Global Politics

Public works, including innovative cable car system, help Medellin turn corner

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Medellín’s escalator was built to help with the country's crime and violence problem, but has also proven to be a tourist draw. (Photo by John Otis.)

The Colombian city of Medellín, once the murder capital of the world and ground zero for Pablo Escobar’s cocaine cartel, has lately emerged as a hotspot for urban planning and innovative mass transit.

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The projects are part of a long-term plan to fight poverty and remake the fortunes of the city.

The upper reaches of a mountainside slum called Comuna Trece are too steep for cars or buses. Streets give way to staircases. To get home, many here used to climb the equivalent of a 28-story building.

But last year, Medellín officials installed an outdoor escalator. A former mayor came up with the idea after riding an escalator for tourists in Barcelona.

With its stylish orange roof, the Comuna Trece escalator seems a little out of place. It runs past one-room shacks with laundry hanging from clotheslines. At first, some residents were baffled.

City hall worker Claudia Arizmendi says many people had never ridden an escalator before. So, the city sponsored field trips to shopping malls so residents could practice.

“Now we’ve gotten the hang of it,” says Jose Ivan Taborda, who is 69. “The escalator is comfortable and necessary for older people. It’s a relief because we don’t have to climb all those steps.”

The escalator is part of a broader plan to reduce crime and instill pride in gang-infested slums. Police work is important. But the thrust of the strategy is to install public transportation linked to newly built parks and libraries that encourage people to reclaim their communities from the bad guys.

It’s a radical departure from past policies.

Comuna Trece and other slums were founded by people displaced by Colombia’s guerrilla war. The slums sprang up far from downtown, and residents felt isolated and ignored.

“This displaced population didn’t feel like they were part of the city,” says Laura Isaza, a Medellín city hall consultant. “They used to say: ‘I live in this neighborhood and I don’t live in Medellín.’ And that was one of our first steps: To gain their confidence and to make them feel that they are part of our city.”

One of the main projects to integrate Medellín is a network of cable cars that opened in 2004. They carry people from the mountaintop slums to the city subway system.

Now getting downtown takes 45 minutes, instead of 2.5 hours. The gondolas move 20,000 people a day. They’re so popular they’ve inspired similar cable car networks in the mountainside ghettos of Rio de Janeiro and Caracas.

While the view is impressive, some cable car passengers opt to read during the ride.

They check out books from a handsome new library and community center right next to one of the cable car stations. Several subway stations house smaller libraries as well.

Many of these experiments were cited last month when a survey, sponsored by The Wall Street Journal, Citibank, and the Washington-based Urban Land Institute, named Medellín one of the world’s most innovative cities.

But not everyone is convinced.

Comuna Trece resident John Hernandez says the flashy new projects have distracted people’s attention from lingering issues, like high crime, and the government is sweeping those problems under the rug.

Still, the murder rate has dropped by half over the past decade. Tourists now come to slums to ride the escalator and cable cars. And property values are on the rise. What’s more, investors are moving in.

Over the past five years, Hewlett Packard, Kimberly Clark and Unisys have all opened production and research centers in Medellín. Consultant Laura Isaza concedes that the city still struggles with violence, but things are changing.

“We don’t have this huge war we had before,” Isaza said. “This is a conflict that could only be ended through real opportunities for the people.”

These advances, she says, have helped Medellín turned a corner.

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