Medellín’s New Cable Cars Unify a Fractured City
Medellín is nestled in a valley high in the Andes, and many of the city’s poorest residents live in comunas they built on the steep slopes. During the ’90s, drug gangs and guerrilla fighters controlled the narrow streets. As the violence waned and people started venturing out, they came up against another challenge: It was really hard to get anywhere.
To knit together the fractured city, then-mayor Luis Pérez proposed a novel solution: cable cars. Rather than having to pick their way down perilous hillsides, people could hop in a gondola and soar to a metro station. The first Metrocable line opened in 2004 and was quickly followed by others.
“The genius of the Metrocable is that it actually serves the poor and integrates them into the city, gives them access to jobs and other opportunities,” says Julio Dávila, a Colombian urban planner at University College London. “Nobody had ever done that before.” As people of all classes started using the cars to visit “bad” neighborhoods, they became invested in their city’s fate, heralding a decade of some of the world’s most innovative urban planning. —Lizzie Wade
Combining Libraries and Parks into Safe Spaces for All
The Metrocable succeeded in connecting Medellín’s poorest neighborhoods to the rest of the city, but that wasn’t enough for Alejandro Echeverri. As the city’s director of urban projects from 2004 to 2008, the architect threw himself into tackling some of Medellín’s most challenging urban problems. His secret weapon? Beautiful design. But his efforts weren’t aimed at the rich—Echeverri insisted on working in the same low-income areas the cable cars had opened up. “A good building, a well-designed space, a dignified public transit system, a quality cultural event—these all work on a psychological level to generate a feeling that you are included in the city,” he says. That philosophy guided the design of five libraries sprinkled throughout Medellín, all surrounded by beautiful greenery. These “library-parks” were among the first safe public spaces many neighborhoods had ever seen. (After Echeverri’s tenure as director ended, the city built five more.)
But Echeverri knew he couldn’t just throw up nice buildings and expect life to improve. His department went street by street, planting trees and replacing crumbling schools. “One of the keys to Medellín’s success is that these aren’t isolated projects,” Echeverri says. They’re all woven together—cocreations, as he calls them—with the communities that use them every day. —Lizzie Wade
Community Activists Fight Back With Graffiti
Spray paint in hand, Daniel Felipe Quiceno, aka Perrograff, aims at the wall. “The lines of your signature need to be well defined,” he tells the group gathered around him for a lesson in graffiti. With a practiced flourish, he creates a sharp swoop of blue. Then he hands out aerosol cans so his students can try making their own mark on Medellín.
Since Perrograff started the Graffitour three years ago, it has brought hundreds of visitors to the once-neglected streets of Comuna 13. That’s where he grew up, amid terrible violence. To fight back, his cohort began transforming run-down corners of their town by covering them in murals that illustrate Comuna 13’s history and that memorialize murdered friends; they also started planting community gardens.
Grassroots efforts like the Graffitour have been a vital part of Medellín’s transformation, says Jota Samper, an urban planner who grew up there and now teaches at MIT. The Metrocable and library-parks are great, but “what makes these projects amazing are the neighborhoods where they are located,” he says. For his part, Perrograff hopes his community work will soon go beyond two dimensions. After years of painting flat surfaces, he’s studying to be an architect. —Lizzie Wade