Recap: Strengthening Democracy

Colombia’s ‘second city’, Medellín: What lessons for South Africa?

As part of CDE’s interest in casting South Africa’s socio-economic challenges in an international context, we have been showcasing speakers and their experiences when they visit our shores. (See Mexico’s Market Reforms and Challenges and Raising South Africa’s Speed Limit)

In March 2015 we invited Jorge Perez from Colombia to tell us and an invited audience about the turnaround of Medellín. For information on some of the research and ideas CDE has had about cities as engines for growth and job creation (see Cities of Hope ).

Colombia’s ‘second city’, Medellín: What lessons for South Africa?

– Marius Roodt and Jennifer Cohen

Medellin has been described as one of the most innovative cities in the world.  According to its promoters, the city has, in the past two decades, reversed its statistics of poverty, murder, access to infrastructure and services. By envisioning a collective, shared project, its leaders have overseen a complex metamorphosis.

“Cities don’t always recognise crises,” says Jorge Perez, Director of the Planning Department, City of Medellín. Armed with a formula of planning for urbanisation using a combination of infrastructure, respect for poor communities and by enlisting the commitment of academics, politicians, businesses and NGOs, Medellín converted a city under siege by narco-terrorists and corruption into what has been called a model metropolis.


Perez’s presentation from the discussion.


Speaking to an audience at the Centre for Development and Enterprise of city planners, local and provincial politicians, public servants and private sector representatives, Perez explained how, from its crisis, the city of Medellín created an inclusive, democratic, accountable society. “We moved through fear to hope to a ‘city for life’.”

The CDE has been looking at what developing democracies of the world can learn from each other, especially in the areas of economic reform and inclusive growth. India, Brazil, and South Africa have absorbed the majority of its focus, however Turkey, Kenya, Mexico and now Colombia all have lessons for consideration by South Africans.

South Africa and Colombia share many similarities including high levels of poverty and inequality and high levels of crime and violence. Colombia is now, by all accounts, one of Latin America’s rising stars. It is today largely peaceful, and its national economy has been growing at above the global average for some time.

Medellín, the second largest city in Colombia, is a microcosm of what has happened in Colombia, turning itself around to the point that it was recently chosen as the most innovative city in the world by the Urban Land Institute. The Economist reports that “mayors from all over the world are trekking to a city that has become a model of urban development”.

“It was not a miracle and we had no messiah; we concentrated on good process,” Perez said, adding that the secret to the city’s turnaround was a combination of its short and long-term vision.

Medellín had long been Colombia’s primary industrial city but as Colombia’s railway system collapsed, coupled with rapid urbanisation, the city soon lost its competitive edge. As the city’s manufacturing and other sectors buckled, the trafficking of narcotics became the only option for many residents of the city. Pablo Escobar and his drug gangs also served to turn Medellin into what Perez called a ‘warzone’ during the 1980s.

“It was vital that we had a strong, inclusive democracy,” he said. Fixing the city was not simply the responsibility of municipal government, but fell on everyone living there to ensure the turnaround was a shared project. Perez explained that while “cities are full of people, they are not always citizens; you have to create a society.”

Democratic involvement continues, he explained: “Local development plans are still formulated inside the barrios, or neighbourhoods. Each political candidate presents his plans and is held accountable to citizens’ organisations for both delivery and budget for that area.”

Another important initiative was to build leadership in the city’s barrios. Perez said that leaders who were 16 years old when the infrastructure and other projects began are now emerging within their communities, a further boost to inclusivity.

Ensuring city expenditures are transparent and open (anyone asking for information must receive it within 48 hours) encourages residents to pay their taxes. Residents understand that a well-functioning and well-run city costs money. Perez argues that “ in return for their high payment compliance, they receive the benefits of a respectful, architecturally distinctive building boom – from public libraries and concert halls (some replacing informal settlements) to public parks and museums.”

And a creative use of cable cars, electric stairs, and an underground network of roads to transport the city’s population – which grew eight-fold during the transformative years – is how he characterised the innovative nature of Medellín. “Transport is the key to accessibility and integration.

“Public spaces and architecture can transform a city for life,” said Perez, repeating the phrase he said describes the objective for Medellín’s city planners. “And we destroyed the walls, creating accessibility for everyone.” Security, he said, is not based on walls, but confidence.

The city still faces a number of challenges, especially with regard to housing, which is sprawling away from where the infrastructure and services are and into the borders of nature reserves.

He described Medellín as a Metropolitan region rather than a municipality. “It is a multi-city system of ten municipalities (an invention of the 19th century) that share problems and solutions.”

Perez argues that social investment and social transformation are key to inclusive economic growth. Furthermore, all those with a stake in the city must work together. “If you want to secure your own future you have to secure your collective future,” he said.