A Tale of Several Cities

Medellin city

Suddenly, the mayor of Medellin got excited. He sped across his office where we had been talking and we clambered up a spiral staircase that took us right on top of the mayoral building: floor 12 or 13, where the helicopters land. He wanted to show off the city he is so proud of. The city that was, 25 years ago, the murder capital of the world.

The long hills form a steep river valley by which this booming place is constrained. Lit up by the sunset, Anibal Gaviria spoke at a rapid pace about the sense of open hilltop he wanted to preserve, even as the city expands by crawling ever higher up the hillside.

The remark that spurred this outburst of enthusiasm had been mine. We'd been standing in front of one of those huge aerial views that are the traditional feature of a mayor's office.

Visitors can learn a lot from them very quickly. For example, how rivers both unite and separate a city.

Image caption Medellin's mayor, Anibal Gaviria, is excited about the change in his city

If you take a planner's view of the map, they create clear boundaries along which to run divisions of counties or countries. But (depending on water, flow and climate) they are also great uniters of people: natural thoroughfares between places along the river banks.

Impassable in summer, Siberian rivers become crossing points when they freeze over in the winter, In other words, the landscapes and cityscapes hung up on the wall of the mayor speak to you. City planners and administrators ought to listen to their cities.

That was the (not very profound) observation that so animated the mayor of Medellin. And when we got right on top of his building he showed me the long narrow valley which defines his city. A river constrained by concrete banks rushes through the middle, abused by generations of industrialisation and waste disposal. That may be changing, though.

Drug cartels

Medellin is a city with a story to tell, and it is not altogether pleasant. Early in the 20th century it was a centre of gold mining and coffee growing.

Then the mine owners and the coffee barons discovered entrepreneurial talents. They went into manufacturing: textiles, iron and steel, turning the place into Colombia's second city.

Rather later, in an abundant climate, came the industrialisation of drugs. It was similar organisational talents applied to narcotics grown in the mountains. In the 1980s the so-called Medellin Cartel became a fearful consortium dominating the processing and distribution of cocaine to vast markets in the cities of the USA. The drug lords were hugely powerful, seemingly more so than the government of Colombia.

The kingpin was Pablo Escobar, worth an estimated $25bn (£16bn). But who could possibly know? In 1986, he made headlines by offering to pay off the whole of his country's national debt: $13bn.

But eventually Escobar surrendered to the authorities in 1990, confining himself to a luxurious sort of prison, from which he escaped two years later. He was shot down after a huge security force manhunt the next year.

You can still see little badges bearing Escobar's image on Colombian taxis, but the power of the drugs cartel began to weaken as the trade moved north to Mexico, with equally slaughterous results.

Image caption Medellin's cable car is one of the changes that have helped the city's suburbs

And inspired by a succession of clever mayors, Medellin began to tell a different story. No longer the world's murder capital, the city became the place that had moved away from that grim reputation.

The policy wonk's name for the process is "social urbanisation", which a non wonk might characterise as taking marginalised people seriously. An early symbol was the city's first (as well as Colombia's first) metro line, clean and reliable, which went into service 20 years ago.

But a metro in a city hemmed in by such steep hills is not much use for most of the people, particularly those recent incomers forced to live in what are politely called informal neighbourhoods: shanty towns, slums, favelas. When the flat bits of the city were all taken, they colonised the hillsides, pushing higher and higher with homemade rickety properties along snaky lanes.

The steepness and the distance down effectively cut them off from the rest of the city. They were breeding grounds of gang crime, fuelled by the proceeds of drug money. What hope for the children of the slums?

That's where the urban thinkers came in. Inspired by posh ski resorts and mountain tops made accessible to sedentary tourists, they produced some public service cable cars, carrying people high above their slums to neighbourhoods previously achingly far away.

The first one opened in 2010. Several other cities have taken up the idea, including Caracas and London, which misses the point with a link across the Thames from nowhere to nowhere.

Image caption The parks in central Medellin are popular
Image caption Sugarcane juice is sold in the city's parks

Medellin did not stop there. Other hilly neighbourhoods have escalators. And the municipal authorities have built libraries, parks and local enterprise centres in the slums: public spaces in places which lacked everything but private hell-for-leather land grabs.

Parks are important in Medellin. Downtown already has some beautiful new spaces, much used by people from all over the city enjoying themselves in what is often a balmy climate. Drummers drum in an informal auditorium, children splash in the dancing showers, adults smooch or sip delicious ice cold sugarcane juice sold by some of the city's squads of hawkers.

Now the Mayor is spending a lot of money on turning the concreted river into a new long park. The resulting transport disruption is intense; locals have been warned to stagger their working hours for months while the park is created.

The gangs are not gone, but they seem to be in retreat. Many once fearsome places are safe.

Image caption Medellin's metro was the country's first

Attracting tourists

One of the main contributors to the improvement of life in Medellin is the local utility company Empresas Publicas de Medellin. EPM supplies water, power, gas and drainage to all parts of the city, informal slums as well as posh high rise areas.

It is municipally owned. It makes money for the city, for some of those social urbanism projects. And, by sending its workforce climbing up into the newly settled slums to join them up to proper public utilities, it has a big social impact. It helps to legitimise those informal communities with services that they pay for.

A proper public service company, that also happens to be very profitable. It is how many rich world cities were developed in the 19th century, of course.

Thus after decades of being too frightening for most travellers, Medellin is now attracting tourists. It is now on the New York Times Top 50 list of places to visit. Many of the visitors are politicians and professionals who want to find out how to do something similar in their own beleaguered centres of urban decay.

This is an important consideration. Country people continue to pour into the world's cities. In 2009 for the first time this process tipped the urban/rural balance so that there are now more people in cities than not. The trend is bound to continue.

Power struggle?

This has important political implications for people like the mayor of Medellin. In most countries, it is national politicians who have most power, particularly over taxation. But power probably ought to be moving to the cities as the overall population swings that way too. And cities are complex mechanisms that operate on a knife edge.

As we looked over Medellin, the mayor Anibal Gaviria told me how he is trying to get global cities to start something like a development bank of their own to raise money for big urban projects. Such an institution would be highly symbolic. They would mark a power base shift similar to China's newly devised Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank Development Bank.

That has created diplomatic tensions between the traditional global powers such as the USA and the emerging economics giants. There may be a big tug of war to come between municipalities and the countries they happen to be parts of.

And the people who run both of them.

Peter Day reports from Medellin in In Business on BBC Radio 4 at 20:30 BST on Thursday 21 May and 21:30 BST on Sunday 24 May. You can also catch it on World Service radio on Thursday 21 May and Thursday 28 May on Global Business at 12:05 GMT and 21:05 GMT. It will also be available via the In Business website.

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