How escalators and a metro system helped Medellin’s poorest communities

Passengers wait for a train at a Medellin metro stop. Image: Getty.

Over the years, Medellin had tried to face the threats of urbanisation and globalisation in many ways. To reduce the chronic stress of crime, they staged military interventions against gangs. They arrested and incarcerated drug traffickers and murderers until the jails were bulging, but the inmates kept right on doing business from behind bars.

Then Medellin focused on a single, specific vulnerability that, if addressed, might prepare the city for further population growth and enable its citizens to pursue new livelihoods as businesses came in. The vulnerability was the lack of mobility, poor accessibility, and extreme isolation of the poorest and most vulnerable communities – the barrios – especially those that had sprung up on the steep hillsides.


We know that fractured communities are vulnerable and that disruptions, such as violent crime, affect them more than others. Isolated people don’t know one another and are less likely to share information about what is happening or generate ideas about actions to take. Disconnected communities can’t pool resources and have a hard time coming together in groups and are thus more vulnerable to being threatened, bullied, terrorised, and taken over by gangs.

To address this vulnerability, Medellin’s solution was to design and build its extensive public transportation system. The Metro, which began operating on November 30, 1995, has two rail lines, two bus rapid transit routes, and three cable car lines – small in comparison to the transportation systems of cities like London or Buenos Aires or Tokyo, but a major infrastructural development for Medellin.

Now the majority of residents have low-cost access to all areas of the city (one ticket, valid for ninety minutes, connects riders to all transport modes and costs around 1800 pesos, or ninety cents), so they can pursue opportunities that were previously out of reach.

The Medellin Metro is more than a transportation network, it’s a striking example of what is known as “transit-oriented development” – an area that integrates transportation lines and stations with commercial enterprises, private residences and public housing, institutions, and public spaces. The idea is that mobility is fundamental to city life and that transportation infrastructure should be as much a part of the designed cityscape as are buildings and streets.

The Medellin Metro connects a wonderful sprawl of community centres, health clinics, and training and youth-oriented facilities, as well as popular libraries located at the main transfer stations of the cable car network.

Isolation made San Javier particularly vulnerable to trafficking and gang warfare

With the Metro system in place, Medellin did increase its readiness for growth and expansion. The Metro raises the level of city life above the baseline that residents were accustomed to even a few years earlier.

Yet, even these successful elements of the Medellin Metro system did not reduce the vulnerability of limited mobility and poor access in all the city’s neighbourhoods. The San Javier barrio, for example, was still isolated. Yes, the residents had much greater ability to get around the city than ever before – once they walked down the hillside to the rail stations and bus stops in the city below. But the barrio itself remained disconnected. It is a huddle of close-set one- to three-story brick houses that seem almost to perch one on top of the other, their corrugated metal roofs held in place with stones. The narrow streets peter out and become footpaths when the hill gets too steep. Climbing one of the byways into the barrio is more like a mountain hike than a city stroll.

Its isolation had made San Javier particularly vulnerable to the disruptions of drug trafficking, crime, and gang warfare. For decades, San Javier had been known as one of the most violent neighbourhoods in a violent district in one of the most violent cities in the world. Because of its position, San Javier had become a favoured route for drug traffickers in and out of the city.

The neighbourhood is so densely built, so easy to get lost in, and so difficult to navigate, that gangs were able to divide the area into private turfs marked by invisible borders that residents simply had to be aware of – but that police and outsiders usually were not. If you entered the wrong zone at the wrong moment, even with the most innocent of purposes, gang members saw that as trespass. Shoot-outs and street killings were commonplace. And there was very little to stop them. Police and emergency vehicles could not easily negotiate the streets.

So, although the city of Medellin was building its resilience through actions such as building the Metro, neighbourhoods like San Javier were still vulnerable. As Medellin became more aware of such vulnerabilities and the disruptions they could bring, it became more evident that the threat had to be faced. It could no longer be tolerated as “just the way things are.” Something had to be done before the situation in San Javier exploded and affected the rest of the city’s advancement.

As it turned out, the capacity was right there, waiting to be developed. San Javier’s geography made it nearly impossible to bring light rail or bus rapid transit to the neighbourhood, but people were used to walking – it was just that the distances were too great. It could take a half hour to get off the hillside. If you held a job across the valley, it might take three hours by foot.

How can you still walk but cut your travel time, especially on a steep hill? Escalators. There are a number of versions of the story of how Medellin’s escalators came to be – there are always many parents to a successful idea. The narrative, at various points along the way, involves the efforts of neighbourhood residents, city officials, outside agencies, and others. Local mothers’ groups and a team of engineers in the city’s planning department – with nearly ten years of evidence demonstrating that public transit had improved the lives of people in many other parts of the city – figure prominently in the story, as does then Mayor Sergio Fajardo.

The idea seemed audacious: build an escalator system into the hillside of San Javier that would turn a thirty-minute hike into a five-minute glide. Escalators would provide the hillside residents greater mobility, give official agencies much better access to the neighbourhood, and better connect the community with the rest of the city, creating new opportunities, economic and otherwise. Like the other transportation solutions the city had built, it would reduce a persistent vulnerability.

The mayor, who had a penchant for expansive public architecture and infrastructure initiatives, agreed to an investment in the project that amounted to nearly $7m.

Image: Getty.

The San Javier escalators, now considered the crown jewel of Medellin’s transportation system (although not actually a part of the Metro system itself), opened in 2012 in a public ceremony that received international press coverage. Today the tangle of footpaths and lanes has been augmented by a series of six gleaming escalators of the kind you might find in any suburban mall, that climb 1,260 feet up the hillside.

They are open to the air on both sides, shielded from the elements by glass and orange-painted metal roofs. The escalators, along with a network of elevated lateral walkways, have dramatically reduced the isolation of San Javier’s residents and thus addressed an important vulnerability of the city as a whole. The barrio is now open to the rest of Medellin so people can easily get to jobs in the valley. The barrio is less vulnerable to gang activity and less attractive to drug traffickers who needed seclusion and counted on being several steps ahead of the authorities.

Representatives of social programs are more regular visitors to San Javier now that access has improved. Community organisations, including the Red Cross, whose staffers and volunteers avoided such places, have been able to safely work with the people of Comuna. “Without the escalators, these groups and government agencies wouldn’t come here to work because they had no way in,” said one San Javier resident. “Now, with these institutions playing a role, we can organise and coordinate better social programs, which have been one of the main drivers of change in this neighborhood.”

Judith Rodin is the president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

This is an extract from The Resilience Dividend: Managing disruption, avoiding disaster, and growing stronger in an unpredictable world (Profile Books, £20 hardback/ebook). Read another extract here.

 
 
 
 

Five lessons for cities from a decade of Centre for Cities research

The view of Vancouver from Locarno Beach Park. Image: Getty.

With the government potentially facing years of “trench warfare” in Parliament, and Brexit set to dominate the national political agenda for the foreseeable future, local leaders have the chance to play a critical role in driving the UK’s economy in the coming years. However, it’s also clear that UK cities will face big challenges in the new economic circumstances outside the EU, and in responding to other issues such as globalisation and automation.

To meet these challenges and opportunities, local leaders will need to make the most of their existing resources and powers – and one of the best ways to do so is to learn from the experiences and ideas of other places.

That’s why the Centre for Cities recently launched a new, easy-to-navigate case study library featuring over 150 examples of good practice from cities in the UK and across the world. Drawn from more than 10 years of Centre for Cities research, the library offers examples of innovative and effective urban policy making in areas such as housing and transport, skills and employment, business and enterprise, and leadership.

In the process of compiling the case study library, five key lessons for cities stood out in particular:

1) Pooling resources with other local authorities can help places achieve more than they can do on their own.

Take Cambridge, for example. Its ability to deliver housing changed in the mid-2000s thanks to the establishment of the Cambridge sub-regional housing board.

By working in partnership with neighbouring authorities (as well as with development companies and a strategic planning unit), Cambridge has been able to reach a consensus on the importance of increasing density and introducing transport-oriented urban extensions.

2) Cities should also make the most of the support and initiatives that non-public sector partners can offer.

For example, Manchester City Council worked in partnership with NESTA and other agencies to launch an innovative ‘Creative Credit’ voucher scheme in 2010. Through this initiative, small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the city region were given vouchers worth £4,000 to spend on buying services from creative companies provided they spent at least £1,000 themselves. The pilot was oversubscribed and its evaluation showed a positive impact on sales and the innovation capacity of participants.

3) Having a clear understanding of the needs of people targeted by a specific programme or project will be vital in its success.

This is demonstrated by the success of Blade Runners, an employment programme set up by the City of Vancouver to support 15-30 year olds facing multiple barriers from getting into training and/or employment (such as substance misuse, homelessness, transportation costs and legal issues).

Three quarters of the participants in the programme completed training and moved into jobs, a success rate made possible by the continuous, targeted support provided by Blade Runners coordinators. This included referring participants to appropriate resources, and providing them with breakfast and lunch, living allowances, travel tickets, tools, equipment and work gear for training.


4) Even when cities do not have formal powers to make a difference, they can still use their leadership role to influence and inspire positive changes.

For example, in 2010 the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson launched the London Apprenticeship Campaign which aimed to increase awareness of the scheme. Letters signed by the London Mayor were sent to CEOs of large businesses outlining the value of apprenticeships, and the potential benefits of recruiting apprentices. The campaign had a positive impact on raising awareness among employers and helped to boost the profile of apprenticeships in London.

5) Monitoring and evaluating projects from their early stages is crucial for their long-term success.

San Francisco offers a clear example of how long term policy making coupled with close monitoring can drive change and create jobs. In 2002, the city set itself the goal of a 75 per cent reduction in landfill waste by 2010 and zero waste by 2020. Thanks to close evaluation of the projects, the city realised its efforts were not enough to reach the target, and so introduced a further 20 laws to address these issues. The city is now ahead of its schedule in meeting objectives.

You can access the case study library and to read about these examples in more detail here. We are always keen to hear about new case studies, so please do get in contact if you’d like to share good practice from your city.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.

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