City of the year: Medellín

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Medellín’s is a story of successful transformation. Once gripped by violence and drug cartels, Colombia’s second city has evolved into a world-class model of urban innovation. Mayor Aníbal Gaviria Correa tells us how they did it.

“Innovation is essentially something that invites you to reinvent yourself every day.”

— Aníbal Gaviria Correa, Mayor of Medellín, Colombia

Medellín, 1991. The traditional cultural capital of Colombia is beset by entrenched social problems and high levels of violence.

Medellín, 2013. Judges from The Wall Street Journal and the Urban Land Institute name it “City of the Year” from among 200 cities, citing the huge rate of development and success in bringing its residents together to assure opportunities for all.

Correa, Medellín’s Mayor since 2012 and one of the key architects of the city’s renaissance, says the award is not only recognition for the city’s recent progress, but also serves as a benchmark for other cities who have overcome a checkered past.

The “City of the Year” competition is designed to recognize the most innovative urban centers. The cities were selected based on eight criteria:

  • Environment and land use
  • Culture and livability
  • Economic and investment climate
  • Progress and potential
  • Places of power
  • Education and human capital
  • Technology and research
  • Mobility and infrastructure

Medellín emerged victorious after more than 900,000 online votes.

A winning story

Medellín’s triumph can be attributed to several factors:

  • The city’s homicide rate fell nearly 80% between 1991 and 2010.
  • New public libraries, parks and schools have been built, mainly in the poorest neighborhoods.
  • There’s been an emphasis on improving the quality of public spaces by investing in new urban promenades, plazas and public art.
  • EPM, the municipal utility that supplies electricity, gas, water, sanitation and telecommunications to up to 12 million Colombians, is constitutionally mandated in Medellín to provide clean water and electricity, even to houses in illegal slums. Its annual profits also go directly to city infrastructure, such as schools and parks.
  • New transportation systems have contributed to a reduction in crime, and helped reduce CO2 emissions by 175,000 tons a year. The new metro system and the installation of escalators on steep hills have made huge contributions. The city’s new free public bicycle system and rapid-transit-bus system have provided an integrated network of transport options to citizens.

The city’s new transportation projects have been financed largely through PPPs. Another good example of collaboration is that engineering firms have designed public buildings on a pro bono basis. In addition, participatory budgeting enables citizens and community organizations to own 5% of the municipal budget, and allocate funds to neighborhood priorities such as new health centers, youth groups and college scholarships.

The Mayor describes this as part of the “civic urbanism” that has swept the city in recent years; urban planning is not only about construction, but also about citizen participation.

Escaping the shadow of history

The Mayor is keen to stress that the city’s historical problems encouraged a greater level of innovation in response.

While Medellín’s challenges are still many, the city’s focus on innovation at every step has vastly improved the quality of life for its residents, broken down barriers, fostered creativity and strengthened collaboration.


Read our article: Moving up, moving on