Morphing Medellín – Part 1

Once known as the most dangerous city in the world, this January Medellín in Colombia was named the number one travel destination on the rise in South America. From a world full of darkness and crime, the city has stepped into the light – thanks to its own society, which remembered its values at the darkest moment.

The first part of the Medellín series by Alejandro Restrepo-Montoya is about the history and urban development of the city.

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Picture: Kristian Leven

Medellín is in the middle of the mountains, in a valley where water comes from the hills and crosses the city from south to north. The growth of the city advanced on terrain that originally had a close, deep relationship with nature.

The city is located close to the Equator in western Colombia, in a valley in the Andes mountains at 1444 meters above sea level. Founded on March 2, 1616 and named Villa de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria de Medellín on November 2, 1675, the original settlement of indigenous villages grew during the following centuries into settlements along the river as it flowed through what is now the city. Between 1890 and 1930 the city began a growth process that was consolidated with the construction of the Antioquia Railroad, as well as its first public spaces, religious and administrative buildings and new housing.

The desire to improve

Medellín has experienced a growth process accompanied by massive inter-regional immigration that generated another dynamic in its relations with the rest of the country. The desire to live in better conditions attracted enterprising people who promoted urban development and industry. The idea of progress was imposed and – at that moment of splendour – foreign citizens and companies were established, and with their capital they promoted the urban development of the city. Between 1900 and 1920, industry, which generated economic progress and attracted new investors and residents, generated (along with other factors) permanent and planned urban growth. The city was the place that evidenced the desire of the inhabitants of those times to improve themselves, and as a result sustained, organised growth processes made it more attractive. In 1920 the layout of the roads that structured transport in the city began, and in 1925 electric trams began to operate. In 1931 Aviation Field (today, the Enrique Olaya Herrera Airport) was built, and in 1940 the channelisation and rectification of the Medellín River bed was undertaken and the city consolidated its growth throughout its valley.

According to José Orlando Melo in The Three Threads of Modernization, “Medellín had about 65,000 inhabitants by 1912 and 145,000 by 1930. Urban development was marked by essential physical investments: the installation of electricity, construction of a telephone network, a covered aqueduct, trams and cars, the first large recreation park, two theatres with a total seating capacity of 8,000, and the arrival of the train.”

The accelerated growth of the population generated the expansion of housing in an urban space that began to spread – in a planned manner in some cases, but also with informal settlements – into the mountains surrounding the valley.

The industrial city: the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s

The growth process generated a series of favourable conditions for the construction of different industrial settlements and for the strengthening of the economy. In 1949, architects and urban planners Paul Lester Wiener and José Luis Sert developed a Pilot Plan for Medellín, that – at different scales – structured the city around the river, and defined land use and road layouts for the articulation of the city. The plan also proposed the location of industry in the south, noting that the winds came from the north. It proposed the construction of new residential units, commercial areas, green areas, social services and a Civic Center on the eastern bank of the river as the city’s main administrative space.

The model of development proposed expansion toward the north and the south; it proposed the construction of roads and consolidated the Center Plan (Plan Centro) as the city’s administrative and institutional space. With the arrival of the automobile, the adaptation of roads opened up part of the urban fabric for the construction of ring roads that aimed to link the centre of the city with its outskirts. The industrial splendour and the urban development of a metropolis in constant growth presaged the arrival of new times and new developments.

Darkness in the midst of prosperity

Given the urban conditions and the possibilities offered by a city in constant development, society relied on industrial activity as one of the pillars of its growth. During the 1970s, some manifestations of emerging illegal economies began to become apparent in the city. Contraband, tax evasion, insecurity linked to the process of accelerated growth that also caused unplanned settlements on the periphery, and the desire for economic growth at any cost presaged the arrival of illegal activities at the moment in which urban development continued with its building activity.

Click here for the second part of our series.

Alejandro Restrepo-Montoya published the compact version of his text in topos 102 “Darkness” – have a look.