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.

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.