Urban Rebirth

How the crumbling city of Medellín came to thrive, and what leaders in crisis can learn from it

Colombia’s beautiful Medellín is one of these cities, going from murder capital of the world – with a murder rate of 380 per 100,000 in 1991 – to winning the Wall Street Journal’s prestigious title of “Innovative City of the Year” in 2012 – and a murder rate of only 26.8 in 2013. This impressive two-decade turnaround sheds light on some important lessons that leaders facing seemingly daunting challenges can learn from.

Cities around the world and throughout history have always had to face complex and often unpredictable challenges. Economic crisis, natural disaster, political turmoil, geographic vulnerabilities, embargoes – the list goes on – can generate true and sometimes unrecoverable pandemonium. If those living in cities in their golden ages feel that prosperity is impermeable and eternal, those living in intense crisis see the problems as permanent and hopeless. Nonetheless, despite how insurmountable the problems may seem, some cities still find ways rise above and build for better days ahead.

A Grim Landscape

Like most complex problems faced by cities and organizations, many factors contributed to Medellín’s critical condition in the 1990s. The city had doubled in size between 1970 and 1990 with no sound policy for housing. A lack of decentralization in all areas including health, education, and police force made for an extremely weakened local government as the city went through 49 president-appointed mayors between 1948 and 1988. Further, the city sits in a valley atop of the Andes, the world’s only region suitable for growing coca and close to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, making it ideal for several types of illegal contraband.

With a rise in demand for cocaine in the 1970s and a dwindling textile production as a result of Asia’s increase in productivity, politicians, and businesses alike benefited from this highly profitable industry, blurring the lines between legal and illegal. However, the sheer amount of illegal money coming in led to the consolidation of drug cartels, which began to monopolize territories and transform poverty-ridden communities into ganglands. Left-wing guerrillas and the unforgiving para-military anti-guerrilla movements added a layer of political turmoil and violence to the city in crisis. The unfortunate result of this deadly concoction of factors was a total of 6,349 killings in 1991 and a lawless city where any attempt of resistance was met with ruthless violence. Such a multi-faceted and chaotic context begs the question if recovery is even possible. Fortunately, Medellín’s story evolution provides insight on resilience, engagement, and action for going through tough times.

Engaging the right multidisciplinary team prior to defining a strategy

At a time when the country faced utter chaos, instead of defining a grand vision for moving forward and then attempting to enlist the right stakeholders, Colombian leaders built a team from different sectors first to draft a new constitution in 1991. This kept the process balanced, ensuring that all voices were heard and that the new guiding principles that would move the country forward were citizen-oriented, fostered decentralization, and prioritized accountability. Further, this diverse team provided depth to their perspective on issues and allowed the constitution to holistically reflect the context and complexities of those who lived and breathed them.

Enlisting bold leaders with a long-term vision

A newly decentralized constitution gave mayors actual power over health, education, and safety: factors they previously had to rely on the national government for. Finding truly empowering capable leaders who are close to the realities they need to solve, though easier said than done, usually pays off by bringing more ownership and accountability. Furthermore, it allows for solutions that are in touch with local communities. Medellín saw competent mayors who defended solutions that were unpopular in the short-term – such as the cable cars that gave access to the city’s most destitute slums – but that aligned with an inclusive long-term vision for the city.

Designing solutions with the end-user in mind

Many leaders, in cities and organizations alike, can overlook the benefits of being close to the people whose problems they are solving, leading to solutions that are often incongruent with the necessities of those they are designed for. Part of Medellín’s turnaround in recent decades can be attributed to its increasingly citizen-centric method, whereby civic leaders and citizens are engaged in open conversations to understand their needs, which are then addressed in the design process. This legacy of citizen participation as a tool for reducing inequality and violence has prevailed with Medellín’s current Mayor, Aníbal Gaviria Correa. Through a practice he calls pedagogical urbanism, Correa works to build citizenship by reclaiming public spaces that foster equality and engaging citizens through education and training.

Acting on pain points with a flexible mindset

A serious crisis often presents many different challenges for leaders to address. Clearly defining the most critical points to act upon can make a daunting crisis more manageable and allows for scarce resources to be invested where they will have the most impact. Sergio Fajardo, Medellín’s first government official to have control of local education, spearheaded the city’s first few “integrated urban projects,” which were tested in two of the city’s most destitute slums according to socioeconomic data. Aside from starting by targeting a small region, Fajardo also focused on education as a priority and addressed this complex issue holistically by not only building schools and libraries, but also training teachers, structuring university liaisons, and incorporating elements that foster citizenship into the curriculum. ////

Marina Andreazi is a psychologist and the director of Idea Couture Brazil. She is based in São Paulo, Brazil.

the author

Marina Andreazi

Marina Andreazi is the director of Idea Couture – Brazil. See her full bio here.