Monday, April 7, 2014

Medellin: City Accessible

This week the World Urban Forum is taking place in Medellin, Colombia.  The theme is "Urban Equity in Development -Cities for Life", an appropriate topic for Colombia's second largest city, which in past years has seen an incredible transformation from one of the most dangerous places in the world to the most innovative city in the world in 2013.  One undergraduate planning student here at Cornell has written about her experiences growing up there here.

I traveled to Medellin last week in hopes of getting a feel for the city leading up to the conference, and mostly to experience this place that I've heard so many people rave about.  The first thing that people inevitably mention is the Medellin metro--started in 1995, this raised network now has 5 lines that include several overhead gondola/cable car routes.  These lines reach all quarters of the city and are integrated with Medellin's BRT system to provide excellent access for all inhabitants.  I was also struck by the readily available footpaths, bike paths, and raised pedestrian bridges that make it pretty easy to walk just about everywhere.
The metro mid-afternoon
A key piece of the city's accessibility is the placement of new libraries in some of the poorest neighborhoods. These public spaces are open and available to all, though rather than focusing on books, most of the space is used for free internet and computer access and community development programs.  Many of them are also architectural wonders, which provides an additional stimulus for getting many different types of city inhabitants (and tourists!) to visit them.

A Bus Rapid Transit dedicated lane 
Biblioteca de Espanya Image from Archdaily:

Public Library in downtown Medellin.  These libraries focus on computer access and programs rather than books.
Another notable aspect of the city is the apparent focus on providing housing in some of the most impoverished areas.  All over the city I saw new high rises going up--not luxury condos, but rather plain high-unit structures built to maximize occupancy for all.

A state PR campaign about providing housing for Colombians
Standard housing

Bike lanes near the university
New housing development linked with a greenbelt and bike path
I also observed an abundance of parks and small outdoor exercise areas, as well as plenty of encouragement in advertisements and city information promoting healthy lifestyles and encouraging people to get outside.

A small corner playground/exercise park

An outdoor gym--late at night was the only time people weren't using it!

The metro cable line heading up to the Biblioteca de Espanya

Overall, Medellin is a fascinating and vibrant city.  Many people seem to still associate Colombia with drug violence--this is misguided and no longer accurate.  For any planners interested in innovative transit, access provision, or housing issues, this is the place to visit.  And it's only two flights from NYC on Jet Blue...
Life in the square