The city where anything can be done - Colombia
Published: Friday, March 27, 2009 9:47 (GMT-0400)
Those who visit Colombian city Medellín for the ongoing IDB annual meeting and are not familiar with the city are in for a surprise.
In just 15 years, the local government managed to turn what was once one of Latin America's most dangerous cities into one of the region's most attractive places to invest in, thanks to an integrated and sustainable infrastructure-based development plan, and one of today's less common values: faith.
I knew very little about Medellín the first time I went, in 2005. The city's metro line was a decade old and the city's first cable car system - Metrocable - was celebrating its first year of operations.
The first Metrocable system was installed in the hilltop Santo Domingo Savio neighborhood. Locals were unable to get to downtown Medellín until the system was implemented because they would likely end up being killed before reaching the bottom due to drug-related violence, then mayor Sergio Fajardo told BNamericas.
Fajardo, who took part in the planning of the project, headed the committee that walked through the neighborhood and knocked on every door to explain the initiative to locals and to negotiate the expropriation of their precarious homes. These homes had been built illegally, but authorities knew that if they wanted to convince people about the seriousness of the initiative, they would have to treat them respectfully.
None of the committee members wore suits or ties, strengthening Fajardo's open-neckline trademark, which is now a symbol of his hands-on work legacy.
By July 2005, when I first visited the site, Metrocable's surrounding public areas were still under construction, but most roads had been paved, and buses and police patrols were able to circulate in a once forbidden area. Also, and for the first time ever, the neighborhood's children had safe areas to play in, and locals had access to free public phones with the support of local multi-utility EPM, which also expanded potable water and sewerage networks in the area.
"This shows you what we are capable of doing," a lady selling fruit juice told me at the time. "Anything can be done if you have a little faith."
Two years later, I visited Santo Domingo Savio again. All public areas were equipped with playgrounds and parks. The public phones were still spotless, but there was another difference. There were no children in the streets.
"The kids are in the public library," said a policeman, pointing at a large structure financed by the government of Spain. And there they were: using free internet for interactive classes organized by their public school, doing homework, or just looking at some of the latest and most expensive books on the market, all available for free in the library. The facility is also equipped with a daycare area, a training center for adults who have now joined the city's workforce thanks to the transport system, and an auditorium, where local authorities address public issues and invite citizen participation.
What Fajardo had mentioned as a goal in 2005 had become reality in only two years: authorities had managed to take kids off the streets, and the policemen working in the area knew all their names and were therefore trusted by local inhabitants.
In addition, the Santo Domingo Savio cable car system had become a major tourist attraction and the area was being visited by government officials from all over the world, first to see if what they had heard was really happening in the city and, after confirming it was, to take note and imitate the initiative in their own countries.
By now, I have been in Medellín seven times. Using Metrocable as a prototype, the city - now under the mandate of mayor Alonso Salazar - has developed integrated development initiatives that include the expansion of a large part of its road and highway network, improved access to the airport, the expansion of potable water and sewage networks, and a new Metrocable line and plans to develop more. The city is also planning the implementation of an integrated mass transport system, among other projects.
Private firms now approach local authorities to submit initiatives such as urban highways, and banks are willing to provide financing for projects in the city. Multilateral entities such as the Andean Development Corporation (CAF), IDB and the World Bank not only praise the city's development, but continue to offer financial support for improvements and use it as an example in other cities challenged by violence and poverty.
Ironically, I recently learned that Medellín officials first heard about the cable car system in Chilean city Valparaíso over a decade ago. While Medellín is planning to have at least five cable car lines installed in a couple of years, Valparaíso is still working on labeling the project as one "of public interest."
The rest of Latin America should follow Medellín's example of believing and taking action. It is not easy to reduce violence and poverty, but as those from Medellín say: "It can be done." Authorities should not wait until their cities hit rock bottom before reacting, the way Medellín did. They had no option, but the rest of us still do.