Medellín is a city with a unique history. Most people immediately think of Pablo Escobar and the heroic staging of him on Netflix. However, since the 90ies, Medellín left its dark history behind and has grown to one of the most creative, award-winning, and innovative cities in Latin America and worldwide. What makes Medellín so different and how can a simple city cast such a spell on any visitor? 

History of Medellín

Founded by Spanish conquistadores in 1540, the city only developed vastly from the 20th century onwards. That century, the international coffee boom and Colombia’s built railroad system resulted in the expansion of the community, making Medellín a hot spot for goods trafficking and business. However, the flourishing economic environment was interrupted by a dark period of crime and insecurity due to drug trafficking. After the central government’s prohibition of drug use (opiates and cocaine), a vacuum was opened for criminal groups to establish their business.

One name we all know, Pablo Escobar, made the city into his drug regime. During the eighties and nineties, when the city was under the power of cocaine sellers, its homicide rate was one of the highest in the world. Estimates suggest, that Escobar controlled over 80% of worldwide produced cocaine. Only the declared war on drugs by the US set an end to his cruel regime, fighting the violent groups with even more violence. Since his death, Medellín has undergone a massive transformation, socially, politically, and economically.

Meddellín 1954
The city was thriving in the 20th century, becoming a hub for Colombia’s economy

Today, the scars Pablo Escobar’s regime left are still visible. In fact, the citizen of the city of eternal spring is trying hard to overcome their historic past to form a prosperous future. They have succeeded so far. There are many reasons why Medellín is nowadays cited as a role model for innovation and smart cities. For its development, free and accessible public transport has played a key role.

The world’s most advanced metro cable system

The first reason why Medellín has been entitled as one of the most innovative cities is its unique metro cable system. The idea actually dates back to Colombia’s colonial history, in which metro cable was used to transport coffee beans. Later in the 20th century, the mayor Luís Perez Guiterréz decided to build a metro model connecting the city and its mountainous outskirts via a green and sustainable alternative to car traffic: las gondolas.

In 2004, the metro cable ran its first trial, and since then brings more than 30.000 people to their desired destination every day. The cable system made it possible for many people of the poorer communities to commute to the inner city and get better-paid jobs and improved opportunities. At a glance, this social policy helped many people from the comunas to become economically independent and enabled access to health care and other public services.

As the city combines sustainable public transport with social policy measures, Medellín is frequently referred to as a standard for any city’s vision for transformation, including the Newsweek’s Momentum Awards.

Metro cable Medellín
The metro cable system connects the whole city easily, fast and sustainable

Offering museums, parks, and Wi-Fi to everyone and for free

If you are planning to visit Medellín, you will have plenty to do and see, including futuristic museums, historic monuments, and green parks. Nowadays, the city offers thousands of square meters of public space. Many parks, such as Jardín Botanico are inside the city, but Medellín offers several destinations and national parks to visit in the surrounding areas as well.

Another tool to transform the public space and include the citizen of the city are open gyms to be found every couple of hundred meters throughout the entire city. You will find the majority of Colombians training in the early morning hours before work or in the late evenings. Moreover, basketball and football fields give children and teens the opportunity to spend their leisure time actively and healthily. As a result, sports have become an essential inclusive policy for the various communities surrounding the city center.

Jardín Botanico Medellín
Visiting the parks you can find artists’ architectural works

When the online revolution took place, many residents in the mountainsides had no access to Wi-Fi. As an answer, the city established hundreds of public Wi-Fi zones, completely free of charge. As a consequence of the cities distribution of free computers and internet education centers, many people were able to find jobs working remotely in telecommunications. This does not only ease up access to paid labor for many Colombians but also reduces traffic and unnecessary commutes. Today, more than two-third of Medellíns population has a smartphone, which is an essential gadget to access jobs, education, and lifestyle.

Medellín sets milestone educational reforms and access to libraries

Until now, education is the most important driver of social and economic change. In order to tackle the flaws of publicly under-financed education in Colombia, Medellín’s policymakers placed cultural centers and libraries alongside the metro system. Libraries and museums are free of charge for about 90% of the citizen of Antioquia, depending on age and status.

Collectively, the city has achieved to include the young generations into creative and cultural events and established modern education. One example is the Spanish Library park. Medellín’s most massive library building is surrounded by a beautiful park reducing traffic noise. Since 2010, more than ten library parks have been built. After all, they became anchors of education and cultural activity for the communities of Medellín.

Furthermore, the libraries are stunning architectural landmarks and they offer exhibitions, classrooms, and auditoriums for children and adults. Annual celebrations, such as the Medellín Book and Culture Festival set important linkages between education, social development, and collectivism.

Green and healthy, the Sunday cycling city

The liveliness and social activity of Medellín are further boosted by the citizen’s appreciation of cycling ways and a system of bikes for rent. Additionally to increasing public cycling lanes, every Sunday, the Ciclovía is opened to bikers from all around. This means that downtown streets are closed to cars and cyclists and pedestrians are invited to spend the whole afternoon riding around the city safely. Medellín’s ambitions for the future are even higher, as more than 400km (249 miles) of cycling lanes shall be built within the next 12 years.

Invitation to culture: The unique Medellín art scene

Bozero's art Medellín
Botero’s art pieces can be found throughout the entire city’s landscape

The local art scene is conducive. The most famous art space of Medellín is the MAMM, the museum of modern art. Gallery spaces such as the Museum of Antioquia and the Plaza Botero offer exhibitions of contemporary items and historical artifacts. Next to Medellíns best art galleries, exhibit venues, and pop-up galleries offer contemporary art, fashion, and house decorations.

One of the city’s highlights is the Festival of Flowers including public concerts, art performances, gastronomic and handicrafts exhibitions, parades, and more. The festival usually takes place in August, bringing together citizens to celebrate the social transformations of the past twenty years.

Comuna 13 Medellín
Medellín is trying to bridge social inequalities via cultural offers

Music as a social project

Because of its thriving and colorful music scene, Medellín has been awarded one of the most creative cities by UNESCO. Viva la Música, the International Tango Festival, Circulart, and Altavoz, are festivals attracting young people from all over Latin America.

The municipality runs the Medellín City for Life program and Medellín Lives Music umbrella initiative both making music into a sustainable and empowering cultural activity. Further, the city introduced public spaces to support music creation, education, research, and dissemination. Those policies helped to strengthen the mobility of local musicians and bands, and fostering an environment conducive for cultural and creative industries. Finally, as a result of the thriving international tourism, a young crowd has created Madradio.  The radio station and event hub serves rising artists of electronic music and techno sounds as a platform and connects the young paísas.

Smart city style as a role model for Latin American development?

Altogether, what has transformed the city from one of the most violent cities in the world into a hub for creativity and modern life, are the public policies spurring social innovation. The integration of technologies to provide basic essentials (drinking water, sanitation), libraries, sports courts, and metro cables have strengthened the unique spirit of the city.

Science and technology play an immense role in the community’s public policy plans. Medellín has not just received awards from the Urban Land Institute and the New York Times. It has become much more: A hope for many cities in South America that face inequality, crime, and unsustainable living.

For example, the Brasilian social entrepreneur Edu Lyra has started a new social project modeled by the city of eternal spring. His project, the “smart favela” shall combine entrepreneurism, social innovation, and technology to open up real opportunities for São Paulo’s most excluded communities. His point of reference is Medellín, the role model for transformative policies and future proof development.

Are you going to visit Medellín? Come prepared by trying the best Spanish language online sources.



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