Infrastructural projects in Medellin’s informal settlements, Colombia

Medellín Model: Infrastructural projects in informal settlements

By León Staines Díaz


Biblioteca Parque España in the Comuna 13 in Medellín, Colombia. Source: author.

Traditional planning in the Global South has typically drawn its inspiration from the North, but that changed with the emergence of the ‘Medellín Model’ of social urbanism. After years of the crisis caused by narco-trafficking, increasing urban violence, and deindustrialization, Medellín, Colombia, has emerged as a “global model of urban renaissance” (Rokem & Boano, 2017). The novel strategies developed in Medellín include public buildings designed by the best Colombian architects in the poorest neighborhoods or comunas, and innovative transportation projects that connect these once marginalized and dangerous informal settlements with the rest of the city (Todtz, 2018).

The Medellín Model of social urbanism has become, in the last 15 years, in inspiration for other cities in Latin America that face high levels of violence and informality, embraced both by liberal and conservative governments across the region. A media campaign developed by UN-Habitat in collaboration with the Interamerican Development Bank (Brodzinsky, 2014) is helping position this model at the center of the development agenda of many countries in Latin America.


Terrace full of tourists in Comuna 13, Medellin. Source: Author.

Due to a history of state neglect, the Medellín comunas had long been controlled by armed non-state actors that had taken over core functions of the city (Büscher, 2012). Quinchía (2013: 126) argues that the Medellín Model reproduces a discourse of control to support state power domination in informal areas, exemplified by the ways in which the built environment is reorganized to facilitate police surveillance. As Rankin (2009) argues, planning practice is the vehicle by which the logic of capitalist accumulation travels into the “non-capitalist periphery”. The Medellín Model reproduces not only the aesthetics of formality but also the ways in which residents relate to visitors, what stores and libraries to frequent, and which viewpoints (miradors) to visit to admire the landscape. In the same vein, Watson (2009) sees a ‘conflict of rationalities’ where informality constitutes zones of resistance where the poor exercise power. The Medellín Model, however, in fact, serves to dilute such informal spaces of their power.

Although these projects have unquestionably improved the physical conditions of the comunas, who will benefit from these interventions in the long term? Koch (2015) explores the blurring of the border between the ‘formal’ and the ‘informal,’ arguing that private sector actors pursue their “massive interests” by controlling planning processes. The private sector is an influential actor in Medellín Model interventions, evident in the development of new spaces of consumption designed for visitors and tourists. Moreover, Perry (2004) argues that “discourses and practices of urban renewal are prime examples of anti-black racism” (Perry, 2004: 813), I would add that these practices are not only anti-black but also anti-poor, as they have as a possible outcome the expulsion of local practices, livelihoods, and social relationships.

The participatory process that accompanied the development of social urbanism in Medellín constituted what (Miraftab, 2009) defines as ‘invited’ spaces of participation, as opposed to ‘invented’ spaces of insurgent planning. Because of the limits on community participation and the rationalities of the western design model, the Medellín Model ultimately seeks to make the comunas look more like the formal city. Local groups are resisting these projects by arguing that large segments of the population have not been included in the design and planning process to express their opinion and that the vernacular character of poor neighborhoods is being rapidly and radically transformed, leading to rising costs of living and displacement of the original residents (Zapata, 2014).


Metrocable in Comuna 13, Medellin. Source: author.

While it can be argued that planning is necessary to achieve social justice for residents in informal settlements, planners in the Global South often rely on guidance and inspiration from the North. Even though the Medellín Model originated in Colombia, it is still suffused by Northern values of social order, control, and capitalist accumulation, and its primary objective is to integrate residents into the dynamic of the formal city. Kamete (2013) would say this drive to eradicate the informal stems from the obsession that planners and other authorities in the Global South have with urban modernity. Instead of facilitating ‘invented’ spaces of citizenship where marginalized residents can pursue collective action to confront the status quo (Miraftab, 2009), governments focus on presenting a “globalized” image to the world that is not representative of the local reality. Often this is done with the support of the middle and higher classes who are more attuned to international narratives of order and esthetics (Oguyankin, 2019). This is consistent with Mehta’s research in Ahmedabad (2016: 192), where she found that the middle class shapes cities through their participation in representational strategies that reflect global city values. Ong (2011:18) expands on this by arguing that cities, in their attempt to foster a new middle class, emulate living and working conditions developed in the global North.

Planners from the global South in the XXI century should develop the capacity to plan on a much smaller scale while understanding the influence of global economies and rationalities. Future research should seek alternatives to development, as suggested by Gudynas (2011). Planners should pursue co-production of knowledge within the local context (Escobar, 1996), and they should embrace a decolonial practice that places groups that are typically excluded in the center of the discussion. Cities can perhaps be described as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but a city should never be constructed as an ‘ideal’ or a ‘model’ to be exported or emulated. Every city is shaped by specific conditions, context, resources, and differences, which calls for a hermeneutical approach that requires planners to embrace the uniqueness of places.