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Escalators to Innovation – Medellín, Columbia.

Until recently, Medellin, Columbia’s second largest city, was ridden with drug lords and criminal organisations – it was known as the murder capital of the world. This urban battlefield meant many people were displaced and they looked for refuge up in the surrounding hill, where they built informal settlements. The result of these improvised communities is an extension of the city, which reflects today’s most impoverished neighbourhoods.

Yet, here we are in 2013, and Medellin is one of the three chosen finalists for the City of the Year Award. This award is an initiative of Citi and the Wall Street Journal, where a jury, comprised of experts from the Urban Land Institute, selected the final cities and an online poll was open until January for the public to vote the winner. The result is yet to be announced, but it is to be noted that Medellin, this once notorious city, is competing against New York and Tel Aviv, because the jury believed that it should be recognised for its progress and future potential.

Perhaps the most well-known urban initiative of Medellin, is the cable car system that runs through the poor neighbourhoods on the hills and drops passengers at the hilltop, where the boldly designed public library Biblioteca España is situated. However, the cable cars were first constructed in 2004 and they are part of a larger urban development project that the local authorities have invested in, including the metro, bus rapid transit systems and, most recently, escalators.

In the district of Comuna 13, home to a group of poor and insecure neighbourhoods, the mayoral office, together with the state´s company for urban development – Empresa de Desarrollo Urbano (EDU) – built six escalators that climb up the hills, equivalent to a twenty-eight storey-high building. The former mayor of Medellin, Alonso Salazar Jaramillo, was inspired by the outdoor escalators of Barcelona and invested in setting up a similar public transport system to improve the quality of life of excluded communities.

The escalators were manufactured in China by Fujitec, a Japanese company, and were put in place by Coservicios, a local company that specialises in elevators. Today, what used to be a thirty-five minute walk up the hills has become a six minute ride on these escalators.

Approximately twelve thousand people benefit from this $7 million project, including those who had never used escalators in the past. For this, part of the inauguration event in December 2011 was to offer a guided tour to the local shopping centre where interested residents were shown how to use the escalators. In addition, EDU formed a committee called Escalando Vida (Escalating Life), made of seventeen local children, who led an initiative that taught local residents tips and benefits for using the escalators safely.

Over a year has passed since the escalators were set up and Caracol news agency recently reported that due to shootings and robberies, fewer people are using the escalators nowadays. Also, there is evidence of unfinished excavations that upturned paved streets and were left abandoned, together with big bulks of toxic waste.

Local residents have complained, especially since these passageways are unwalkable during heavy rains and people have fallen sick due to the proximity of the waste. Moreover, although these urban development projects may be restoring the image of the area and bringing in more tourists, the property prices are also rising. So one wonders if this is a local authority intended consequence, since there is a risk that the current residents will be forced to live further away from the city.

All in all, the escalators are just a part of a bigger social project and only a combination of urban development, security and other initiatives can assure concrete improvements in quality of life. Certainly, there is still much work left to do in Medellin and Colombia as a whole, but in the last decade the annual murder rate in Medellin has fallen by more than half and other efforts made – whether in commerce or education – are worthy of international recognition. What is unique about the development approach of Medellin, is their use of creativity.

As Conrad Egusa, co-founder of Espacio, neatly stated for the committee of the City of the Year Award, innovation is at the heart of the culture of Medellín and the people of this city, the Paisas, are innovators and entrepreneurs at heart and they are driven by their desire to create meaning amid chaos.

Ayako Iba

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