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Residents of the La Independencia neighborhood in Medellin, Colombia walk up and down more than 10 flights of stairs every day. Many habitants of the community Comuna 13 are elderly people or mothers with children. However, La Independencia is by no means one of the only neighborhoods in Medellin with problems of urban mobility and a lack of pedestrian infrastructure. In the last 30 years, hundreds of thousands of residents have built their houses along the steep hillsides of Medellin fleeing the violent conflict of the countryside or searching for improved economic opportunities that the city has to offer. As a result of this haphazard and rapid population and housing growth, many communities have been left with pedestrian infrastructure that is unsafe, unpleasant, and a grueling experience for users.
After analyzing the current conditions, Medellin’s Empresa de Desarollo Urbano (EDU), or Urban Development Corporation, devised a plan to install an outdoor network of urban neighborhood escalators, the first of its kind in the world. EDU is experimenting with the escalator system in one neighborhood, and if it is a success, the system will be implemented across the city. The organization is a decade-old outfit with jurisdiction to design, plan and put into action projects across Medellin’s neighborhoods with lower rates of investment. Currently there are more than 40 approved projects across the city ranging from public parks, libraries, elementary schools, housing and pedestrian infrastructure.
EDU boasts an in-house architecture studio providing the most disadvantaged communities with the youngest and brightest Colombia-educated architects. This is an inspiring partnership that promotes collaboration and understanding between the disparate economic classes of Colombia, a country notorious for having one of the world’s worst wealth gaps. Projects in the community are highly dependent on community input, which provides an opportunity for both sides of the table to learn about areas of the city previously separated by invisible lines, achieving through participation what government platitudes of “Colombia is Passion” and “The New Colombia” could only hope to accomplish. Each project has a multidisciplinary team of engineers, architects and community social workers linking educated professionals with undereducated communities whose college graduation rate lingers around 3.8 percent, according to a census performed by EDU.
An important distinction about EDU is that, while it was initiated by former mayor Sergio Fajardo’s administration, it is a separate entity from city hall. Citizens of Colombia are used to politicians campaigning on shiny new public works projects during election season only to see these promises broken time and time again after the candidate is elected to office. Furthermore, when one administration’s project is seen as a success, it is all too easy for a previous mayor to run it into the ground for strategic political purposes, should the prior politician choose to run again. To eliminate this conflict of interest, the EDU operates with city hall funding but without city hall influence. Officials from EDU Medellin stress their fiscal transparency in the midst of a corruption scandal in Bogota that likely will send the suspended mayor Moreno to jail.
EDU currently focuses in three strategic areas of the city called Proyectos Urbano Integrales (PUIs), or Integrated Urban Projects. Two of these PUI projects are centered around metrocable transportation systems. The metrocable is a high-capacity ski lift-like system that provides residents of the Santo Domingo and Comuna 13 neighborhoods fast access up the steep hillsides. Metrocable cars can accommodate approximately 3,000 passengers per hour, and during rush hour, metro train passengers bolt out the doors to connect to the integrated cable car platform to avoid waiting in long snaking lines reminiscent of Disneyland rides.
The metrocable is seen as a success for creating economic opportunities and improved mobility for Medellin’s isolated and disadvantaged populations. EDU urban designers ingeniously found a way to kill two birds with one stone by simultaneously recovering public space around metrocable poles by designing esthetically pleasing linear parks, playgrounds and walkways in areas that were formerly unorganized, violent and economically depressed.
Carlos Escobar, an architect from the Comuna 13 PUI, beamed as proudly as a parent showing off his child’s straight-A report card while talking about the successes of the neighborhood he has helped to recover. “Come here any afternoon and this plaza is full of people, children, adults, everybody.” Escobar and his team designed the Parque 20 de Julio, or July 20th Park, a public plaza that previously was a chaotic road that climbed up into the more isolated and dangerous parts of the neighborhood. Walking around the neighborhood of 20 de Julio, one is inspired by the ambitious urban design projects, public spaces and investments that have begun to revive this once-thought hopeless neighborhood.