Skip to content

University in the City

This is the second in a series of blog posts from our Runstad Center Affiliate Fellows class of 2015, who have just returned from their travels to Santiago, Chile, and Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, Brazil.

See the map from the earlier post. We walked from our hotel to the University District and back (about 6 miles total on the day we arrived. We are tough!

The University district is a historic residential district adapted to house several universities. While over 170,000 students come to the neighborhood each day, few live nearby. Most Chileans live at home during college. We walked here from our hotel crossing Intercontinental Highway 5 (technically the same one that goes through Seattle!) and found an intriguing mix of modern and historic buildings.


University district house in disrepair.

Ricardo Abuauad, the Director of School of Architecture at Universidad Diego Portales (UDP), gave us a presentation about the history and development of the district. Six universities joined together to create a public/private partnership to advance the development of public space that supported the missions of the universities. This consortium convinced the communidad to keep building heights low and to preserve the existing scale of this neighborhood (reducing the potential square footage/tax revenue yet preserving the historic character). We will try to get copies of Ricardo’s slides as he showed innovative examples of integrating new (and large) buildings into the historic center. Thaisa provoked some interesting discussions about the concept of a ‘University in the City’ and how we might leverage the energy and impact of the multiple Seattle universities to advance the character and quality of both the universities and Seattle. Perhaps a future symposium on the topic hosted at UW?


Right across the street is a nifty apartment building.


Entry to the UDP Architecture Building designed by Ricardo Abuauad. Nice graffiti art!


The rooftop of UDP. Outdoor critique space and green roof. We want the same for Gould balconies!


Micro streets bring access to mid-block infill by tiny houses.


Urban planting by a local NGO Planta Banda….we didn’t find out anything other than it was there!


In many neighborhoods in Santiago we find plants in the street, on the buildings, in windows….a green city.


Segregated Santiago

This is the first of a series of blog posts from our Runstad Center Affiliate Fellows class of 2015, who are traveling this week to Santiago, Chile, and Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, Brazil. We are excited about what they will bring back to us from a region so ready to discuss affordable housing, social cohesion, and resiliency.


On our first day in Santiago we met with Ricardo Abuauad, the Director of School of Architecture at Universidad Diego Portales (UDP). ‘Santiago is a very segregated city’ was one of the first things he shared with us during our meeting together and was reiterated in some form in every other conversation we had with Chileans. Income segregation (not racial segregation) is evident in buildings, public space and fashion. The income distribution of Santiago was described to us as annotated on the map above: The historic downtown houses the government buildings and an increasing middle class residential population (in housing purchased with government funded vouchers); The wealthy live in suburbs to the east towards the Andes; Everyone else lives in suburbs with poor quality housing and poor access to services (transportation, parks, healthcare, jobs…).

View from Castillo Hildago looking toward the historic downtown.


Joe Ferguson and Maiko Winkler-Chen discuss Seattle housing policy in the shade of Santiago
Joe Ferguson and Maiko Winkler-Chen discuss Seattle housing policy in the shade of Santiago

We traveled around the city (most often by foot), meeting architects, urban designers and others who graciously shared their perspective of past and current housing policy, practices and the intersection of public space and social cohesion. Although we did learn that the story of the city is not that simple, everyone agreed that income disparity and social economic segregation is a problem in Santiago. Some advocated for bringing low income housing into the wealthy areas. Others said that you should never put the poor in apartments and that subsidies should be used to provide the same housing to a range of income levels. Chile has been using a market demand driven model to build the housing stock offering vouchers to families to use in purchasing homes for over 20 years and under communist, military and democratic (both left and right) rule and is only recently considering building state run rental housing.


The map above identifies the eight different areas we visited during our stay, we’ll go into more detail on the sites in future posts.

  1. Historic Center/Belles Artes/Lastarria (government, artists, our hotel)
  2. University District (Historic houses and modern campus combined)
  3. de la Florida (a mall!)
  4. el Golf (new commercial district)
  5. Universidad Del Desarollo (University in the foothills/green suburbs)
  6. Bella Vista (artist’s neighborhood)
  7. Providencia
  8. Social housing

Over dinner in Lastarria our last night in Santiago, we brought the conversation back to Seattle and enjoyed a lively discussion about the city and the suburb, inclusionary zoning and market based incentives. We have a great group: We do not always agree but we have a great time discussing these challenging issues.



Runstad Center Affiliate Fellows Program

It is a unique opportunity.

The Runstad Center Affiliate Fellows Program is designed to spark new thinking through unconventional, interdisciplinary collaboration and to engage a broad audience in a research topic within the rubric of sustainability. We pair Runstad Center graduate students with emerging industry thought leaders and College of Built Environments faculty for a year-long program of research and international field study.  In prior years, Runstad Fellows have traveled to Hong Kong, Istanbul, and Berlin/Krakow/Detroit.

Last year our Affiliate Fellows visited the cities of Cartagena, Bogotá, and Medellín in Colombia, South America to study “social urbanism”. Their work defined social urbanism as a set of strategies to provide the LOVE, CARE, and SUPPORT of investments in the built environment required to make communities thrive.  In Colombia, a key strategies included “Education = Equity” and “Physical Mobility = Social Mobility”.  Social urbanism as practiced in Colombia demonstrated unequivocally that “people empowered  people engaged  communities changed.”

The City of Medellín’s Planning Director, Jorge Perez, has said that “We need to create cities for life.” Civic leaders had to find ways to communicate with communities, then the communities could constructively join the planning and development conversation. Together they learned that you cannot create value by investing only in built projects, but that the primary investment must be in people. The leaders listened. The people listened to each other. The communities began to thrive.

In Medellín, they built urban escalators and a highly efficient network of cable cars to connect vast hillside communities with the city center, providing people access to jobs and to cultural opportunities. Over several decades, they granted franchises to citizens to hold title to their homes, allowing them to be invested in creating new, healthier communities. Where once had existed only an open landfill, now is a functioning laboratory of bioengineering. Where once their children roamed in danger, they now gather to play musical instruments.

The story continues in Bogotá, where they built 180 miles of separate right of way for bicycles and a sophisticated, ultra-modern bus transit network, connecting people on the outskirts to the heart of the city. They are quietly developing a new Bogotá Arts District, and while landmark buildings the world over have been financed by wealthy benefactors, the first skyscraper in Colombia is being financed by thousands of Colombians.

The Fellows group brought back to the people of Seattle a tale of resiliency and proof of the power of citizens to actually build a “city for life.” To tell the story, they created a presentation both artful and powerful, and have presented this work to the Runstad Center Advisory Board, to the broader professional community in a well-attended session at Impact HUB, to the College of Built Environments community, and, just this past January, to the National Association of Industrial & Office Properties meeting at the Four Seasons in Seattle.

Our current group of Affiliate Fellows are studying in Santiago, Chile, and in Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba, Brazil. We are excited about what they will bring back to us from a region so ready to discuss affordable housing, social cohesion, and resiliency. One of the Runstad Center’s highest priorities is to provide our top students an opportunity to broaden their worldview, and to engage both the academic and professional communities with fresh inspiration and working models for implementing change in our communities.  Check back this fall when the latest ideas gathered from South America will be presented to our community.

Detroit Future City: Design for Rapid Change

Join the UW Department of Landscape Architecture and Professional Advisory CommitteeARCADEUW Runstad Center for Real Estate StudiesUW Department of Urban Design and Planning at the Frye Art Museum for a panel discussion on Detroit with thought leaders who are at the heart of the city’s transformation and revival.  The panel includes past Runstad Affiliate Fellows Lisa Picard and Eric Becker.

detroit panel

Thursday 22nd Jan 2015, 5-7 pm

at Frye Art Museum Auditorium  704 Terry Ave, Seattle, WA 98104

Please RSVP here by January 15th, 2015 as space is limited.

Detroit provides a means to study fundamental urban transformation and innovation that comes from both the top down and the grassroots level. The renewal happening in the city presents a ripe opportunity to evaluate and test civic strategies with the goal of understanding how to maximize a city’s resiliency in the service of rapid positive change in the future. Indeed, the seeds of what’s happening in Detroit exist in all cities, though to lesser degrees.

About the Panel

-Rainy Hamilton Jr., President and Principal-in-Charge of Architecture, Hamilton Anderson Associates; Detroit Michigan.

-Eric Becker, Founder of We Are Shouting; Fellow, University of Washington Runstad Center.

-Dan Pitera, Associate Professor of Architecture, University of Detroit Mercy; Director, Detroit Collaborative Design Center.

-Panel Moderator:  Lisa Picard, Executive Vice President, Skanska USA Commercial Development Inc.; Fellow, University of Washington Runstad Center.

2013 Affiliate Fellow Lisa Picard on Urban Resiliency

“Today, the best lessons about urban resiliency appear to be found in Berlin and Detroit. These cities, both formerly wealthy manufacturing centers, have undergone economic ruin, population decimation and, now, phases of creative and economic re-emergence, fueled by grassroots community movements and entrepreneurial new arrivals.”

2013 Runstad Center Affiliate Fellow Lisa Picard is featured in this month’s issue of ARCADE, with a piece titled “Build Dynamic, Co-Created Plans and Stir the Soul:
Urban Resiliency in Detroit and Berlin.”  The 2013 class traveled to these cities (along with Krakow, Poland) and explored the role of commerce as a catalyst to human connection in urban communities amidst economic, political, and natural destruction.  Through travel, observation, interviews, and local discussions around commerce as an experience fostering positive social experience, the Fellows sought to build an understanding of the conscious and unconscious patterns that foster urban vibrancy; specifically thriving communities, even amidst adversity. Read Lisa’s full article here!

Mobility = Mobility (Part 2)

The previous entry from the Runstad Fellows looked at how an innovative city in Colombia – Medellin – has remade itself through a series of mobility-centered design interventions. The result of these interventions has created a well-connected city, provided better access to jobs, and decreased violence.

Seattle doesn’t have warring neighborhoods or broad swaths of informal settlements, but with the current transit funding gap, a recent proposal for gondolas, and debates about equity in Seattle, Medellin provides more parallels than one might initially think. So what could a Medellin-style mobility strategy look like for Seattle?

Seattle developer's proposal for gondola connecting Waterfront and Convention Center  Photo: Great Western Pacific
Seattle developer’s proposal for gondola connecting Waterfront and Convention Center Photo: Great Western Pacific

For one, it likely would not include reduced transit service. The residents of King County have spoken in the recent Proposition 1 vote, and they have chosen not to bridge the funding gap that King Country Metro has said is necessary to continue transit service at its current levels. This creates a scenario that has disproportionate effects on low-income and disabled citizens. For example, suggested night service cuts won’t affect a large number of people, but it will affect those who rely on public transit to work a night shift. Elimination of routes and reduction of frequency can be mitigated by some through the use of services like Car 2 Go and Lyft, but these aren’t affordable options for some in the city. Furthermore, as more people turn to cars in lieu of public transit, Seattle can expect more congestion on its roadways, which leaves less time for working and living life. Increasing transit routes and frequency allows people to have better access to jobs, spend less time in traffic, and spend less income on transportation. Medellin has made a concerted effort to improve transit access through a variety of options (light rail, BRT, gondolas, bus, etc.), and its residents have benefited from this investment.

Increased mobility would also change the dynamics of Seattle’s housing discussion. Currently, the discussion centers on providing affordable housing in close proximity to good jobs – Downtown and South Lake Union. This is a noble goal, but it requires spending precious affordable housing dollars where land and construction costs are most expensive. Because this money pool is finite, dollars spent on affordable housing Downtown do not go as far as they do in a place like Roosevelt or Beacon Hill. One of the fellows points out that this strategy is like feeding 2 friends with filet mignon as opposed to 8 friends with roasted chicken. A Medellin-style mobility strategy would open the possibilities to creating housing outside of these high-cost areas while still providing excellent access to jobs. The dynamics of housing (affordable and market-rate) change when a city has access to high quality transit and does not have to fight for well-located land. Would an investment in transit create net savings for a city when accounting for the cost of housing? That is a blog post of its own, but it is a question worth exploring. Any data nerds out there?

Finally, another mobility issue facing Seattle is working with what we have…or don’t have. In Medellin, effort was made to allow existing neighborhood centers to integrate with new transit centers. For example a new gondola station integrated with a new public library project, and both were located within a preexisting neighborhood commercial center. In Seattle, investments in infrastructure often miss the opportunity to overlap with existing neighborhood centers. Take the Columbia City Light Rail Station for example. The station is blocks from the true heart of Columbia City. This doesn’t make the station useless, but it does miss opportunities for synergy that were evident in Medellin. It also makes for a lot of incomplete neighborhoods. This means transit centers (i.e. Beacon Hill Station or Northgate Transit Center) often lack essentials like jobs, grocery stores, childcare, etc., while neighborhood centers, which have many of those things, often lack mobility. It takes all of these to have a truly complete neighborhood. Obviously, there are hurdles with developing new transit centers in existing neighborhood centers – namely, purchasing the Right of Way, but as Seattle looks at future reorganization and/or expansion of its transit network, it should view transit centers and neighborhood centers as one in the same.

Seattle and Medellin are not exactly identical twins, but there are still many similarities when it comes to transportation and mobility. When it comes to building a world class city that is livable and accessible for all, Medellin provides some great examples for Seattle to follow. If done right, Seattle could one day have the type of transit-rich, interconnected city the Fellows saw on our trip to Colombia.

Mobility = Mobility

Can increased physical mobility lead to increased social mobility in a city? In one resilient Colombian city, leaders believe physical mobility is a necessity.

Medellín, Colombia is a city on the rise. It was recently named City of the Year by Urban Land Institute and was the host of the United Nation’s prestigious World Urban Forum this past April. The resilience of this city is noteworthy considering it is just one decade removed from widespread violence and instability. The reign of terror brought by the drug lord Pablo Escobar is still a fresh memory for many residents. However, progressive and innovative urban planning techniques have gone a long way to help remake this city, and it is now receiving great acclaim for urban planning techniques that look to tackle social equity issues.

Medellín’s Mobility Issues

As Medellín emerged from its years of violence, its leaders acknowledged that mobility was a key issue for the city. First, there was a lack of connectivity between the city center and the city’s hillside communities. These hillside communities were largely unplanned, informal settlements that included a maze of pathways and streets that lacked connection to the rest of the city. This meant that people living in the hillside had poor access to good jobs and had to devote considerable time their commutes.

Sprawling hillside communities in Medellín, photo by Eric Hadden
Sprawling hillside communities in Medellín, photo by Eric Hadden

‘Within the communities, this lack of connectivity created an environment that allowed crime and violence to persist – even when it was decreasing across other parts of the city. Neighborhood gangs controlled access points into the neighborhoods, and a lack of connections and interaction between neighborhoods allowed tension to fester and cross-neighborhood wars to break out. While mobility’s impact on these problems may not be obvious, it’s clear that violence and a lack of access to jobs do not create the ideal conditions for someone looking to move up in the world.

Strategic Changes

To alleviate these problems, city officials worked with individual communities to develop a strategy to open and connect these communities. They did this through a series of precise, targeted projects, which became known as “urban acupuncture”.

To increase mobility within a community, the city created a network of pedestrian paths and plazas that were connected vertically by hillclimbs, stairs, and, most notably, outdoor escalators.

Escalators in Comuna 13, photo by Eric Hadden
Escalators in Comuna 13, photo by Eric Hadden

To open up a community to its neighbors, the city developed additional access points with turnarounds for emergency vehicles and taxis, tore down walls to extend dead-end streets to the next neighborhood, and, in some cases, constructed literal bridges between neighboring communities.

New entry point into Comuna 13, photo by  Eric Hadden
New entry point into Comuna 13, photo by Eric Hadden

To increase access from the hillsides to the city center, the city established a network of gondola lines that linked neighborhood centers directly to the artery of the city’s transit network – the light rail line.

    Gondolas connecting hillside communities to the light rail, photo by Susan Jones
Gondolas connecting hillside communities to the light rail, photo by Susan Jones

The result of these projects is a well-connected workforce, social exchange – “intercambio”, reduced rates of violence, and a sense of pride. What was once a two-hour trip for work in one of the city’s job centers is now around 45 minutes. Streets that were once ruled by gangs are now shortcuts for children going to school. Residents of warring neighborhoods now gather at the same weekend markets. Mobility has been the key to transforming these neighborhoods and creating a situation where people have social mobility.

Mobility in Seattle

Seattle doesn’t have warring neighborhoods or broad swaths of informal settlements on its hillsides, but with the current transit funding gap, a recent proposal for gondolas, and debates about equity in Seattle, Medellín provides more parallels than one might initially think. What would a Medellín-style approach to mobility look like for Seattle? We’ll explore this more in an upcoming post.

Join the Crowd

“The Eiffel Tower was financed by Gustave Eiffel, the Empire State by John Jakob Rasob and Pierre Dupont, and the Burj Khalifa, the tallest skyscraper in the world, was financed by Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum…the first skyscraper in Colombia is being financed by thousands of Colombians.

Image c/o
Image c/o

BD Bacata will be the first skyscraper in Colombia in 35 years, and the largest in the country, at 66 stories. Even more remarkable, it has become the largest crowdfunded real estate project in the world. Prodigy Network, the Bogota- and New York City-based real estate company developing the project, sought to provide “small investors the opportunity to buy participations in large-scale real estate.”

The project is located in the el Centro district of Colombia’s capitol city, Bogota. El Centro was once the city’s thriving downtown area, but over the past several decades, the area saw increased levels of crime and poverty, and development shifted to the Financial District, which is located several miles north of el Centro (think: Wilshire Boulevard compared to Downtown LA) Despite cheaper land prices, and a city “Regeneration Plan” for downtown, many standard, institutional-scale investors are still leery of investing in el Centro . Conversely, Prodigy Network saw an opportunity to use crowdfunding as a tool for securing capital in a location that locals believe to be a needed investment in their community.

When complete, BD Bacata will be a truly mixed-use building, combining retail, office, hotel and for-sale residential.  Prodigy Network felt it was especially important to have diversified uses (and exits) in a project with this level of complexity. The 1.2 million square foot project is being built in phases by use type. Phase one includes nearly 50,000 square feet of retail, anticipated to attract 12,000 visitors per day. Phase two will be the construction of the shorter tower with 396 for sale apartments. The final phase is the construction of the tallest tower, which includes 117 offices and a 364-room hotel. Despite initial construction issues, Prodigy Network expects a 2015 delivery.

The residential portion is the only aspect of the project that is not being crowdfunded and is expected to cover 45% of the project costs.

Even with such a unique product, neighborhood and financing strategy, Prodigy Network was able to meet their fundraising goals, securing the first $80 million dollars within six months of entitlements. To date, over 3,800 Colombians have bought ownership shares, bringing the total crowdfunded investment to over $200 million dollars.


In order to fund the approximately $240 million dollar project, Prodigy Network targeted the “informal market” in Colombia. This market segment consists of individuals, as opposed to institutions or even high net worth family offices, who do not typically have access to institutional grade investment, but who understand the local conditions and want an opportunity to impact growth in their city. To manage such a large number of investors, Prodigy is harnessing CRM technology and a legal system in Colombia that has been used to the concept of crowdsourcing for some time.  Without getting into the nuanced comparison of securities laws between the two countries, the U.S. is effectively beginning to allow the type of investments that have been legal in Colombia for some time. In addition, Prodigy honed its marketing platform while doing business selling condominiums in places like Miami and New York, and is now applying lessons learned to creating a massive marketing effort to source investors in BD Bacata.

In the Fall, The Runstad Fellows will be hosting an facilitated discussion about the BD Bacata project, and the implications for real estate in Seattle and the US, more generally. Some of the interesting topics that may be explored include:

  • How will changes in regulations in the US affect crowd-sourcing?
  • Would use of a Columbia-style “fiduciary model” better support crowd-sourcing in the US?
  • To what extent can socially-valuable investments be competitively sourced via crown funding?
  • How much less are investors willing to receive for the “right” projects and can that resulting cost of capital be appealing for a developer?
  • How do you put in the place an effective marketing program for a crowd-sourced project?


Special thanks to Rodrigo Nino and Magdalena Sartori for their insight on this project.

Louisa Galassini, 2014 Runstad Fellow

Former Runstad fellow to speak at Bisnow Summit


Former Runstad Center Affiliate Fellow Liz Dunn will be speaking at the Seattle Creative Office Summit, hosted by Bisnow, on May 21.  She joins a panel of experts in exploring the exciting world of creative office space in the Seattle area.  Hear about the new trends in office space, what is attracting growing and established companies alike to new types of collaborative workspace, and what the distinguished panel foresees for the future of the office.

This event runs from 7:30am – 10:30am and will be held at the Hyatt Olive 8 in downtown Seattle.  For more information and to RSVP, please click here.

Why Medellín matters

“It’s not about infrastructure, architecture or engineering, it’s about a political project inclusive of citizens”. Jorge Perez, current Director of Planning, Medellín

Escalators in Comuna 13.
Photo by UW’s Runstad Fellows


Inspiring images of libraries, escalators and metro-cables in Medellín have populated the pages of worldwide media in recent years. But the real story of triumph does not come from any of these photogenic projects, but rather from the construction of invisible yet intentional ties and bridges: communities that care, support and ultimately, love and protect those investments.

In areas with a delicate social fabric, standard police is not successful. Similar to Sao Paulo’s favelas that have their own structures of control, Medellin’s gangs used to patrol territories where the state had little or no presence. So investing in mobility infrastructure alone only evidenced and exacerbated these traits. Soon after the escalators were built for example, gang members would charge a fee in order to leave users alone.  By finding, training, connecting and supporting community leaders -and ultimately branding them as a state presence- Medellín has succeeded in leveraging its investments to provide full value to its people, while lowering maintenance costs and creating opportunities in the center and the periphery, as well as a sense of pride and inclusiveness that seemed impossible some years ago.

Another example comes from the metro system. In the very first days of operation, many of the cars were vandalized. The city quickly moved to repair them, fully aware that nothing invites more chaos than chaos. But the long term solution came through their youth. Free education and basic nutrition (0-5 included) is the city’s strategy for equity in the long term, so they made the most out of their investment. Similar to how Malmo, Sweden taught “Separation at Source” to new communities, Medellin designed communication campaigns aimed at kids to educate their parents. Medellin succeeded to create pride and belonging to all “paisas” in every sector: Medellín is the only city with a Metro system in Colombia.

Photo by UW's Runstad Fellows
Buen Comienzo daycare system.
Photo by UW’s Runstad Fellows

In a similar way than Bogota’s trinity of aligned Mayors Castro, Mockus and Peñalosa  invested in social inclusion and mobility projects to bring “dignity” and “decency” to the less favored (and majority) of inhabitants, Medellin’s Mayors Perez, Fajardo, Salazar and Gaviria also committed heavily and continuously in those communities under a common vision that prevailed across political administrations. And not only in mobility, but in utilities and services, formalizing extralegal settlements along the way to most of the “developed” world’s dismay.

Undocumented settlements are the defining factor of developing nations. Because land titles are absent, cities cannot invest in infrastructure and plan to recover it through taxes, becoming unable to leverage the borrowing power of the crowd as collateral for loans from standard multilateral organizations.  Because of this, each territory must deal with their problems in unique ways, but rarely succeed in creating capital for their new citizens along the effort.

Curitiba for example, implemented inspiring programs like “Garbage that is not garbage” to deal with waste collection in extralegal areas that would otherwise create a health problem to the city at large. But Medellin used the muscle of its Public Utilities (the second largest enterprise in the country) to solve this problem in a more permanent way. New settlers were served with electricity, clean water and waste collection –and now mobility- on the general public’s tab. They were served with a utility bill of “Estrato Uno”, the lowest possible price bracket in the city -out of six – and almost fully subsidized, even before they procured a land title. Areas of this kind generally end up stealing light and water and create a public health concern, so it’s better for everyone to serve them formally anyways. And those are now tax-paying citizens with default rates that any public entity would envy, enabled through pre-paid cards and other creative strategies.

But this didn’t happen overnight. Property rights were not clear in about 60% of the city in the 80’s, so the city started an effort to legalize and serve them, and steadily succeeded thirty years later. But undocumented settlements continued to grow fast, especially in a country hit hard by displacement due to rural violence (read guerrillas, paramilitaries and land pressures derived from unlimited drug demand from developed nations), among other factors. So about 20% of the land area today is still considered outside the legal framework and the effort continues. The biggest challenge is where to draw the line.

Public Private Partnerships made possible through a strong Academia, today studies how to create that invisible limit working closely with the communities that live in the border to self-patrol. An Urban Growth boundary that adapts to the realities of these settlers that often prefer landslide risks that seem minimal by comparison to the threats they are accustomed to. Medellin prides itself as an urban laboratory and a city that prefers the “do” strategy than the “talk”, and that adapts quickly to the challenges that arise. Resiliency is only an afterthought, but it is tangible there.

Moravia, for example, an open air dump turned laboratory of bioengineering, lies in the outskirts of the 1900s Medellin –today’s central area-. Moravia was home to communities in desperation whose sustenance came from the waste itself in the most Dantesque inferno scene imaginable. People built their homes atop a time bomb of gases and contamination. So with academic collaboration and public resources over several decades, property titles were issued only so that they could be applied as down payment for homes in other areas, first far away, then nearby in order to keep the community connected. Subsidies and donations then took care of the remainder, and social housing with no debt now exists where only garbage was, surrounded by public amenities and community centers where kids learn to play instruments under the slogan “a kid with an instrument is a kid without a gun”

Moravia project
Photo by UW’s Runstad Fellows

Throughout the whole city, architecture plays a fundamental role in dignifying and beautifying the areas, undoubtedly increasing value to the surroundings while transforming the neighborhoods. And to many’s dismay, property taxes are not increased in order to deter gentrification. Only Havana comes to mind with such clear conscience to maintain social capital; except in Medellín citizens can sell their homes whenever they want.

Medellin’s success story lies in the bond and sense of pride of an already tight community that morphed from being a shame for the country’s tourism organizations to its biggest pride in less than two decades.  The biggest lesson seems to be about working united as an organism to adapt while protecting the weak, in order to secure the opportunities for the private sector to develop and the quality of life for all. Even the most pro-capitalist people in Colombia agree that this is the right step ahead: a redistribution of the wealth that lies not in the pastoral rural lands, but in cities that will increasingly house the great majority of the population. (over 75% already in Colombia’s case).

The World Urban Forum recognized Medellin’s success stories selecting it as a worthy host for the 2014 event; ULI recognized its capacity as the most innovative city in the world in 2013; but perhaps the most revealing world title is the one obtained last week: the WWF recognized Medellin as the most socially connected city in support of their sustainable strategies. Their hashtag was the most voted in the planet: #welovemedellin. Yes we do.

Luis F Borrero, 2014 Affiliate Fellow