On the Edge of the Future, continued


Just 10 years ago, Medellín was known as one of the world’s most dangerous cities. Today, bold civic policies are transforming Colombia’s second-largest city into a striking story of urban renewal.

In the early 1990s, the murder rate in Medellín numbered in the thousands each year. Armed drug cartels fought for control of the region’s lucrative narco-trafficking trade, and the city became a battleground between nationalist paramilitaries and revolutionary guerillas. In 1991, the city saw 381 murders per 100,000 residents, or just above 6,300 for the year.

The situation began to improve in 2002, when the newly elected president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, directed federal resources toward quelling the violence and demobilizing the paramilitaries.

The following year, the city elected a new mayor, Sergio Fajardo. He ran on the platform that change was possible, even in violence-torn Medellín. Backed by fellow professionals and civic leaders, the mathematician-turned-politician had a formula for improving the city: Immediately complement every reduction in violence with tangible community improvements.

The son of an architect, Fajardo grasped how important good design can be in creating a more optimistic, sustainable, socially-just city. In keeping with the mantra “to the poorest people, the most beautiful buildings,” some of the city’s most impoverished and brutalized neighborhoods became homes to top-notch new schools and housing (as well as new police stations). New social programs and micro-lending to support new businesses rounded out the design upgrades.

Under Fajardo’s leadership, Medellín also built several “library parks” in the city’s worst neighborhoods. The parks have become world-renowned symbols of the city’s changing fortune. They merge accessible, attractive and safe community spaces with educational and cultural resources.

Parque Biblioteca España, for instance, was built in the Santo Domingo Savio barrio—a notorious slum that, nine years ago, was considered one of the most violent neighborhoods in all of Latin America. Colombian architect Giancarlo Mazzanti’s striking design perches three linked buildings atop a hillside like enormous boulders, studded with clusters of gleaming windows and surrounded by the low stucco and brick buildings of the barrio.

This award-winning library park has “helped catalyze a challenged community,” notes a recent issue of Architectural Record, “especially its children, who flood the computer stations and play and socialize on the deck.” The library has created “a pride of place ... quite a change from the feared neighborhood of the recent past.”

Halfway through his first term, Fajardo also oversaw the creation of a now-iconic aerial tramway.  The Metrocable connects one of Medellín’s most isolated slums to the city’s established transit system, breaking real and psychological barriers to overcoming poverty and despair.

Medellín has taken daring, sometimes counter-intuitive steps to wrest itself away from anarchy, and toward greater stability and social progress. By the time Fajardo left office in 2008, the city’s murder rate had plummeted to 26 per 100,000 residents, nearly 90 percent lower than the previous decade’s highs.


Since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the path out of urban poverty has been traveled via factory jobs and service-oriented small businesses. But in Kampala, Uganda, where about 40 percent of the city’s 1.2 million residents live in abject poverty, the road toward better health and greater prosperity is lined with plots of maize, stands of fruit trees, gaggles of chickens, and the occasional goat or cow.

The Uganda capital city’s urban farmers no longer have to worry that they’re breaking the law: In 2005, Kampala became the first city in sub-Saharan Africa to legalize urban agriculture. Since urban farming produces about 40 percent of the city’s food supply—including poultry products and vegetables—the move essentially made a virtue of necessity.

Still, legalization allowed the Kampala city government to begin regulating the safety of food grown and raised in the city, however unevenly.

It has also enabled international development groups to fund programs that assist Kampala neighborhoods like Kasubi and Kawaala. The valley-bottom parishes’ crowded, low-slung buildings are home to roughly 70,000 of Kampala’s poorest residents.

During the city’s frequent downpours, storm water rushes down from the steep hillside neighborhoods around the Kasubi-Kawaala district. The deluge picks up plastic trash, kitchen garbage and sewage on its way down slope. The solid wastes block drainage channels and local roads become impassable. Afterward, standing water and poor sanitation combine to cause disease outbreaks.

The slums have been the focus of several pilot projects, under the umbrella “Sustainable Neighborhoods in Focus.” When SNF launched in 2006, the staff planned to focus on developing sustainable urban agriculture and related micro-enterprises. But the community’s first priority was finding ways to deal with the floods. 

“Instead of agro-business being the main focus, it became part of the solution to flooding,” says Jean D’Aragon, a program officer with the Ottawa, Canada-based International Development Research Centre, which is funding SNF. 

D’Aragon’s team observed what people in Kasubi and Kawaala were already doing with what they had available. For instance, he says, “a guy was making briquettes out of compressed organic matter from the garbage.” So SNF began looking for ways to improve the briquettes and turn them into an income-generating business. 

“Add charcoal dust to the mixture and it becomes an energy source—fuel for cooking stoves,” says D’Aragon. “We looked at this as a potential solution to the garbage problem, instead of [the organic waste] ending up in the channels. Plus, energy sources are valuable.”

Another man was drying banana peels for chicken feed. SNF determined that peel feed was just as nourishing as the more expensive maize feed, while also getting banana peels out of the drainage canals. “They seem to grow normally,” D’Aragon says of the chickens. “So it might be a solution for the garbage, for income generating and for cost saving.”

There’s a peer-to-peer educational effect as well. “If their neighbor is doing a business with banana peels, they’re suddenly sensitized to the possibility of giving peels to their neighbor rather than throwing them in the channel,” says D’Aragon.

SNF has helped set up two waste sorting and composting stations in the neighborhood, employing local residents in the process. The stations sell 20-kilogram bags of compost for $3 each to local residents, for use on their gardens. And growers from outside the city come to load up on larger quantities.

Another SNF project is under way to gather up and crush the plastic trash that collects in the valley during flooding, and then sell it to recyclers.

Along with turning trash into gold, these projects demonstrate how even a desperately poor community can take control of its own welfare, creating tangible improvements within just a couple of years.

“Today the channels are not as full of garbage. They’re much cleaner,” says D’Aragon. “People see the impact of what they’re doing. [It’s] completely different from just building a road or something like direct aid.”

The SNF project team is currently investigating other flood-prevention techniques. One involves “infiltration ponds,” wherein soil soaks up the storm water. Another would create reservoir-like retention ponds to cache rain runoff.  The water could be stored for later uses like irrigation or fish farming.

The team is encouraging uphill residents to leave the grounds around their homes unpaved, and to plant more mangos, jackfruits and other fruit trees. The trees help absorb and secure storm water runoff in the soil, while providing a source of fresh food for households to eat or sell.

The pilot projects in Kasubi and Kawaala will inform sustainable development, urban agriculture and environmental remediation projects in other African cities. But D’Aragon believes even a Western city like Ottawa can learn a few things.

“Ottawa outlawed scavenging in an attempt to deal with the noise and nuisance problem of people going through the garbage,” he says. (The people were looking for deposit-and-return bottles and other valuable materials in curbside bins.) But the underlying problems of poverty and homelessness haven’t been solved.

“[Ottawa] could decide to train people to do it differently,” says D’Aragon, just as Kampala residents are learning to set banana peels and mango skins aside for compost. “Maybe if we allow [scavenging], but help organize it in a way so side effects aren’t as bad, we’ll all gain.”

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