Diverse opportunity

Street vendors in an increasingly prosperous former slum area of Medellín, Colombia.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Just now we are fortunate to have a global framework agreement on the “New Urban Agenda” as a basis for shared response to our growing urban challenges. In December 2016, all of the nations of the United Nations General Assembly adopted this outcome document of the Habitat III conference by consensus, and that is a remarkable achievement. At the same time, much work remains to be done to translate the aspirations into actual implementation actions.

Like a lot of us I’m sure, I have been thinking very much about how we are going to implement the agenda in the context of the rapid urbanization of our age. It is sobering to think that, by some projections, we may well create more urban fabric in the next fifty years than we have in all of human history. That is why this question of the New Urban Agenda is such an urgent one.

No less equally, we need to be thinking about a joined-up approach to the Paris climate accords, and to the Sustainable Development Goals — without which, we will simply not be able to meet this set of challenges facing humanity just now. We are all well aware of the forces that all too eagerly act in their own self-interests, and manifest the “tragedy of the commons.” We need to counteract these destructive forces.

But as part of the process, we need to answer the question, “what’s in it for everyone?” How does the New Urban Agenda offer us a positive future, while its alternative is a dark and undesirable one?

One of the central conclusions of the New Urban Agenda is that we must ensure that we have cities for all.” But what does it mean to say that we need “cities for all”? Why is that important, and why should we work on it as a focus of our efforts?

As Alexander and, especially, Jacobs, argued, this is not only a matter of justice or fairness or political equity — as significant as those goals are. (And yet, as controversial as they are for some self-interested parties.) In fact it is a core requirement for cities to do well what they actually can do for all of us — to provide human development in the fullest sense of the word, including economic and social development. As we have discussed, they must also do so in a sustainable way, without producing the kind of catastrophe that does indeed seem to loom ahead, by all the evidence.

To put the point bluntly, a city that is not for all cannot be a sustainable city, period. But the corollary is that an open, interconnected, accessible city, that offers diversity and opportunity for all, and that offers the “rungs of the ladder” for human development for all, is also good for everyone’s bottom line.

That’s the “headline” if you will, but let me talk about some more specifics that will be useful for our work in implementation of the New Urban Agenda. To do that I want to talk about the remarkably useful conceptual framework that Jacobs has given us to work with these challenges.

Earlier in the book — and again in the last chapter — I discussed Jacobs’ arguments on how important it is to have a continuous, connected, diverse, fine-grained urban structure, down to the scale of human beings, particularly as they interact within public spaces. Many people understand that, or at least they understand her four key recommendations — mixed-use diversity, walkable street networks around small blocks, diversity of building conditions and ages, and concentration of people and activities. What perhaps isn’t as well recognized is Jacobs’ later work as an economist — someone who has connected these elements of urban structure to the economic performance of a city, or a nation or a globe.

We now understand, in large part thanks to Jacobs, that cities generate economic growth through networks of proximity, casual encounters and what are called “economic spillovers.” The phenomenal creativity and prosperity of cities is now understood as a dynamic interaction between web-like networks of individuals who exchange knowledge and information about creative ideas and opportunities. As we have discussed earlier in the book, many of these interactions are casual, and occur in networks of public and semi-public spaces—the urban web of sidewalks, plazas, parks and so on. More formal and electronic connections supplement, but do not replace, this primary network of spatial exchange.

Just as important, cities perform best economically, and environmentally, when they feature pervasive human-scale connectivity. Like any network, cities benefit geometrically from their number of functional interconnections. To the extent that some urban populations are excluded or isolated, a city will under-perform economically and environmentally. This is key to the economic importance of “cities for all” and “right to the city,” and it’s key to motivating the implementation of that aspect of the New Urban Agenda.

By the same logic, to the extent that the city’s urban fabric is fragmented, privatized, sprawling, car-dependent or otherwise restrictive of diverse, open encounters and spillovers, that city will under-perform — or, as we see in too many cities today, that city will require an unsustainable injection of resources to compensate.

One of the most hopeful and instructive examples of the results of this approach is in the Colombian city of Medellín. Among the dangerous cities of the world, few have equaled the troubled reputation of that city. At its peak, the former base of narcoterrorist Pablo Escobar recorded over 3,000 murders per year, and many more robberies and assaults. For decades many of the city’s public spaces were desolate and unsafe. Slum areas, swelling with refugees from political violence in the countryside, were overtaken by equally violent gangs.

But by almost all accounts, Medellín has seen one of the most remarkable urban turnarounds in modern history. Crime is markedly lower, and the city is graced with well-attended new civic spaces, libraries and art galleries. Business is good — indeed, the envy of many other cities across the globe. What’s more remarkable is the unconventional path the City has taken to this recovery.

Part of the turnaround certainly began when Escobar was killed in 1993, the climax of a storied manhunt. A more general police crackdown followed, and the murder rate was cut by more than half. Even so, for years afterward the city languished as urban quality of life indicators remained stubbornly low. Many attribute the real transformation to a shift in urban policy that brought about a revitalization of the poorest parts of the city. That in turn has brought remarkable benefits for the rest of the city too.

Some of the biggest changes were managed by Medellín’s charismatic former mayor, Sergio Fajardo, who is now governor of the province in which Medellín sits, Antioquía. A Ph.D. in mathematics, Fajardo is also an architecture fan — his father was a noted Medellín architect — and he has long had a fascination with the capacity of architectural and urban interventions to catalyze wider benefits. As mayor, Fajardo inaugurated a remarkably ambitious plan of “integral urban projects,” as they are known locally.

Such projects are typically not in the wealthiest areas of town — on the contrary, they are in the poorest slums. “We are going to go to the spaces of the city where we know we have the most need, and we are going to come up with architecture as a social program,” Fajardo told Newsweek magazine in 2010. “Some people say, ‘Well, it’s just a building.’ It’s not just a building. It’s a public space, and the dignity of the space means the whole society has invested there. The whole society is present there.”

Nor are the projects simply alluring examples of international “starchitecture” — rather, they are buildings by local firms that provide educational and recreational opportunities, like libraries, parks and schools. One notable example is the Parque Biblioteca España, a striking group of rustic black cubes set in a verdant hilltop of the once-notorious Santo Domingo neighborhood. Designed by Bogotá architect Giancarlo Mazzanti, the project is representative of Fajardo’s “architecture as a social program.”

There are five such projects, and Fajardo sees them as key catalysts for the improvement of the city. These are, he says, a major example of his strategy for the city: “public space of the highest quality, at the site where the libraries belong, at the heart of the community,” and where each community is thereby “enriched by the library, where all citizens have access to books, technology, entrepreneurship centers, all the tools needed for full development.”

Another project, the renovation of the popular Jardín Botánico and Orquideorama, features a distinctive pavilion of geometric wooden hexagons and helixes by local Medellín architects Plan:B Arquitectos and JPRCR Arquitectos. Other projects include schools and community centers, also with striking architecture. Fajardo has made education a major priority, but has used architecture as a tool in that process. “People who say that a beautiful building doesn’t improve education don’t understand something critical,” he told Newsweek. “The first step toward quality education is the quality of the space. When the poorest kid in Medellín arrives in the best classroom in the city, there is a powerful message of social inclusion.”

Fajardo, along with his former Director of Urban Projects, Alejandro Echeverri, initiated not just building projects but also an innovative series of micro-lending and community-led investment programs. Some of the biggest investments were in transportation and public space infrastructure. For example, Fajardo’s administration completed the Metrocable system — a series of aerial trams up into the steep hillsides — begun by the previous administration, and added new extensions.

One of the most dramatic, now a big tourist draw, takes visitors to the stunning Parque Arvi, an ecological park whose new wooden buildings complement the natural setting. Tourists ride the aerial tram alongside local slum residents, some of whom might be enjoying the park from their nearby neighborhood. Visitors can canoe along creeks, ride a zip line through the tree canopy, or go horseback-riding through the forest.

One of the most attention-getting projects was surely the outdoor escalator system introduced into one of the poorest and most dangerous favelas, Comuna 13. The escalators, stretching a quarter mile up a steep hillside, were requested by the residents themselves through a citizen-led appropriation process, and cost about $6.7 million US dollars. Extensive media coverage brought out the skeptics — how could such an unconventional, expensive system help to improve such a notorious slum? — but today, few can deny the remarkable changes that have come to the area since the escalators were installed.

Where once residents trudged up a dangerous sewage-laden path — a hike the equivalent of scaling a 28-story building — now they pass uniformed attendants as they step onto covered escalators, taking them up a steep, visually stunning axis through the neighborhood. Between and around the six escalator segments is a series of new small public plazas extending outward with steps and walkways. Around these plazas, new home-grown businesses have sprung up, and many nearby homes have been beautifully improved. A new series of concrete pathways has been extended from these spaces too, with more new businesses, remodeled homes and well-tended landscaping.

Visitors frequently marvel at the livable appeal of the public spaces. Where once it might have been unthinkable, lush plants and public art remain undamaged. Graffiti is there, but largely confined to key walls, where its colorful patterns seem to actually animate the public spaces. The stunning setting, overlooking the valley below, brings a steady stream of visitors who come to take in the sights.

Fajardo likens such integral urban projects to what he calls “urban acupuncture” — a term popularized by former Curitiba, Brazil mayor Jaime Lerner. Under Lerner’s administration, Curitiba became famous for a series of innovations that greatly improved urban quality of life. For example, a Bus Rapid Transit system made it easier to get around inexpensively, and a garbage-for-groceries exchange program solved the problem of waste disposal in the slums. Lerner was also an architect who was unsatisfied with architecture as a mere visual amenity; like Fajardo, he sought to use architectural and urban projects to catalyze wider improvements.

In the introduction to his 2003 book titled Urban Acupuncture, Lerner explained the idea this way: “As with the medicine needed in the interaction between doctor and patient, in urban planning it is also necessary to make the city react; to poke an area in such a way that it is able to help heal, improve, and create positive chain reactions.” The goal, Lerner says, is to create “revitalizing interventions to make the organism work in a different way.”

Lerner, Fajardo and others are quick to distinguish this approach from the “silver bullet” solutions that some urban planners promote — for example, recruiting an international “starchitect” to create an attention-getting building as a tourist destination. The goal is what has come to be called the “Bilbao Effect,” named after the celebrated Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by American architect Frank Gehry. But as Hispanic-American urban planner Andrés Duany points out, such a new element is supposed to bring wonderful results for the city all by itself, without building on the surrounding urban fabric — a phenomenon Duany decries as an example of “magical thinking.”

Duany points out that most subsequent “Bilbaos” have not lived up to their reputation. “Their effects on their cities is roughly equivalent to the effects of ancient cave paintings of antelopes on the next day’s hunt,” he says. By contrast, he notes, “wherever planning has succeeded, it has relied upon the patient re-weaving of the urban fabric into whole cloth, socially, physically and economically.” Medellín’s success, he thinks, has come from its successful repair and reconnection of the most damaged parts of the city’s urban fabric. Handsome architecture is only a tool in that process — a signal that the surrounding neighborhood and its people have value, and are worthy of development opportunities.

As Fajardo points out, this is not simply a matter of physical changes. The residents themselves have become involved in these projects — in their planning and operation, and in the other surrounding activities they have generated. This means a different relationship between the planning bureaucracy and the residents. Fajardo is known for the “civic pacts” he made with different constituencies, not merely “giving them a say,” but giving them “co-responsibility” — that is, transparent responsibility for success or failure. Letting constituents take full credit for success was, Fajardo found, a powerful incentive for cooperation.

Fajardo’s skill at making things happen in spite of the bureaucracy has become legendary, and his popularity rating on leaving office was at a historic high near ninety percent. While in office he seemed to combine a mathematician’s mastery of game theory — the art of understanding and managing rules, incentives and likely outcomes — with a humanist’s sense of open collaboration and trust. That winning formula has earned him admirers far beyond Medellín. Although he was focused on improving the well-being of the least well-off citizens, he earned the trust of the local business establishment too, demonstrating that his strategy offered strong wins for rich and poor alike.

Fajardo is quick to point out that the successes were not his alone. He came to office with an alliance of leaders with expertise in a broad range of relevant fields including finance, education and urban development — the so-called “Group of 50,” which later grew to about 200, becoming Fajardo’s “brain trust.” The group created a series of intensive workgroups to tackle specific problems within the city and develop effective strategies and tactics.

Fajardo’s team replaced the old crony reward system with an emphasis on more transparent metrics. That immediately shifted the dynamic of rewards, says Federico Restrepo, Fajardo’s director for planning. As he told researchers from Princeton University’s Institute for Successful Societies in 2010, “discussion became objective and perfectly justifiable in terms of numbers and data. The level of subjectivity, which is usually associated with political negotiations, went down drastically.”

Fajardo has been active in the International Association for Educating Cities, a network of cities begun in 1990 that fosters collaboration “on projects and activities for improving the quality of life of their inhabitants on the basis of their active involvement in the use and evolution of the city itself,” as the Association’s website puts it. This is clearly very close to Fajardo’s thinking.

“A city is an educator,” Fajardo told the Association in 2007. “Education in a broad sense, as a tool of social transformation that makes its citizens of the world and makes them equivalent in knowledge and development opportunities.” Fajardo, the former university professor, came to see “the educated city” as the unifying theme of all his work. “Whatever we did, we explained it around this narrative about education understood in the broad sense,” he told the Association. That means giving people lifelong learning opportunities from hands-on involvement with improvement projects in their own neighborhoods.

“We must close the gap between the public administration and the citizen,” Fajardo explained. This is not a nebulous goal, but a concrete plan of action. “For us it is basic to recognize and encourage new leadership; use our person to person interventions directly to reach the communities; share the processes of transformation step by step; generate working groups on projects; encourage and respect the work of the citizens groups; emphasize clarity in the processes; and hand over to the community the responsibility for caring for everything that has been achieved.”

Duany invokes the principle of “subsidiarity” — the capability to work on neighborhood-scale projects, retained by the neighborhoods themselves, but with the capacity-building assistance and collaboration of the city as a whole. Duany and his colleagues offered a similar strategy for the recovery planning of New Orleans, using “neighborhood resource centers” to bring tools and resources for building to neighborhoods across the city. Similar trends are under way in other cities, variously known as Tactical Urbanism, Pragmatic Urbanism and Peer-to-Peer Urbanism. In this global movement for urban innovation, Medellín’s successes are gaining fame.

It is not just livable public space that is a goal, Fajardo says, but also the reduction of violent crime — the ultimate threat to well-being and to urban vitality. In that essential goal, the conventional tools must be supplemented by the new tools of urban intervention. “You need the police, the justice system, the military, and all these things” he told magazine. “And we have done those in Colombia. But we have to close that entrance door [to a life of crime]. It’s a door that is very wide open in Medellín.”

Integrated urban projects can open an alternative door, he thinks, by creating urban environments that offer opportunity and real participation. “We have to dedicate quite an effort to building hope,” he told Newsweek. “Everyone, eventually, should see the possibility for success for themselves here. That means quality education, full public education—in science, technology, innovation, entrepreneurship, and culture.” And, he says, it means a sense of responsibility for one’s own home and neighborhood.

Over a decade after Fajardo's term began, not all is rosy in Medellín, certainly. After Fajardo’s term ended, crime has risen again and remains stubbornly high — in 2012, for example, there were still over 1,000 murders, though that’s less than half of the 1990s peak. The new crimes are also those now common across much of Latin America, largely exchanges between small gangs of narcotraffickers. By most accounts, the city does feel much safer and more appealing. Tourists are coming in surging numbers, and once-desolate public spaces are now thriving with night life. But Fajardo and others recognize that there is much more to do.

Nor are all the urban interventions popular with everyone. Some comuna residents criticize the metrocables, arguing that they are much more expensive than the buses they replaced. Others feel that Fajardo should have spent more time ending corruption in the police force. Observers also caution against giving too much credit to the urban interventions for reducing crime: Fajardo’s term happened to coincide with a truce negotiated by the national government and the city’s violent paramilitary gangs.

But Fajardo is a strong advocate for the benefits of the participatory principles used in the city’s urban interventions. “This formula, apparently simple but with a very deep sense of what participating democracy should be like, functions in Medellín, and anywhere in the world for that matter, because it rescues the true sense of politics,” he told the International Association of Educating Cities.

How does he define this “true sense of politics?” It is, he says, “nothing more than working with people for people, where the general interest always prevails over private interest, where everyone is invited to get involved in the changes, where no favors are negotiated for bureaucratic office or contracts, and dignity and differences are respected.”

For Fajardo, this is not just an equitable policy, it is an economic development strategy. In a region of the world where the population of such informal settlements is exploding — as it is in much of the developing world — there is a lot at stake, Fajardo believes. Cities with greater opportunity for all will be more competitive, and will be more successful in protecting and enhancing their natural resources, their economies and their quality of life.

Indeed, he says, he believes “this is the only way to achieve the social transformations being demanded in the 21st century.”

Photo Essay for chapter V.2

Medellín’s remarkable renaissance

Figure V.2.1. A steward on the new escalator system of Medellín’s Comuna 13 chats with a young resident.

I spoke to Sergio Fajardo, former Mayor of Medellín and later governor of its province, Antioquía, about the strategy to connect all parts of the city. Key to that strategy has been to place important civic institutions (like libraries and museums) in formerly isolated neighborhoods that are also now connected by the overhead metrocable system, and other more convenient forms of transit.

Michael Mehaffy: You are known for using construction projects in the slums as a catalyst for further improvements. Why, as you see it, is this strategy effective?

Sergio Fajardo: As a government, we must always ask what problems we have to solve. This self-examination, for our city, brought the recognition that we live in a society with deep social inequalities, and we have accumulated a great social debt. In addition, the violence generated by drug trafficking has left deep roots and a feeling of “no future”, most evident in our poor neighborhoods where opportunities have been few, and where the absence of the state has allowed violent people to occupy the spaces. Recognizing, then, all our problems, and considering that we decided to participate in politics to bring hope and to transform our society, we opted for policies that will help the development of communities by implementing a range of development tools simultaneously.

Figure V.2.2. Left, a typical pathway in Comuna 13, which is steep, dangerous and unsanitary. Right, the residents opted, through the City’s participatory budgeting program, to build an escalator system that is patrolled by unarmed community stewards.

SF: In the poorest communities, where violence had its deepest roots, we intervened with what we called “Integral Urban Projects” — covering physical, social and institutional dimensions. That integral program allowed us to implement projects on three levels: what we call estructurantes, detonantes y articuladores (structural changes, catalytic triggers, and tactical connectors). These all operate under one simple principle, but one that summarizes our approach: the most beautiful to the most humble.

Figure V.2.3. New sidewalks, stairs, planters and small public spaces along the new escalator line give residents new house frontages to improve and occupy. Some have opened stores and other businesses.

MM: What are the major issues that have to be taken into account to ensure success in this work?

SF: This program sought to allow access to decent housing by the most vulnerable citizens; to protect the ecosystem and to promote environmental sustainability; to promote citizen participation in the development of the territory; to raise standards of public space for regional balance; to generate equity and social development; to upgrade informal settlements; to eradicate extreme poverty; and to promote actions that would encourage urban dynamics to foster peace and coexistence.

Figure V.2.4. Residents relax in a new public space next to a store along the new escalator line. The store’s name is “The Penny Less Shop.”

SF: Our social intervention promotes community involvement. Participatory planning legitimizes the actions in the territory and creates spaces for discussion, dialogue, exchange and dissemination. This constitutes the foundation of coexistence, solidarity, and stronger deterrence of violent behavior.

We institutionally intervene under a concept of integration that involves, among other things, knowledge of the territory, a close relationship with the community, the responsible management of money, and careful planning and management of the transfer of functions, when handed over to the entities responsible for their continuation.

Figure V.2.5. Residents walk past street vendors on a narrow, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood street as the Metrocable passes overhead.

MM: Some have referred to this strategy as “urban acupuncture” [a concept related to Jane Jacobs’ strategic use of public projects as “chess pieces”]. I think you have said so as well, isn’t that right? How do you define this term?

SF: Undoubtedly the urban acupuncture strategy was implemented in our case. Our physical interventions had to reach the areas that were most vulnerable, the spaces that were associated with violence or that were fear-producing, but we could not stop there. We had a goal of moving from fear to hope, and the instrument was social planning. Perhaps it’s an evolution of urban acupuncture, because it allows the integration of all development tools in complete balance between the physical, social, and institutional.

Figure V.2.6 The view from Medellín’s new Metrocable as it approaches a new library, the Biblioteca España, in the neighborhood of Santo Domingo. Photo: Savio Albeiror, Wikimedia Commons.

SF: For us each project implementation was done by type and sector. The Santo Domingo neighborhood has a new library and park located there [see photo above], and in the adjacent neighborhood, Granizal, is a sports pitch, and those facilities triggered the development of each sector. In that way, we achieved a social transfer between the communities in those neighborhoods that had previously been isolated within their borders and suffered as a result. So as a fundamental part of the transformation, we thereby restored a sense of shared citizenship to people.

Figure V.2.7. The Metro light rail line now connects to formerly isolated, low-income parts of the city.

MM: How is this a different approach from the “Bilbao effect” — the creation of a building by an architect of international fame as a “silver bullet” — for example, to attract wealthy tourists?

SF: I really did not intend to generate a tourism effect, not immediately. Our proposition was “the most beautiful to the most humble” and we called on the Colombian architecture community to create urban references as the highest expression of the redefinition of the spaces and public buildings in poor neighborhoods. Over time, we wanted to restore confidence in the territories and their institutions, creating a community maturation process, with emphasis on education and culture. This would allow us all to host our own neighbors, and so understand ourselves as part of a larger society. That is to say, we began to organize our affairs, unraveling ourselves of the social debt that we had with these communities, so as to be also hosts to the national and the international communities.

Figure V.2.8. In addition to the Metrocable and light rail line, bus, bike, walking, motorbike and car are viable transportation choices in Medellín’s well-connected transportation system. The city also offers a bike-sharing system, being used here by the bicyclist at center left.

MM: I know that you put a great emphasis on resident participation and transparent processes. Why do you think this is important?

SF: The management of social policies should be grounded in reality and should take into account variations in different social conditions, matched to the plans and programs as developed. For this reason, the participation of the people plays a very important role, in forming organizational spaces, social relations and institutional linkages. We need a set of targeted actions to promote development opportunities, build skills, and add synergies. This public participation facilitates the regulation of political, social and economic patterns, and the needed relationships between public policy actors.

Figure V.2.9. A biker rides along a new walking and biking path built into the hillside, which has allowed new stores and seating areas to spring up.

SF: It is up to different sectors to recognize the existence of other actors, i.e. the public sector should provide security, social cohesion and governance, and promote decentralization through the transfer of responsibilities. The exercise of responsibility between state and society is a way of honoring the public.

In simpler words, one can say that when the community is involved — when the community is taken into account from the beginning in all urban transformation processes — the highest social impact is achieved. When the projects are completed, they will not be seen as simple infrastructure. The people are going to feel themselves a part of those projects, and that’s why they will always care.

Figure V.2.10. New stairs and landscaped public spaces in the Comuna 13 neighborhood provide safe and attractive connections to the rest of the city.