How investment in sport has helped Medellín shake off its violent past

A mountain-side escalator in Medellin. Image: Getty.

The Colombian city of Medellín doesn’t have the best reputation: crime, violence, drug cartels and murder are all characteristics that spring to mind. Perhaps the city most famous for its two Escobars, Pablo the drug cartel king pin and Andrés, the Colombian World Cup 1994 player who was tragically murdered. Few know the story of the city’s regeneratio; fewer still the role sport has played in this process.

Colombia shined on the world sporting stage this year, with its team’s success at the World Cup, and sport has been used to great effect in transforming the city of Medellín from the ground up. As well as helping foster elite talent, the investment in sports facilities have empowered local community leaders and helped strengthen communities.

But reputations are sometimes hard to shift. I had cautious feelings when I first prepared for a trip there, as part of a “Country-to-Country” universities exchange program. My impression of the country was not too dissimilar to those mentioned above. It didn’t help that my travel insurance detailed a high risk of terrorism, kidnap, extortion and theft.

The fact that Medellín had once been home to the most notorious drugs cartel, which conducted 6,349 killings in 1991 alone (a rate of 380 per 100,000 people), didn’t exactly ease my mind, either.

Urban turnaround

But these these outdated impressions were changed once I arrived in the country. Indeed since 1991, the city has won international awards for innovation and its murder rate has been reduced by 80 per cent. It's even been highlighted by ranking in the top third of the Rockefeller Foundations’s 100 Resilient Cities league table.

Many factors have been involved in the city’s incredible turnaround. Developing urban infrastructure has been key, including the building of a metro system, cable car and community-based escalators up the city’s steep hills. Public spaces have helped, too: libraries and parks, the innovation centre (including the presence of MIT), and the presence of schools and police stations across deprived and hillside communities.

And, within the fabric of the community, sport is playing its part on a day-to-day basis through community outreach facilities. Some 18 sport complexes now make high-quality sport and physical activities accessible to deprived and hard-to-reach communities that previously had little other option than entering into gang culture.

The municipality of Medellín has received considerable public funding for sport and leisure activities. The majority has been delivered by INDER, a publically funded organisation established in 1993, which has seriously invested in sport facilities. Its facilities are accessible and open throughout the day to coincide with the two education options available (morning or afternoon class). Children and young people can participate for free, provided an adult accompanies them.

But these are not your typical leisure facilities. They have a dual purpose: as social projects that allow all ages and abilities to participate in sport, and for talent development and performance at an elite level. The social projects have a focus on co-existence, which aims to develop respect, tolerance, responsibility, discipline and equality between different groups. Doing this through sport is a natural process, and has been celebrated for helping facilitate greater peace across the city’s communities.

Salute to sporting idols

Facilities have been named specifically to tie in with Medellín people, or Paisas, as they are known locally. Paisas have a strong connection to the local area, people and the city. This passion often develops into a mentality that “if they can do it, I can do it”. For example, there is a centre named after football hero Andrés Escobar; there's also a BMX facility tied to Mariana Pajón Londoño, an Olympic Gold medallist and BMX World Champion from Medellín, who is helping to inspire a new generation.

So people see the success of their fellow Paisas and believe they too can succeed. Whether or not they do, this plays an important role in spurring people’s sense of self-belief and accomplishment.

A focus on investment “in the community for the community” engages young people from across the municipality. As Medellín is surrounded by mountains, it's been particularly important to work with the deprived hillside communities where gang culture once thrived. Now, residents are given free access to high quality sports facilities. The only cost is a small fee for ten-pin bowling, the equivalent of about 20p to pay for disposable footwear.

So, as UNESCO wrap-up a meeting of experts to revise the 1978 International Charter of Physical Education & Sport in Medellín, I will, in the spirit of the Paisas, ask you not to forget the past reputation of the city.

But, while remembering the past, let’s also celebrate the story of change in Medellín. It is a story that can provide hope for many other cities struggling with crime and social inequality.

Daniel Parnell is senior lecturer in sport business management at Leeds Metropolitan University. He receives funding from the Higher Education Innovation Fund, the Leeds Beckett University, Carnegie School of Sport New Researcher Fund and a number of football charities. He is also affiliated with ConnectSport UK, manages a non-profit online platform called The Community Football Hub and is on the Editorial Board of the Journal Soccer & Society.

All body images courtesy of the author. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.