Dignity by Design: Tool of Social Urbanism

This article traces the exemplar strategy of Social Urbanism in Medellin working towards and inclusive society.

By Nidhi Batra

More often than not, we associate poverty with crime, violence, hidden, the ‘other’ and the untouchable. We hope for an inclusive society but are unable to integrate the societal halves that even translate the divide in the physical realm. Resultant is swanky modern infrastructure in rich neighbourhoods and neglect in the poor – already abandoned neighbourhoods.

A walk in a poor neighbourhood, interaction with the inhabitants one realised it is not the charity that they want but rather a sense of acceptance, inclusion and dignity.

Interestingly, Medellin in Columbia, Latin America shows us an example of how an integrated planning method that unites political will, governance, civil society, architecture and design together to transform the once ‘violence and drug capital’ into a transforming inclusive society has given the fundamental human right of the poor back – Dignity! The tool Medellin employed has been popularised as ‘Social urbanism’.

Medellin’s urban development began with the management of mayors Luis Perez (2000 and 2003), Sergio Fajardo (2003-2007) and Alonso Salazar (2007-2011). 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 what he termed as “Social Urbanism”. 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.

Social urbanism as a strategy has been 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.

His idea of social urbanism revolves around putting pride back into a city through architecture and design. Journalist and social commentator Ángela Sánchez described social urbanism in her report ‘Social Urbanism: the Metamorphosis of Medellín’ as “investing the greatest amount of resources, of the highest quality and aesthetic excellence, in the poorest, most violent parts of the city.”

In the words of Fajardo, the idea was “the most beautiful things for the most humble people, so that the pride felt in that which is public illuminates us all. The beauty of the architecture is essential. Where before there was death, fear and dislocation, today there are the most impressive buildings, all of the highest quality – cultural and educational focal points around which we can all come together in peaceful coexistence. In this way we are sending out a political message about the dignity of the space which is open, without exception, to all citizens, which means recognising the value of everyone, reaffirming our self-esteem and creating a feeling of belonging. Our buildings, parks and pedestrian precincts are beautiful and modern. Just as they are in any other city in the world”.

These specific plans under Social Urbanism are executed through the Integral Urban Project (PUI), the Land Use Plan (POT) and the Master Plan for Green zones. 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. Both of these types of projects need to be in accordance with a larger land use plan called the POT: Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial. there are also community based planning organizations that are developing plans in accordance with the PUI- in order to compliment the PUIs and actually better, although with much smaller interventions. This type of PUI project brings together various physical initiatives: libraries, schools, transportation, public space, housing, and environmental remediation, and built them in a short period of time (two years) throughout the most economically and infrastructural marginalized areas of the city. These PUI projects involve multiple stakeholders: community, state and private partnerships.


Integral Urban Project (PUI)  in Medellin from 2004 to 2011 Source: EDU and Jota Samper

The first PUI took place in the northeast of Medellin that feature the completion of the city’s gondola system “Metro Cable” (2004) and the urban development around the metro stations, such as the Library “Reyes de España”, (Mazzanti, 2007). 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.

What sets the Medellin example apart from other projects in informal areas is the shift in focus from housing solutions to essential neighbourhood infrastructure: transportation, education and public space. The project involved a series of physical interventions such as the “Metrocable” tramway that connects the residents to the formal city, and an extensive system of escalators which help residents traverse the steep topography. Yet, beyond providing a mobility infrastructure, it is the hybridization of programs within these infrastructures that is most interesting. A new library that overlooks the city not only becomes a new symbol for Medellin, but its plaza provides a leisure space that reinvents the alien nature of this new program inside the neighbourhood.


Amongst the most visible projects, some are:

  • Five enormous Library-Parks in the most deprived comunas.
  • An innovative public transport system which has dramatically reduced the distance between the old urban ghettos, with a system of cable-cars and feeders, and the consolidation of the Medellín metro, the only one in the country.
  • A large cultural centre, the legacy of the maestro of Colombian architecture, Rogelio Salmona, which stands on the site of the old rubbish dump in Moravia. Two thousand families used to live there in extreme poverty before being re-housed in better areas.
  • The Science and Technology Exploration Park with interactive educational activities and the biggest fresh and sea water aquariums in South America.
  • The exuberant Orquideorama and an enlarged botanical garden with plant species that are representative of the tropical rainforest flowering in what was once the most dangerous part of the city.
  • The recuperation of public spaces and newly pedestrianised areas like the Carabobo.
  • Ten new, modern state schools, new sport stadiums, linear parks and coliseums in preparation for the 2010 Pan-American Games.
  • The new Children’s Library located in a restored mansion and the Teatro Lido, which symbolise the new urban centre.
  • The star features are the five Library-Parks, enormous projects designed by the country’s best architects in what were labelled the poorest, most dangerous and most rundown areas of the city.


New community center and recreation plaza from: http://www.giancarlomazzanti.com/


Library and Park of Medellin © Municipality of Medellin

These new areas permit these once isolated communities to maintain open lines of communication with the state that are based on the necessary physical, human and architectural presence of the state. The new buildings and infrastructure competes in quality and style with new projects executed in any part of the city, regardless of socio-economic strata. This fact empowers the communities, which up to this moment have been approached by lower quality interventions of the state, as second-class citizens.

This might be a direction for us to give the due dignity back to the urban poor! To make an inclusive city it is essential to ‘include’ and ‘design for all’.


Social Urbanism – Architecture Rebuilds Columbia, Brenda Johnson

Pre-Emptive Versus Retroactive: The Beginnings of a Post-Informal Landscape Urbanism, Leo Robleto Costante

The Urban Transformation of Medellin, Colombia, John Drissen

Medellin: “Social Urbanism”, Adriana Navarro Sertich

Social Urbanism: The Metamorphosis of Medellín, Ángela Sánchez


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5 thoughts on “Dignity by Design: Tool of Social Urbanism

  1. siddharthksuri January 21, 2013 at 12:55 pm Reply

    But how can one be sure, this strategy leads to revitalization rather than gentrification..

  2. terraurban January 21, 2013 at 1:37 pm Reply

    Josip Bilandzija • Nice. It is very important especially about security – always urbanism is connected with security (center of location – social life, green market, shopping centers, religious objects – places where people share their time, where they usualy have their interaction in almost all parts of their lives; periferia where people have their apartments, where they rest after work time; places where people enjoy sport activities). All is functional, and have influence on security (personal) and colective. Through history we can see that urbanism and arhitecture are connected very close with security (castles, archaeological sites,…). Nowadays same. But it is deeper. We are learning now that urbanism is connected with human emotional life and social life; and different sort of places have producing different profiles of people. … Again, nice and very important in connection with number of population on the World.

  3. terraurban January 21, 2013 at 1:39 pm Reply

    The way to deal with gentrification is to allow the poor to get the privilege of the infrastructure, instead of creating an atmosphere where the rich move in! I think one example in Indian Scenario would be to have community development models – based on lets say the Ayanagar development in Delhi and what to avoid would be the Haus Khas model where the urban village is now for the niche designers!!

  4. Ajith VYAS January 23, 2013 at 6:17 am Reply

    The nearest example I can think of is the fact that Kochi-Muziris Biennalle is being held in Mattancherry-Fort Cochin in Ernakulam, Kerala, India. This has brought about a sense of feel-good and of beautiful “place” to some of the run down neighbourhoods around Mattancherry. The spin-offs are intangible and has the potential to grow!
    And as for “political will”, that could be in perennial shortage! It would be more prudent to reinforce transparent governance systems within participatory mode and let the system lead and ride forward!

  5. Anonymous January 23, 2013 at 9:27 am Reply

    So true! The biennalle has been a success and from what I hear it even opened up art and design to ‘all’! Mattancherry and Willingdon island have such great potential for redevelopment in Kochi. Wish the government would be focusing on such constructive projects than the Kochi Metro!

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