Conceived in the Colombian city of Medellín, social urbanism is changing the very fabric of Colombia and offers the promise of hope to some of the world’s most troubled cities.
The idea of social urbanism revolves around putting pride back into a city through architecture and design. Journalist and social commentator Ángela Sánchez described social urbanism in her report ‘Social Urbanism: the Metamorphosis of Medellín’ as “investing the greatest amount of resources, of the highest quality and aesthetic excellence, in the poorest, most violent parts of the city.”
Through architecture and design, cities have the ability to transform on a societal level, with Medellín standing as a true testament to this notion.
After the rigorous redevelopment of the the Colombian capital, former Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo developed the advanced social urbanism ideology, taking its foundation from the notion of “Medellín the most educated.”
Once widely seen as Colombia’s cocaine capital, education and aesthetics are revolutionising Medellín through an empowerment of its people.
We know that culture and societal values are shown through a city’s architecture and design, and the reverse also holds true. Through the use of positive architecture, true social value can be gained.
Instead of shying away from the city’s poorest, most corrupt and most dangerous corners, urban planners made those sites a focus for the the redevelopment sites. Where slums once stood, there are now stunning landscape architectural feats such as the Medellín Botanical Gardens, incredible infrastructure in the form of the cable system and what has become the most iconic building in the city, the Parque Biblioteca España.
The library, built in the poorest of the city’s slums, overlooks the area from its mountaintop location. The development of such an architecturally stunning structure, intermingled with its function, has created a benchmark for social change. In placing one of the world’s most architecturally iconic building in the poorest of areas, residents of the area are no longer stigmatised. Instead, they learn to value themselves and feel recognised as members of a culture that promotes beauty and education.
In her report, Sánchez quotes EAFIT University rector Juan Luis Mejía Arango as he perfectly surmises the link between the built environment in Medellín and its social outcomes.
“The virtue of these buildings is that they are rewriting the city,” Arango says. “Places that before had dreadful connotations are now acquiring a new sense: the San Javier Library-Park occupies the ‘non-place’ that before was stigmatised by the presence of a prison and a cemetery. Where the Belén Library stands, there were once the dreaded prison cells.”
“New meaning has been conferred by books and freedom,” he says.
These buildings and their functions have given the city a new meaning, a new story and a new life. Giving value to a place that had been seen as a non-entity truly enables the creation of cities that are both functionally and socially successful.