Is your company or NGO looking to open a regional office in Latin America, but you're not sure which of the region’s dynamic cities makes the most sense for your employees and operations?
If your organization wants to send a message that it respects the region’s drive to grow sustainably, while taking an active role in what the future could hold for Latin America’s estimated 640 million people, there is one clear choice: Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city.
Forget that show on Netflix and the city’s troubled past; Pablo Escobar’s been dead for 25 years, and Medellín’s citizens are moving forward at a rapid pace that would make many cities in the “developed world” blush. Many Colombians, along with the foreign travelers who keep visiting the country in increasing numbers, will be quick to say this city home to 2.5 million people and the capital of the Department of Antioquia is their favorite city south of the Panama Canal. The reason? Time and time again, you’ll hear the word “vibe” being attributed to Medellín.
There are several underlying reasons that explain Medellín’s vibe while contributing to its emergence as one of the world’s leading “smart cities.” Medellín has had no shortage of awards that herald the city’s innovative approach towards politics, social innovation and sustainability. The city’s leadership in the following areas only tell part of the story behind Medellín’s transformation.
One civic leader responsible for this emphasis on education has been Sergio Fajardo, mayor of Medellín from 2004-2007 and then Governor of Antioquia from 2012 to 2016. In an interview with Americas Quarterly during the early days of his governorship, Fajardo explained his administration’s approach was to build “the most beautiful for the most needy” and that the emphasis on building top notch facilities was “because the first step in education is having a dignified space in which to learn.”
While proponents of smart cities tout the need to groom efficient, sustainable and cutting-edge urban environments in order to meet the needs of a 21st century workforce, the strategy in Medellín has been to go a step further: its civic leaders and community groups have believed cities need to be designed so they are a place in which people will find dignity.
One project that is simultaneously taking on challenges including suburban sprawl, erosion and even food insecurity is Medellín’s El Cinturon Verde Metropolitano, or metropolitan greenbelt. A work in progress, this greenbelt will be almost 50 miles long (75 kilometers), with plans including community gardens, recreational spaces, hiking trails and improved housing for some of the city’s poorest residents. The project is being built in four phases and seeks a completion date by 2030.
The Buen Comienzo (“Good Start”) program, for example, offers expectant mothers medical information online at the dozens of public areas that offer free Wi-Fi and computer access. Communicating online does not necessarily replace a live doctor’s visit, but for citizens for whom the cost of transportation from a remote neighborhood can exceed a day’s wages, Buen Comienzo reduces the need for trips to a clinic and provides information about prenatal care available at one’s fingertips. The program also offers various health and education programs to support families during their children’s first five years of life.
Medellín still has its problems with crime and corruption, but investments in infrastructure, health and education offer proof that the city’s government works more effectively when compared to other cities across the region. Critics may doubt the effectiveness of the city’s governance code, but online platforms such as MiMedellin.org help to encourage civic participation. For well over a decade, the city has also been a global model of participatory budgeting – five percent of the city’s budget is distributed across the city’s neighborhoods, allowing locals to make their own decisions on how to spend the money - whether it is allocated for education, infrastructure or cultural events.
Medellín is a city of progress, one that offers something for everyone, whether it’s art, music, architecture or technology – and most importantly for its citizens, opportunities to move upward and onward. And it’s a city that for visiting Colombians and expats alike will quickly feel like home.
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.