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by ir. John Drissen (visit profile page), 21 August 2012
The Urban Transformation of Medellin, Colombia
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Medellin has been involved in a series of economic, social and violence issues caused by drug trafficking and conflicts between communist guerrillas and paramilitaries. The city was in 1992 ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Today, things are different. On 21st of May, 2011, appeared in the local newspaper 'El Colombiano' an article titled: "Architecture has transformed Medellin" 1. The urban and social development of the city is remarkable, the number of violent incidents has decreased. The unemployment rate is low and the perception of safety on the people of Medellin is positive. This is made possible through integral collaborations between planners, designers and politicians to highlight areas of the city that have been ignored.

Traditionally, urban development projects in Colombia focus on finding specific solutions to physical problems. Medellin has opted for a different strategy to use the architecture and urbanism as a tool for social development. The results are visible in physical, functional and social changes. And most of all, the change in attitude of the inhabitants and their pride in their new urban spaces.

Medellin's urban development began with the management of mayors Luis Perez (2000 and 2003), Sergio Fajardo (2003-2007) and Alonso Salazar (2007-2011). And it is designed as a comprehensive strategy that seeks solutions to mobility, governance and education together with the recovery of public space and green areas. The aim of this strategy is to recover the poorest sectors of the city that until recently, were dominated by communist groups, paramilitaries or drug smugglers. These specific plans are executed through the Integral Urban Project (PUI)2, the Land Use Plan (POT)3 and the Master Plan for Green zones 4. They usually make part of one or two Macro Projects or "Structuring Axis" that become catalysts to smaller public space projects and infrastructure interventions around a specific area. The first PUI took place in the northeast of Medellin that feature the completion of the city's gondola system "Metro Cable"5 (2004) and the urban development around the metro stations, such as the Library "Reyes de España", (Mazzanti, 2007)6. Currently there are running three integrated projects, the PUI of "Comuna 13" (one of the most dangerous areas of the city), the PUI of the Northwest area and, the PUI of the central eastern district.

Medellin CC Leon de Grieff

Parque Biblioteca La Ladera © Municiaplity of Medellin

The administration of Mayor Sergio Fajardo was vital to the city development with his model 'Medellin, the most educated'. His aim was to recover the marginalized areas of the city through "Social Urbanism" 7. He sought to heighten critical awareness of the injustices of traditional urban development and municipal management. Fajardo implemented projects that reflected his interest in improving the education system through new schools and libraries parks with high architectural value, symbolizing a "New Medellin" in order to show that violence can be fought by means of cultural development and social inclusion 8.

The implementation of the city's urban development is in the charge of the "Empresa de Desarrollo Urbano del Municipio de Medellin" EDU 9 (Urban Development Coorporation of the Municipality of Medellin). This organization has become extremely important to design, manage and implement various urban and architectural plans through joint inter-sectoral and interagency coordination.

To understand Medellin's urban solutions, it has to be taken into account the topography of Medellin, which limits the space development and therefore, it requires extreme alternatives to solve problems of space and mobility. The "Metro Cable" came for example, from the need to connect informal settlements in the upper parts of the city with the metro system at the lower valley near the river. This reduced the travel time from more than one hour down to just ten minutes. Take in cosnideration the large amout of commuters from the slopes tawrds the city. Other project to highlight the efficiency in mobility is the PUI of "Comuna 13" 10 with a network of public electrical escalators at the most inclined parts of the commune.

Metro Cable Medellin CC. J. Drissen

Metrocable of Medellin © J. Drissen

Medellin Electrical staircase

Electrical Staricase of Medellin © Municipality of Medellin

Medellin is enclosed by mountains which act as a barrier to access to the city. The principal access on the North side (city of Bello), connect the city with routes coming from the center of Colombia and Bogota. On the South side (City of Itagui) is the city connected with routes coming from the Colombian's North and Caribbean region. Both routes come together in a highway along the river which crosses the city from North to South. This has generated several logistic problems in mobility as this causes high traffic jams in the highway. To solve this problem, in 2007 the city began a major master plan called "Centralidades"11 which defines a specific area in the North and South of the metropolitan area. This 'centralities' is a multifunctional project that consists by transport terminals for cargo and passengers, new metro stations, a regional rail system and several cultural facilities.

Medellin 'Centralidades' Plan

Medellin 'Centralidades' Plan © J. Drissen

Paradoxical to the consideration of social/urban projects applied to the center and northern of Medellin, is the neglection of the public space in areas with high economic level located at the southern area of Medellin (district "El Poblado" and the municipalities of Envigado and Sabaneta). The residential areas in this parts of the city are developed by private and commercial entities and they do not pay attention to the architectural content of the projects. There is not a real architectural relation between private and public space. Although violence has declined significantly, real estate companies promote housing projects that warrant high levels of security and privacy, while the value of public space is lost and is reduced only to corridors for vehicles and sidewalks. (The car and the urban highway still potent symbol of the city). Therefore, there have arisen large and small commercial projects (shopping malls), which have taken the role of the public space as a meeting point and recreational area, excluding then a large part of the community with low-income to use such places.

Medellin Infrastructure

Infrastructure of Medellin © PUI

The efforts of the community, the city management and architects are admirable. It is a great achievement for a city with a young urban planning history; with the shared aim to position Medellin on the world's map as an entrepreneurial city together with other major cities in the region.

The problems of the city have been too complex to expect that they all would be solved in such a short period of time. The development process of Medellin's metropolitan area continues in the right direction. The results achieved until now makes from Medellin a precedent in the urban development of large cities in emerging countries. Architecture not only has transformed Medellin but also, it has changed the architecture practice to a more conscious way to create space.


A list of the most important strategic projects:

  • Línea K Metro Cable en la Comuna Nor-oriental, spans 2,0 km (2004)
  • Orquideorama del Jardín Botánico, (Architect, Plan B Arquitectos + JPRCR Arquitectos, 2006)
  • La Biblioteca España (Architect, Giancarlo Mazzanti, 2007)
  • El Colegio en Santo Domingo Savio (Architect, Obranegra arquitectos, 2009)
  • El Parque Explora (Architect, Alejandro Echeverri, 2007)
  • Linea J Metro Cable Comuna Occidental, spans 2,9 km (2008)
  • Los reacondicionamientos de los Coliseos para los juegos Sur Americanos (Architect, Giancarlo Mazzanti, 2010)
  • Las piscinas de la Unidad Deportiva Atanasio Girardot (Architect, Paisajes Emergentes, 2010)
  • Parque Biblioteca Pública León de Greiff (Architect, Giancarlo Mazzanti, 2011)


 Medellin Library

Library and Park of Medellin © Municipality of Medellin



1 "la Arquitectura ha transformado Medellin"; Jaime Sarmiento* | Medellín | Publicado el 21 de mayo de 2011 el colombiano


2 Link to the PUI


3 Link to the POT


4 Link to the Master Plan for Green zones


5 Link to Metro Cable  


6 Link to Library "Reyes de España" 


7  Mitchell Schwarzer presents four contemporary urbanism: Traditional Urbanism, Conceptual Urbanism, Marketplace Urbanism and Social Urbanism. From Public Places Urban Spaces (2010). Link:


8 "La transformacion de Medellin"; El Espectador; * diciembre 2008; por Sergio Fajardo. Link:


9 Link to:  EDU


10 Link to:  "Comuna 13"


11 Link to:  Centralidades Plan