Medellín's smog is so bad that the mayor is cancelling sporting events

Colombia’s second city has been forced to take drastic measures to combat the dizzying levels of pollution that the city is experiencing.

Medellín (the name is pronounced “Me-de-jeen”, by the way) was once famed for being the world’s former murder capital. Today, it’s seen as an innovation and tourist hub, too.

But, according to pollution watch-dog, the city currently has worse pollution than Mexico City (another Latin American city famed for its poor air quality). At the time of writing, the north of Medellín is experiencing pm2.5 levels – the number of micrograms of particles smaller than 2.5 thousandths of a millimetre across in an average cubic metre of air – of 154 µg/m3. That’s two points higher than the most polluted area of Mexico City, and 15 times higher than recommended safe levels.

In response to the crisis, over the weekend, the city’s mayor, Federico Gutiérrezn, issued orders banning cars and motorcycles from the road for 27 hours, and restricted the when and where dumpster trucks can operate in the coming days. He even announced the suspension of outdoor activities – including sports events and cycle paths – to protect citizens’ health.

The move followed a brief spell the previous week that saw Medellín Olaya Herrera – the city’s smaller, domestic airport – close. Although now re-opened, local sources are unsure as to how long the airport will continue to operate while pollution levels continue to increase.

In a press statement, Gutierrez explained that Medellín’s bowl-like geography – the city lies in the middle of the Andean Aburrá Valley – has played a significant role in the city’s pollution crisis. “The landscape helps accumulate the pollutants emitted in the valley,” he said. But he added that everyone who pollutes had, in some way, contributed to the current problems.

Medellín’s government first declared an emergency over the city’s air quality in the middle of March, citing a lack of rain, and the effects of weather phenomenon El Niño for the problem. Causing extreme heat and a lack of rain, the effects of El Niño have been further exacerbated by forest fires and dust particles from the Sahara Desert. The result of all this is that pollution has collected in the Aburrá Valley instead of dispersing.

That said, of course, the largest contribution to the dangerous pollution levels comes from the human population. In recent years the proportion of Medellín’s 3m inhabitants that own a car or a motorbike has increased. And while the government has introduced contamination limits for vehicles in Medellín – including for trucks and buses – these often go ignored.

Medellín is not the only city in Latin America to ban cars from the roads this week, either. Authorities in Mexico City have also ordered that all vehicles must remain off the roads for one day a week, in a bid to quickly lower the proportion of pm2.5 particles in the air. The Mexican capital has often struggled with pollution levels: like its Colombian counterpart it sits in a bowl from which it is difficult for pollutants to escape.

Medellín now awaits the arrival of rains in April that will help wash the pollution away. Hopefully.


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.