A Light Unto Cities

NEW YORK – Last month, a remarkable gathering occurred in Medellín, Colombia. Some 22,000 people came together to attend the World Urban Forum and discuss the future of cities. The focus was on creating “cities for life” – that is, on promoting equitable development in the urban environments in which a majority of the world’s citizens already live, and in which two thirds will reside by the year 2050.

The location itself was symbolic: Once notorious for its drug gangs, Medellín now has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most innovative cities in the world. The tale of the city’s transformation holds important lessons for urban areas everywhere.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, cartel bosses like the infamous Pablo Escobar ruled Medellín’s streets and controlled its politics. The source of Escobar’s power was not just the hugely profitable international cocaine trade (fueled by demand in the United States), but also extreme inequality in Medellín and Colombia. On the steep Andean slopes of the valley that cradles the city, vast slums, virtually abandoned by the government, provided a ready supply of recruits for the cartels. In the absence of public services, Escobar won the hearts and minds of Medellín’s poorest with his largesse – even as he terrorized the city.

One can hardly recognize those slums today. In the poor neighborhood of Santo Domingo, the city’s new Metrocable system, consisting of three lines of aerial gondolas, serves residents hundreds of vertical feet up a mountainside, ending their isolation from the city center. The commute is now minutes, and the social and economic barriers between the informal settlements and the rest of the city are on their way to being broken down.