David Baker Architects

JULY 2014

The Medellin Model


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Amit (in gray) with a multi-national tour group on an outing in Medellín. The conference drew more than 22,000 participants.

 

DBA Senior Associate Amit C. Price Patel participated in the World Urban Forum in Medellin, Colombia. Here, he reports back on the city's bold and inspiring urban innovations.

 

CLICK ANY IMAGE TO VISIT THE SLIDESHOW.

Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellín, has attracted a lot of attention as an example of how rapid urban regeneration can transform the lives of those living in the poorest neighborhoods for the better. This April, I finally got the chance to see the city myself.

In stark contrast to the Bay Area, Medellin's wealthy live in highrises in the valley, while the poor live in informal settlements on steep hillsides.

I went there to attend UN-Habitat’s World Urban Forum. A friend of mine, Jason Moses, invited me to come help him get the word out about his organization, Common Thread, which connects stakeholders building in vulnerable communities with resources, tools, and networks from across the globe. The Forum discussions largely focused on providing equity in the context of mass global urbanization.

Medellín was once known as the murder capital of the world. But the election of Sergio Fajardo as mayor in 2003 marked the beginning of its turnaround. The son of an architect, Fajardo initiated a series of public development projects. A group of young architects in Colombia have built their practices by designing these.

The Sports Coliseum by Giancarlo Mazzanti + Felipe Mesa was designed and built in 18 months.

The Medellín Metro, which opened in 1995, greatly improved the public transportation system but it was mainly of value to the wealthy. Unlike in many Bay Area cities, the poor live on the hillsides, while the rich live in high-rises in the valley. Because the hillsides are steep, those living in the slums had a long, difficult walk to reach the metro.

To improve access, in 2004, Medellín’s city council launched a project to create the Metrocable, a gondola lift system that links faraway suburbs to the center of the city. A two hours trip on foot now has become a 15-minute ride. The stations along the hillsides were paired with new public amenities like a library, plazas, and parks. At the top of the hill, the line continues on to a wonderful nature preserve.

The city quickly changes to a rural/natural landscape thanks to an urban growth boundary.

Medellin Metrocable from David Baker Architects on Vimeo.

By locating Metrocable lines in these very poor neighborhoods, and adding new schools and libraries, the city has given poor people access to its economic and cultural life. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be the same energy devoted to providing new social housing. Most housing is self-built, with residents upgrading from wood and corrugated metal to brick and concrete as they get resources. The city follows the development with incremental slum upgrading for infrastructure.

Incremental self-built housing is followed by incremental infrastructure upgrades.

The crime rate since the Pablo Escobar era has dropped by 80 percent, and the economy is one of the best in South America. My only scary moment: Jason and I took a Metrocable to the top of the slums around 11at night. Unfortunately that's when the system shuts down, so we were stranded up there. We found a sketchy taxi driver who promised to take us to our hotel. Out of options, we got in, and the driver gunned it.

For the whole windy trip back to the hotel, the driver didn’t stop for one red light.  I said my prayers, hoping I wasn't going to be robbed and strangled. The driver was blasting Boy George’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?  and singing along happily. And after a while, so did we. We made it back to the city in one piece. It was a beautiful Medellin night.

Simple surfaces with many diverse uses at Botero Plaza make for great people watching.

I loved the street life in Medellin. People were out all times of day, all times of night. There are generous sidewalks and plenty of small-scale shops. The public plazas are very simple, utilitarian spaces—they don’t have a lot of lawn and greenery. They are usually paired with a music school or a science center or gymnasium and are highly versatile in their use.

Medellin Street Life from David Baker Architects on Vimeo.

San Francisco has open spaces like Justin Herman Plaza and Yerba Buena Center, but they feel quite dead a lot of the time. In the United States, we seem to like our public spaces on the green side, picturesque and with lawns, but the successful public plazas in Medellín were tougher and more flexible, a modern version of traditional European plazas.

If Embarcadero Center were a music venue or an art museum, then something as spare as Justin Herman Plaza might have been more successful. We have this wonderful waterfront in San Francisco, but not the critical mass of density, spatial definition and mix of uses for constant activity. Our staid City Hall Plaza is surrounded on four sides by wide streets, with no direct connection to the nearby institutional and civic buildings. The expanses of lawn limit the variety of performances and events. Imagine instead a space filled with cafe tables, kids playing in fountains, skaters, ping pong tables, a movie screen, exercise classes, eclectic artwork, vendors, bikes and food carts. In Medellín, public plazas have these things and are messy, shared places with many overlapping uses; this messiness is essential to a fun, life-filled city.

The elegant Parque de Los Deseos (Park of Wishes) is lined with a science center, play areas, a Metro station, and music school and supports many overlapping activities.

There is a wonderful sense of urgency in Medellín to transform the city. I think that urgency came from Fajardo’s vision, which subsequent mayors have carried out. Politicians are judged on how quickly and boldly they can deliver on public amenities and infrastructure. The power of the public realm has become part of the culture now—architecture and urban design are seen as tools to boost the economy, address social problems, and make a better city. We could use some of that sense of urgency in San Francisco.

Amit C. Price Patel, AIA, LEED AP

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Deeply committed to high-quality design for affordable housing, Amit C. Price Patel is particularly interested in creating spaces that support human connection. A Senior Associate of David Baker Architects, Amit leads design teams for multifamily housing and urban design projects and represents the firm as a design resource.

Amit holds Masters degrees in architecture and urban planning from the University of California at Berkeley. From 2011 to 2012, Amit was president of the national Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), and since 2012 he has been vice president.

You can contact Amit at amitpricepatel@dbarchitect.com.

In stark contrast to the Bay Area, Medellin's wealthy live in highrises in the valley, while the poor live in informal settlements on steep hillsides.

The city quickly changes to a rural/natural landscape thanks to an urban growth boundary.

The Sports Coliseum by Giancarlo Mazzanti + Felipe Mesa was designed and built in 18 months.

Incremental self-built housing is followed by incremental infrastructure upgrades.

Simple surfaces with many diverse uses at Botero Plaza make for great people watching.

The elegant Parque de Los Deseos (Park of Wishes) is lined with a science center, play areas, a Metro station, and music school and supports many overlapping activities.

Amit (in gray) with a multi-national tour group on an outing in Medellín. The conference drew more than 22,000 participants.

Amit C. Price Patel, AIA, LEED AP