More Photo Essays: Medellin: Fragile Future for the Miracle City
In collaboration with the World Photography Organisation (WPO) and Sony’s Global Imaging Ambassadors (SGIA), Panos Pictures created ‘#Future of Cities’, a documentary photography project that looks at some of the problems, solutions and trends shaping cities globally. #FutureofCities is a multi-platform project with its own website, social media campaign and touring exhibition.
In the past decade, Medellín has gone from being one of the most violent cities to a ‘smart city’ with tech start-ups and tourist destinations. This was catalyzed by the ‘social urbanism’ approach implemented by former mayor Sergio Fajardo (2004-2007). Basically, the government invests the majority of its annual budget on improving infrastructure and services for the poor. This innovative urban investment spawned many projects and initiatives, such as cable cars and urban escalators to connect the poor hillsides to the city center, a garbage dump turned garden, educational programs and reclaimed public spaces.
While this strategy has proven successful, it has come at a great cost. Thousands of families have been evicted from their homes to make room for these improvements, with many relocated to a segregated area of the city dubbed, “district of new growth” - a sprawling complex of public housing for 80,000 residents called Nuevo Occidente, which has little access to social services. It takes an hour to reach this complex from the city center via the ‘metrocable’; the system of cable cars implemented under Fajardo’s plan that seamlessly glide above breathtaking views of the city’s mountainous topography. However, upon arrival in Nuevo Occidente, you find yourself isolated. How innovative is it when a city relocates poor families farther from public services and jobs?
No one will argue that the city is now far safer than it was during the violent era of the notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar. However, "the city pays millions for its 'image', for the perception of tranquility and calm," says Fernando Quijano, president of a Medellín conflict monitoring group Corporation for Peace and Development. Despite the lowest homicide rate in history since a ceasefire between two top gangs early last year, disappearances increased by 20% since 2009.
For as innovative as transforming a former garbage dump into a garden is, rebuilding a city cannot occur without solving systemic problems of internal displacements, inequality, organized crime, poverty, and poorly constructed social housing. While Medellín has made a progressive transformation in urban development - there is no doubt about that - it will take more than a few cable cars and educational programs to advance holistically in social inclusion and equality.