Medellin, Colombia: A City Transformed?

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This is the first post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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In just a few days I will be in Medellin, Colombia, for World Urban Forum 7 (WUF7) which is hosted by the City of Medellin, the government of Colombia and the United Nations.

“Why Medellin?” is a question I have heard repeatedly. “After all, isn’t Medellin the home of Pablo Escobar and his Medellin Cartel?”

Since Escobar’s death 20 years ago, the City of Medellin has transformed from the world’s narcoterror capital, into one of the most innovative and equity-oriented cities in the world.

The city has built a transit system that was awarded the “2012 top transit system in the world award” by the InstituteMetroCable for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), a global consortium of organizations founded in 1985 to promote sustainable transportation worldwide. In 2013 the City of Medellin was called the most innovative city in the world by the Urban Land Institute, the Wall Street Journal Magazine and CitiBank.

Medellin Metro carries more than 650,000 people each day. It’s Metrocable system connects some of the city’s poorest and most remote communities to jobs, health care, education and other necessities. A network of buses feeds into the metro system, and a network of escalators makes it possible for people living in some of the more hilly portions of the city to access the city below.

And while the city is far from perfect — the Washington Post reports that crime still plagues certain parts of Medellin — the city as a whole has been transformed. The homicide rate has dropped by 80 percent since its high in 1990, and it now ranks as the 30th most dangerous city in the world rather than the first.

Medellin has five of the top 30 hospitals in Latin America. Colombia’s health care system ranks 22nd in the world, just behind most of Europe and well ahead of either Canada (which ranks 30th) or the United States (which ranks 37th), according to the World Health Organization. Its system of mandatory health care may be purchased either from the government or through private health insurers. As a result, every Colombian has health care coverage and can access adequate health care regardless of income.

And Medellin’s education system has also been transformed over the past decade. Not only has the city made significant investments in instruction, but it has constructed architecturally important buildings that serve as its schools and libraries, and this new construction has taken place in some of the poorest neighborhoods of the city to ensure that residents of those neighborhoods have access to the education and resources they need to overcome poverty.

There is still much for Medellin and Colombia to overcome. No doubt poverty, and crime, remain obstacles to growth. But if the past 20 years are a marker, Colombia and Medellin have made tremendous strides.

Much more will be learned on my visit there, but all indications are that the Medellin of today is not the Medellin we all thought we know; rather it is a city where the word “transformed” seems to apply.

Stay tuned to this blog for updates and insights from my visit to Medellin and World Urban Forum 7.

Neil Bomberg

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.