscape, innovative projects like the Metro, tram, cable cars, BRT, buses, public bicycles and integrated services were carried out by the metropolitan government to offer residents diverse transport options to disconnected areas that previously had poor access to jobs and services in the city. The transport modes make up a larger multi-modal integrated transport system, called SistemaIntegrado de Transporte del Valle de Aburra (SITVA) with operation and fareintegration. Users of the network just need to tap their Civica card to benefit from seamless transfers between Metro de MedellinAyacucho TramMetrocableMetroplus (BRT), Encicla (bike share), and participating private bus operators (rutas integradas).

An infographic detailing the SITVA integrated transportation network of the Aburra Valley. Source.

An integrated transportation system points to a metropolitan-level governance of transport in Medellin. The Metropolitan Area of the Aburra Valley works with ten municipalities in the valley to coordinate transport initiatives, such as long range transport plans, the Encicla bike share system, or employer mobility programs. The metropolitan body recently conducted a mobility survey of residents across the region to learn more origin-destination data. The survey provides decision makers and citizens with insights about travel behavior all the way down to the neighborhood level. The data is open for all to use at this link.

Another key to the valley's resurgence was prolonged investment by the Medellin government in parks, libraries, and city squares to provide a stronger sense of ownership and inclusion in the city’s public spaces. One example is the Library Parks projects, which are “urban acupunctures ” that aim to create cultural centers for social development to promote citizen encounters, educational and recreational activities. Another project, Parques del Rio Medellin, aims to completely revitalize the surroundings of the river, turning a highway into a public space and, with luck, sparking urban renewal. The plan calls for surroundings of the Medellín River to connect the city efficiently with mobility and public space that allows engineering and urban planning to make the Medellín River the main meeting point for citizens. Medellín could join Madrid and Seoul in the group of cities that have rethought their highways for the sake of public space. The experience of these cities could shed new lights in urban debates worldwide and help cities decide what to do with their freeways. Bottom line: innovative rethinking of transportation and public space is an exercise Medellin does daily.

To construct the Parques del Rio in Medellin, a highway running through the city needed to be diverted.

Phase I on the Parques del Rio project is already complete, with new public spaces and bike lanes.

Providing a green connection with the Medellin River.

In all of Medellin’s recent interventions, stakeholders have sought to address multiple issues at once. I was keen to see firsthand how this integrated approach to solving urban problems has made for a more livable and connected Medellin.

Social Urbanism and PUIs– Understanding Approach to Lasting Transformation via Urban Development

With my research focus on transport and livability, I was keen to explore how Medellin delivers transport for residents across the Aburra valley in a manner that not only improves accessibility but also serves as a tool in creating social cohesion. Addressing multiple urban challenges like violence, insecurity, poor education, and lack of mobility requires creative and intersectional approaches to urban development. The deeply rooted problems of spatial and economic inequality were tackled by “social urbanism,” an approach that blends traditional infrastructure investment with social programs to lift up some of the city’s poorest communities.

The term “social urbanism” was initiated and executed by Mayors Luis Perez and Sergio Fajardo,who were elected in 2000 and 2004, respectively. They focused their efforts on the marginalized populations in the “communas,” informal settlements that crept up the Aburra Valley’s hillsides. These communas represent about half of Medellin’s population, but felt disconnected and removed from Medellin’s city center. Medellin's data-driven approach saw low Human Development Index (HDI) scores in these communas, which was utilized by the city to calibrate public investments in the areas that needed them most. Indeed, some parts of the city were so unequal from one another, with one resident telling me, “when going downtown, we would say we were going to Medellin. It was so far away it felt like a completely different city from where we live.” Something needed to be done to help make these residents feel like a part of the city, and it would take more than infrastructure. 

In order to get rid of the corruption and inertia in local governance, Mayor Farjado implemented his “social urbanism” policies through EDU, the Urban Development Corporation of Medellin. They based their interventions in the framework of “integral urban projects” (PUIs), projects that incorporate multiple programs simultaneously, from transport to landscaping, from street lighting to cultural centers. The model seeks to achieve physical, social, and institutional impacts that involve the community, generate employment, and strengthen economic activities of intervention areas. With this approach, interventions are more lasting due to widespread buy-in by the public and institutions involved. In 2005, more than 50 PUIs were proposed by EDU in a PUI Masterplan, which were prioritized according to HDI scores. Some of the results have been nothing short of amazing, including:

  • the growth of public spaces from 97,000 in 1950 to 222,000 square meters, a 129% increase. 
  • The improvement of pedestrian mobility that grew from no formal paths to 3,235 linear meters of paths and corridors. 
  • 18 new parks, 8 of which were built in neighborhoods that had never had access to a park. 
  • The creation of the CEDEZO (Center for business development of the district) that supports small businesses of the area based on training, assistance, micro-credit and business events. 
  • The “Unidad deportiva de Granizal” (Sport Center Granizal) that turned an old run-down football field into 3 new football fields, 6 retail shops and public bathrooms.
  • “the Parque Explora, a park with a free science museum in it;
  • the Botanical Gardens, site of the octagonal Orquideorama; ten new school buildings
  • five ambitious library-parks in the comunas of Santo Domingo, La Quintana, La Ladera, San Javier and Belén;
  • a cultural centre in the run-down district of Moravia; and the completion and extension of the Metrocable.

Urban scholars and practicioners from around the world today look to Medellin as an example of progressive urban development for its poorest citizens. In all of Medellin’s recent interventions, stakeholders have sought to address multiple issues at once. I was keen to see firsthand how the social urbanism approach helps solve urban mobility problems (among others) to make for a more livable and connected Medellin. 

Click here to read an excellent blog post about PUIs and their methodology in Medellin. Click here to read more background on social urbanism.

Metrocable - Aerial Cable Cars to Improve Quality of Life

In the early 2000s, residents of comunas located on the steep hillsides of the Aburra valley had to walk or to catch an infrequent and unreliable bus. Insufficient access to employment, the low presence of state institutions, and disconnected transport provisions for these neighborhoods inhibited development of Medellin’s informal neighborhoods. Social and physical conditions in these districts led many to turn to violence and crime to get by,further hindering social advancement.

In this same time, urban mobility was put at the heart of Mayor Farjado’s urban policy agenda. Within the context of PUIs, the city of Medellin completed the first Metrocable cable car during his term in 2004. Innovative re-purposing of cable cars typically used at ski resorts and mountain tops were transformed into public transport for the urban poor. Line K became the first aerial cable car transit system in the world. Residents’ commute times of 2 hours to the city center were cut to one hour through a seamless connection with the metro at the low point of the valley. Pedestrian access around stations was also improved.The PUI approach used this transport improvement as a catalyst for urban development, creating new dynamic public spaces and business centers. Expanded access to these amenities dramatically improved quality of life for residents, and affected lives far beyond the cable car project itself.

I had the pleasure of taking several cable car lines during my week in Medellin. When I entered the station for the first time I felt a giddy, almost childlike excitement. The transfer from Metro to cable car was a wonderfully contrasting experience. The position and speed of the Metro lends little opportunity to see the city. But when I stepped in the cable car, and felt the pit in my stomach as I was gradually moved up and above the street level, I felt like a kid again. What is so wonderful about the cable car is how it’s speed and elevation prompt active engagement with the cities’ landscape while offering a moment for introspection. Beyond the enormous amount of social good this project did for the comunas in Medellin, the experience of moving above the streets and getting a glimpse of the realities of those below, one can get a more complete picture of this incredible city. 

In 2013, the Northeastern Urban Integration Project in Medellín, Colombia won the Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design for its innovative approaches to urban revitalization through Metrocable line K. In this video, judges discuss strengths of the project.

The Escalators of Comuna 13

Another project born out of the PUI approach to urban interventions was the Comuna 13 Escalators. This escalator was born not only out of the need to traverse the area’s steep hillsides, but also to ensure proper waste disposal from the isolated community. Before the introduction of the escalator in 2012, some 12,000 residents had to walk the equivalent of 28 stories or 350 steps up the hill. A employee of EDU who participated in the design of the project and continues to oversee several projects across the neighborhood showed me around. She said that before escalators, Comuna 13 was under the control of gangs and among one of the most dangerous communities in the city. Since then, the area has become a “neutral zone that belongs to the community,” transcending the previously invisible lines that demarcated gang territories in the neighborhood. This has allowed life to flourish alongside the escalators, with spaces for shops, street art and community meeting points. What’s more, waves of local and international tourists have brought a sense of pride in the neighborhood that felt disconnected from the rest of Medellin.

Communa 13 is one of the places I visited where the PUI approach was implemented. Above is a viaduct that connects different barrios along the hillside.

Some critics argue that Comuna 13's electric escalator did not sufficiently take the transportation needs and practices of the local residents into account. Research showed that the catchment area of the escalators was approximately 200 meters. They also cite that the project did little to address ongoing social inequality in the neighborhood. However, the escalator is just one of several interventions aimed at connecting the community (see here for a full list). Two viaducts run from the top of the escalators to connect surrounding neighborhoods to the escalator’s infrastructure. The aim of these is to create a public space and a means of connection to the escalator so that more residents of Comuna 13 can benefit. Whether positive or negative, the policy debate on unique mobility interventions like the escalators should take into account more intangible outcomes, such as an increase in citizens'feelings of pride and dignity, that have resulted in the case of Comuna 13. In Medellin, this act of social urbanism is a means to spark ownership and citizenship in a formerly disconnected part of the city. I found the escalators a powerful example of how urban design has sought to make the lives of its residents a bit better.

Click here to read an excellent paper, “Planners and the Pride Factor: The Case of the Electric Escalator in Medellín” to learn more about the project and its impacts. 

Metroplus - The Aburra Valley's BRT System

Metroplus is a BRT system that is part of the integrated SITVA transport network. The fleet consists of 30 articulated buses and 47 standard buses, with capacity of 150 and 90 passengers,respectively. The system began operation in 2011, featuring exclusive central corridors and some shared corridors across two lines. Central stations are located every 500 meters, all being 100% accessible for disabled and elderly users. Since 2005, Metroplus S.A. has participated in the management of the BRT system,including infrastructure provision, planning, advisory, and execution of the BRT system. To date, the system consists of 26 km in corridors. In the future, Metroplus hopes to be the leading company in Colombia with smart mobility, innovating with electric buses and green station design.

During my visit to Medellin, I sat down with Andres Moreno, Director and CEO of Metroplus S.A. to talk about current projects he and his team are working on. We discussed the building of a new corridor along Avenida Oriental, a famously congested street in the heart of Medellin. The project calls for the construction of 4.1 kilometers of dedicated lanes for BRT. Six new stations will be “Ecoestaciones masivas,” featuring green design elements (see photos below). This includes water storage and management, modular construction materials for efficient construction, incorporation of greenery, plenty of natural lighting, use of sustainable construction materials, charging points for electric bicycles, and solar panels for energy savings.

Another important project I spoke withMr. Moreno about was the connection with the neighboring municipalities ofMedellin. The Calle 12 Surcorridor project is 1.8 kilometers long between Guayabal and El Pobladoavenues, serving as an important future connection to Envigado and Itagüí inthe South. This project fits within the medium and long term plan of Metroplus, as shown below.

Source: Metroplus

The continuing development of Metroplus will further add to the rich palette of mobility options available to residents of the Aburra Valley. The company’s approach to innovative BRT design considers thorough revitalization of new corridors as an opportunity for urban landscape transformation.  A dedication to accessibility, equity, and inclusion further adds value to residents who travel on Metroplus. The case of Metroplus shows how Medellin’s dedication to people-centered mobility applies just as well to BRT systems in the city.

Thanks to Director Andres Moreno for meeting with me!

Meeting with Cycling Expert Lina Marcela Lopez 

In 2011, Medellin joined the likes of Paris, Barcelona,Copenhagen, Washington DC, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City when the Encicla bikeshare system arrived on the scene. I had the chance to sit down with one of Encicla’s main proponents and founders, Lina Marcela López Montoya. With a background in product design engineering, Lina was a part of a three-person team that designed and manufactured the prototype bicycles for the system as part of her degree work at EAFIT University. Lina was inspired by her time in the Netherlands, where she lived and studied in 2008. She was fascinated by the prevalence of the bicycle in Dutch cities, and wanted to bring a slice of that success home with her to Colombia.

The Encicla program started as a pilot with six stations and 105 bicycles. At this time, Lina told me that there was no bicycle infrastructure or culture in Medellin, so the project team had to find station locations that would attract bicycle users. The natural choice was around Metro stations and the university campuses of Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (UPB)and the National University of Colombia at Medellin. As the pilot progressed, more buy-in was achieved and small funds from the Metropolitan Valley of Aburra gave the project the start it needed. Over the length of the pilot, Lina worked long hours and wore many hats to ensure the continued success of the pilot program,and Lina formally began researching Encicla when EAFIT University and the Metropolitana Valle de Aburra signed an MOU to further develop the system.

Lina changed course in 2015 when she sought a Masters degree in Transport and City Planning at the University College of London. She returned to Medellin with a new role as the head of the active mobility program at Metropolitana Valle de Aburra. She was charged with promoting active transportation infrastructure development with campaigns, company mobility plans, and of course overseeing Encicla as it grew. During her tenure, the system grew from 105 to 1,000 bicycles, and from 40,000 to 61,000 trips.

Her most recent post involves technical assistance work as an advisor to Medellin under the C40 Climate Action Planning Program. This role has Lina working hand in hand with Medellin to align its policies and actions with the Paris Climate Accord. Under the program, Lina will help Medellin develop an approved plan for climate change mitigation and adaptation by 2020, achieved significant emissions reductions by 2030, and be carbon neutral by 2050. With 43% of carbon emissions in the Aburra Valley coming from Medellin itself, and disproportionately impacting lower income populations, this certainly will be no easy task. But Lina tells me the high bar motivates her tremendously.

We finished our conversation by sharing some of our future goals. Lina told me about a wonderful research idea that she hopes to embark on soon: the chance to live in different communas across Medellin for five days each. By experiencing daily life in the communas firsthand, Lina reckons that she  can better understand the commuting patterns, challenges, and opportunities. In this manner, more tailored urban transport policy can be crafted that suits the needs of Medellin’s diverse demography and geography. Through my discussion with Lina, it became clear that the role of social urbanism is deeply ingrained amongst transport specialists in Medellin. I am extremely thankful to have had the chance to learn about this directly from Lina herself.

Parting Thoughts

Medellin seems to be synonymous with“Cultura Metro," a collective feeling of responsibility towards the common good. It only took one ride on the Metro and a walk around the city to perceive how the program´s consciousness-raising effort has permeated the boundaries of the metro services and translated into a way of behaving. It has turned Medellin into one of the most progressive, modern and desirable cities to live for Colombians and foreigners alike.

Most remarkable of all is how far Medellín has come from its past, sending a powerful signal that inclusive and collaborative governance can overturn even the most difficult circumstances. The city's achievements offer inspiration for cities looking to overcome similar challenges and for all cities worldwide.However, its success is at once remarkable and fragile. Successive city leaders will have to build upon what had been put in place thus far; urban solutions and creation of jobs must continue to keep pace with growth in order to prevent the reappearance of past problems. As the wave of positive change that has swept Medellín settles, the city will have to manage the evolving expectations of its people. It is noted that key challenges remain, particularly the shortage of social housing for the underprivileged and those whose existing dwellings cannot be formalized, as well as the need for a clearer and cohesive urban plan at the metropolitan level to guide the development of the region. Transportation governance is good but could use improvement, especially to address the rampant growth of automobile traffic. It is imperative that efforts to ensure the basic needs of citizens are met be sustained, for it is the message of hope that has given Paisas the confidence and belief to come together and steer Medellín in the right direction.


My visit to Medellín was organized by ACI Medellín, the international cooperation and economic development corporation of the city. I was accompanied by Diego Velez, who was so kind as to organize various study tours across the city. These were the tours that we went on together:

  • Presentation of the Metropolitan Area Programs and Projects regarding Mobility
  • Tour Tranway and Metrocable
  • Tour and presentation of the Metroplús System
  • Study Tour: Medellín's Downtown

I would like to thank Diego and his colleagues for graciously showing me around their wonderful city!

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