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The rest of the world could learn a thing or two from the uplifting story unfolding in Colombia’s second city, Medellin.
This mountain metropolis of 2.6m people perched at an altitude of 1,500 m has slowly buried a traumatic past by building a more optimistic vision of the future shaped from intelligent and socially enlightened architecture paid for by renewable energy.
A new generation of supremely talented architects who saw their formative years in the late 1980s and much of the 1990s obliterated by the frenzied violence that arrived with the cocaine trade have quietly transformed the city from the Murder Capital of the world to a burgeoining tourist destination.
At the heart of the metamorphosis is a simple political philosophy that puts the prevarication and indulgent follies of other Latin American politicians to shame.
“We came like a hurricane,” Sergio Fajardo told Offical Blogger on a recent trip to the city. Fajardo ushered in the wind of change as the city’s mayor between 2004 and 2008 hitting back at the plague of motorbike assassins that had tormented the city with his own army of pencil-packing sociologists, artists, engineers and architects.
“We said we are going to build the most beautiful buildings in the humblest places and the poorest people in Medellín are going to have the very best from the public sector. This creates hope. Hope begins with dignity,” says Fajardo.
Son of Raul Fajardo, the architect of Medellin’s most iconic buildings from the 1960s, the inspirational mayor was from an early age aware of the power of bricks and mortar to change people’s perceptions.
“When the most beautiful building of this city is in the poorest barrio we are sending a very profound political message,” says the former maths professor that placed education at the centre of his formula for change.
Integrated plans were drawn up for the most marginalised parts of the city in a frantic dash to eradicate the colossal social debt built up over half a century.
Godforsaken districts or ‘comunas’, as the locals call them, like Santo Domingo Savio, San Javier and Belen, that have born the brunt of the violence that has plagued Medellin since Pablo Escobar declared war on the Colombian government in the early 1980s, watched almost incredulously as their surroundings were overhauled completely.
Cable cars designed for snowboarders in the French Alps were connected to Colombia’s only metro system giving the city’s poorest citizens welcome respite from their vertiginous streets and offering a refreshing new perspective on their besieged city.
Expansive library complexes filled not only with books and computers but also with micro-credit centres, childcare facilities and art galleries were erected and later joined by spectacular public schools that transformed the landscape and the daily existence for the city’s most neglected communities. These cultural centres have become the first-stop for most tourists visting the city to see how it has changed.
Mauricio Valencia, the city’s former planning director says the transformation can be seen in a new more optimistic outlook now found in Medellin's youth.
“These places ten or fifteen years ago were the most conflicted parts of the city where a child saw someone on a motorbike with a gun and a girl sat behind him and they admired that person, they grew up saying, ‘I want to be like him’. Today those children are writing about the library and the architect,” he says.
The city’s marvellous mutation is all the more remarkable as it is being funded by the profits produced by the renewable energy portfolio of Empresas Publicas de Medellin, a peculiar entity that combines public sector ownership with private sector efficiency.
Powered by fast-falling water, turbines buried into the mountains that surround the city spin at eight revolutions a second generating 22% of Colombia’s electricity, profits of $1.6bn a year and as much as a third of the mayor’s annual budget.
In this impressive alchemist trick, turning water into clean energy, energy into education, education into dignity and dignity into hope there is a lesson to be learned the world over.
2 - Centro Cultural de Moravia
The last Rogelio Salmona building completed during his lifetime finally gave the marginalised inhabitants of a former dump in the heart of the city something to be proud of