Course:GEOG352/2019/Mobility and Public Space in Medellin
|• Population: 2,529,403 (2018 estimate)
• Area: 382 km²
• Official Languages: Spanish
• Currency: Colombian Peso (COP)
• Founded: March 3, 1616
|• Country: Colombia
• Department: Antioquia
• Region: Andean Region
• Current Mayor: Frederico Gutiérez, 2016-2019
|• Owner: Department of Antioquia, Medellín City
• Metro Lines:
• A (Niquía- La Estrella)
• B (San Antonio- San Javier)
• MetroCable Lines:
• J line (San Javier- La Aurora)
• K Line (Acevedo-Santo Domingo)
• L Line (Santo Domingo -Arví)
|Medellín Official Website
Metro de Medellín Website
The ability to move through and across urban space is a critical component of life in cities around the world. For a long time, mobility and transport were overlooked aspects in geography but now are recognized as important components of studying urban environments. This aspect of ‘urban mobility’ implies access to relative space and the ability to move across physical urban space. Physical mobility is deeply intertwined to other aspects of citizen life, which cause different lived experiences and perceptions of the city. People’s ability to move through public space often represents the social reality of groups as either integrated into or separated from certain benefits of urban life. The issue of access to public space is thus evidenced through mobility. Mobility in global south cities can be hindered by physical and social conditions, such as aging infrastructure and the perceptions of unsafe conditions in a local context. Moreover, the legacies of colonialism lead to developed public spaces being focused around areas of extraction, and neglected local facets of life.
The solutions to service gaps in transport networks in global southern contexts are often informal, with private buses and other resources providing service to underserved communities. Some of these informal mobility solutions further exacerbate the issue of unsafe conditions for both the aging infrastructure and the users of transport. In Latin America, over 80% of people live in urban areas, yet the conditions of the cities have not reflected ways to accommodate its residents. This is especially pronounced in comunas and favelas, located far from city centres and typically entail navigating under unsafe conditions to get to other neighbourhoods. By examining Medellín, Colombia's second largest city, the relationship between urban development of infrastructure and public space can be studied to gain insight on citizens’ physical and social mobility.
Cities all over the world face issues over urban mobility due to inadequate public transit and roadway congestion resulting from a global rise in population. This phenomena happens largely in areas of the global south, and with compounding factors such as rural-urban migration has led to rapid urbanization, creating massive complex urban environments often defined by large informal settlements in the urban periphery. Most of the dominant city planning theories and techniques that are employed to facilitate urban mobility are biased to the situations of cities in the western ‘developed’ world, but increasing mobility and access to public space in the global south face a number of unique challenges that often go beyond such the scope of these strategies.
Mobility in cities of the global south can be hindered by physical and social conditions. For example, focusing specifically on the urban periphery of southern cities, we see that people living in informal areas are more likely to be poor, marginalized and surrounded by aging infrastructure, in addition to living outside of the reach of public transportation and services. Because many of the employment opportunities for these people are in the urban core, they face compounding barriers to urban mobility; while they have a more pressing need to be able to move around the city freely, they in fact must spend more time, energy, and household budget to move around the city than those in wealthier and more connected areas. Public spaces in urban peripheries are also often insecure due to lack of access to public services, green spaces, increased pollution and lack of state presence, which makes them more prone to violence than urban core areas. These barriers are even higher for more vulnerable groups, like women, who face other intersectional barriers to move throughout public space and access services and employment.
Various informal solutions have sprung up in cities in the global south to address the service gaps in transport networks. Some of these further exacerbate the issue of unsafe conditions due to aging facilities and lack of standardization and regulation. It has been shown that inadequate transportation infrastructure negatively impacts mobility, resulting in social exclusion, insecurity and economic disadvantage for large numbers of people. Improving access to transportation is a major strategy to improve citizen mobility, specifically through public transit, as the level of social and economic development of the city is linked to the quality and availability of its transportation infrastructure.
Examining how the city of Medellín has attempted to improve mobility through investments in transportation infrastructure and improvements to public spaces brings to light interesting discussions around the connections between citizens mobility and models of city ‘development’ in the global south. Previously helmed by large drug cartels and paramilitary forces in the 1980s and early 90s, communities in Medellín were divided and the urban poor had limited mobility. This led to the poor and marginalized to be both socially and physically disconnected from the city resulting in their displacement to Medellín’s valley outskirts, to what are locally called comunas, which have hilly topography, poor road connections and inadequate infrastructure.
Medellín’s comunas are located far from city centres and typically require navigating through unsafe conditions to reach other neighbourhoods. This situation leads to social seclusion and economic dispersal. Through integrated, transit oriented development strategies and social urbanism, the city was able to connect these disadvantaged comunas with more central areas of the city, integrating previously marginalized groups into the urban population, facilitating their economic participation and encouraging their political visibility through a reclaiming of public space in the previously insecure and degraded comunas.
Case Study of Mobility and Public Space in Medellín
Medellín’s mobility problems are largely a result of their historical urban development model, defined by a process of peripheralization. Urban planning has been dominated by modernization discourses and the dominance of private over public interests, which displaced the poor to the peripheral valley hills. The informal development of these comuna districts led to lack of infrastructure and services compared to city core areas. Moreover, these areas were inscribed with complex histories of violence, exclusion and criminalization due to these peripheral areas being run largely by gangs or paramilitary groups.
Thus, citizens of Medellín must move along and through formal and informal boundaries that are drawn and controlled by social processes, state policy, and in Medellín's case, some illegal gangs. There is a governmental problem in which citizens are subjects to both the state and illegal bands through means ranging from territorial limits to extortion. This situation entails a “double management of space”  and evidences spatial and social administration through governmental and para-governmental ways. In such case, people’s experience of the city must be articulated between the individual and both other forces, often limiting their access to public space and the activities that are allowed within the double framework.
Moreover, the city often falls into binaries, where there are areas of prosperity in contrast to others with deep needs. Medellín includes safe and unsafe spaces, of progress and stagnation, innovation and violence. Library parks and art museums lie in contrast to neighbourhoods like San Javier or La Sierra which lie under crime band control.
Especially since the 1990s, Medellín has invested in positive-image marketing, which refers to regional, national and international scales. This is especially important given its previously negative image as a violent city. Constructing Medellín along narratives of development, innovation, progress and resilience is fundamental to its image. The city has invested in improvements to the physical space such as infrastructure, as well as hosting international conferences, and even promoting and branding regional practices to directly associate the city with Paisa (or northwestern Colombian) culture. This strategy is also meant to attract and grow the tourism sector, which contributes to international perception of the city as safe and vibrant, pushing this image of Medellin to a global level and stimulating competition between other cities in the region.
However, investing in image construction while neglecting local problems that Medellín currently faces can be problematic. Despite the fact that Medellín now lives in a post-cartel era, negative historical legacies of violence from the 1980s and 90s remain. Lower-level drug trafficking crackdowns and prostitution are still prevalent, and there are still young men who live in conditions of poverty who fall prey to sicariato business where “a man in a motorcycle attacks and leaves." These problems, while not at the city’s forefront, deeply affect the more segregated areas of the Aburra Valley, especially in the disconnected comunas. While their peripherality complicates the prioritization of the state to mitigate such issues, an attempt to further connect the communities to the rest of the city can be a step for such people to interact outside the comunas and hopefully obtain a more secure and 'formalized' job in another neighbourhood.
While positive images attract tourists from around the world, Medellín runs the risk of producing a double-conception of itself, where people may instead be attracted to visit for the purpose of engaging in the above mentioned illegal activities, contributing to the perpetuation of this negative image. Addressing local problems is fundamental for the city’s overall progress. Bettering perceptions of security adds value to the local and global conception of Medellín. This is crucial for locals and comuna residents, who interact with the urban context directly. These local groups show a desire for social, physical, and economic mobility, and call for improving state-citizen trust, visibility, and participation.
Medellín has seen a recent shift towards a governance policy of social urbanism which has injected significant investments into Medellín’s poorest communities in hopes of transforming these notably violent places. The results of social urbanism come in the form of integrated investments in transportation infrastructure like cable car lines, escalators and trains, as well as public spaces such as library parks particularly in the city’s comunas. These investments reflect an attempt to facilitate social integration, mobilize labor, strengthen state-subject relations, contribute to security, provide sites for urban investment, and recognize the experiences of different subjects along intersecting social factors (eg. according to gender). A significant part of Medellín’s plan focuses on transit oriented development (TOD). This reduces congestion, supports efforts against climate change, lowers household expenditures, enhances location value and natural ecosystems quality. TOD also increases density which in-turn compliments a pedestrian oriented system increasing equity.
Previously, much of Medellín’s transportation system consisted of informal busses, foot traffic and automotive vehicles. Many of these were privately owned vehicles largely unregulated by the state, entailing high levels of informality, such as lacking standard bus stops, routes or sometimes even tariffs. The MetroCable, funded both by the municipality and the Metro de Medellín company, is an internationally recognized urban regeneration initiative designed to integrate the steep hill areas with the Metro line, a rapid transit rail system which connect to downtown Medellín. Cable car systems are relatively cheap and easy to construct and are an efficient mode of transportation. The MetroCable serves over 30,000 people daily and is made up of three lines, lines K, J and L. Each gondola can carry up to 9 people. The MetroCable was intentionally designed to demonstrate state presence and government responsibility. It is a symbolic gesture to repay all of the neglect inflicted on these poor neighbourhoods and an attempt to regain residents’ trust in the state.
Despite the fact that the Medellín's social urbanist projects have been met with broad support, critics suggest that these strategies have been built around assumptions that the poor will be uplifted and conditions will improve, while in reality various challenges still need to be faced. Remaining problems include; accommodating the large influx of commuters at peak hours formulating social policy to mitigate gang control, and addressing other problems beyond the cities image.
Medellín has seen progress on issues around mobility and public space in recent decades due to the cities strategy of social urbanism. Areas of the city that earned it the title of Colombia’s most dangerous city in the late 1990’s have seen massive improvements in security, mobility, accessibility and public services due to integrated, large scale investments in transportation and public spaces. As a result, homicide rates and emissions have been reduced, while rates of reported customer satisfaction have increased. A study done by Fernandez and Creutzig found several increases in quality-of-life variables in areas with transit oriented development interventions than those without, and an increase in women and lower income residents’ use of modes transit between the years 2009 and 2012. The character of transportation systems like the MetroCable also make people feel safer than previous transportation options.
The city’s expanded transportation network has allowed increased amenities and opportunities, as well as job accessibility for many comuna residents. While mostly men undergo an comuna-to-core commute, women, a vulnerable segment of the population, often need to move themselves with kids, bags, and groceries and their commutes have more unpredictable times and cycles. Women hence become more reliant on the accessibility of public transport, and systems like MetroCable have contributed to increased gender equality. For instance, cable car designs allow mutual behaviour supervision among passengers, lowering the probability of assault. Additionally, the continuous cable line allows a passenger to change cabin at any station without losing time in case of discomfort.
Medellín’s application of “social urbanism” has largely benefited the city. It has revamped its image as a poor, crime-ridden city and has been seen as a model of urban regeneration, putting investments in public transport at the centre of these changes. A major lesson learned about the projects Medellín undertook, is that political will is necessary for change. The use of gondola lift technology as a form of public transport has been seen as transformative, and has sparked interest of cities around Latin America and the world, but it should be cautioned that Medellín had unusual political support after the mayor convinced the departmental and the national government to help fund the MetroCable.
Another takeaway that we found are the effects of neoliberalism and its focus on maintaining a city’s image. A repeated element of this course touched on how some cities portray themselves in order to garner capital, like in Dubai or Rio. Medellín is no exception to this idea, and it is relatively clear that the MetroCable and other elements of urban regeneration like public escalators and library parks are trying to signify the city’s openness to tourists and business. This discursive frame of social urbanism gives the illusion that this same infrastructure will uplift the marginalized at the same time as stimulating growth, putting pressure on Medellín to truly demonstrate that every citizen’s quality of life is being uplifted equitably. While images do work for progress at larger scales, the focus should instead be towards uplifting local populations, and despite the attempts of the social urbanism philosophy, the positive development outcomes of social urbanism can often overshadow those who remain disconnected, marginalized and insecure. Social urbanism consists of a delicate balance that arguably seems to be more focused on competing with other cities for investments rather than genuinely improving the daily lives of residents. This disconnect is present in Medellín. Nevertheless, our project evidenced that sometimes the image of prosperity is what instills a sense of efficacy amongst marginalized populations, who feel more proud of, and connected to their city because of the symbolic infrastructure that may not always be functional in their lives. The broad takeaway is that other cities cannot simply try to copy Medellín's successful development 'model', but instead must understand their local context and the needs of its own citizens before building infrastructure to improve mobility and public space.
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