Medellin's metamorphosis: From drug capital to innovation hub

Once the world capital of cocaine during the 1980s and early 1990s, Medellin has experienced an unparalleled transformation in recent years that has literally transformed the city’s urban landscape. While successfully combating drug cartels, the “city of eternal spring” (as it is commonly known) rose from chaos in the new millennium by leveraging the entrepreneurial spirit embedded in its culture, to become a Latin American leader in urban innovation. Several bold and ambitious projects in recent years have gained global admiration and recognition.

A recent article in the Argentinian newspaper Clarin praised Medellin’s resilience in transforming the lives of those most in need. “After being devastated by the war on drug trafficking in the 1980s, the Colombian city is now an example of new urban trends,” the article said.

With heavy investment in sustainable public transportation aimed at connecting the city’s most marginated and poor areas, the city has led the way in urban innovation, a recent Wall Street Journal survey found.

Credit: Metro Americas

Thousands of users glide up and down the steep Andean mountains each day through a public-transit gondola system that feeds into the city’s main metro train line. With three different lines that sprawl along the mountains on each side of the valley’s downtown, these cable-cars serve the peripheral sectors of San Javier, Santa Cruz, Popular and Santo Domingo. Hardly accessible by car and public transportation, residents in these areas have significantly cut down on transportation costs and time.

As The Wall Street Journal put it, “perhaps the most ambitious project has been a system of outdoor escalators built in one of the city’s poorest districts.” These mechanical stairs extend about a quarter-mile through steep slopes and allow for painless transportation through the once violent barrio of Las Independencias. This project has attracted many tourists who would otherwise never visit the area, leading to increased commercial activity in the neighborhood.

An escalator divided into six sections so people living on all parts of the hillside have easy access to it. Credit: Daily Mail UK

An escalator divided into six sections so people living on all parts of the hillside have easy access to it. Credit: Daily Mail UK

Michael Mehaffy, the executive director of Portland, Ore.-based Sustasis Foundation, suggested that with improved transportation in the most marginalized areas comes progress, and all sectors of the city will benefit. “It is in everyone’s economic interest to ensure that the poorer parts of the city are improving as well,” Mehaffy said.

And, if that was not impressive on its own, an electric trolley was just opened in October 2015, bringing back to life the old tram-car that used to run through what today is downtown Medellin. Known as Tranvía de Ayacucho (in Spanish for Tram-car of Ayacucho), this system has 60 trolleys in its fleet and runs 100 percent on electricity, the first of its kind in Colombia and helping Medellin become a leader in sustainable transportation and urban innovation.

Credit: Caracol CO

Credit: Caracol CO

All these projects have aimed at tackling the city’s transportation biggest challenge: the lack of integration of poor areas to the center because of the region’s rugged landscape. And the city has found innovative ways to provide affordable and sustainable public transportation systems to communicate the periphery with the valley.

In this process, these systems are becoming city landmarks that attract thousands of tourists and visitors who admire the city’s transformation from an infamous drug capital to a vibrant, dynamic and innovative metropolis.

Cover credit: Deviant Art