Urban Acupuncture in Medellin, Colombia
A case study of strategies for catalytic self-organization
One of the recurrent themes of this blog is that urban self-organization is a powerful dynamic that ought to be of more interest (and use) to urban designers, planners and other actors. This is particularly so because sellf-organization has an extraordinary (and documented) capacity to increase efficiency and fitness to human need. But to take advantage of this dynamic, we need to identify the most effective “design tools for self-organization.” Some of these already exist, and some others could be developed without much effort.
This is a different kind of urban design – and, I suggest, a very important one.
There are several different classes of these tools that ought to be of particular interest. One class develops “frameworks” that have the right structure to support urban self-organization. Conventional design tools like street networks and infrastructure systems already do this fairly well – at least, when spacing is optimal for self-organization at scales that include pedestrians. Another class provides incentives to facilitate self-organization, such as targeted economic resources. Yet another class creates new structures that catalyze self-organizing growth around them.
To use metaphors from gardening, the first class creates urban “trellises”, spaced in such a way that self-organizing growth can occur. The second class “fertilizes” the self-organizing growth, using funding and other incentives. And the third class “plants seeds” that then sprout additional growth nearby.
We could mention other kinds of self-organization tools, each with an illustrative gardening metaphor – for example, codes (“pruning”), regulations (“weeding,”) and so on. The important point is that, as with gardening, in such a self-organizing process we do not specify the result – nor could we – but do we take strategic actions to ensure that the desired result comes about all the same. When it does, it has its own organic characteristics that we have enabled, along the lines of our intention.
This is indeed an important kind of design, much more in line with the famous definition of design by Herbert Simon, “the transformation from existing states to preferred ones.” It is rarely, in fact, the direct specification of a detailed preferred state. (An all-too-common disorder in today’s design fields that we do not have time here to discuss.)
Most gardeners use multiple tools for the garden. In the same way, most strategic actions for urban self-organization use a combination of tools. This can be seen especially clearly in the so-called “urban acupuncture” of Medellin, Colombia, and in particular, the creation of a new escalator system in Comuna 13, the San Javier informal settlement. This is a fascinating and exciting case story of “urban acupuncture” – and of strategic catalysis of urban self-organization.
The term “urban acupuncture” was used by former Curitiba mayor Jaime Lerner, who used it to describe top-down interventions that resulted in bottom-up organization. For example, Lerner is noted for his creation of an efficient new Bus Rapid Transit system, allowing much more efficient pedestrian activity around the stops of the new system.
In Medellin, the San Javier settlement was a dangerous, difficult place to navigate. A new set of stairs, pedestrian paths, plazas, and – most attention-getting – electric escalators, provided several key ingredients, which began to work together in synergy. One, the additional and continuous movement of people, coupled with attendants on the escalators, provided “eyes on the street” and greatly inproved neighborhood security. Two, the new traffic and relatively safer location encouraged new small businesses to locate along the new infrastructure. And three, the quality of the new facilities sent a signal that residents could in turn add their own beautification elements, and assure that the improvements would be secure. All of these catalytic changes worked together, creating a “virtuous circle” of positive growth – as can be seen in the “before and after” photos included here.
Another important element of this and other projects was that they are funded through community-led funnding. This means that local people can choose how to direct their own funding. While some projects may seem questionable, the benefit is that the projects are incremental, and more likely to produce local catalytic effects than a more “top-down” funding approach. Too often these approaches funnel money into a few “silver bullet” projects, like sports stadiums and the like. As the Comuna 13 example shows, sometimes surprising choices of project types can have surprisingly positive results.
The political leadership of Medellin (and of Antioquia, its region) appears very advanced in their thinking on these issues. Sergio Fajardo, former mayor and now governor of Antioquia, has stressed the importance of open and cooperative behavior in these kinds of projects. Fajardo, a PhD in mathematics, seems to be a master of “applied game theory,” assuring that public and private interests align align for optimum self-organization. That includes placing catalytic projects in informal settlements, such as new public buildings. “Our most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas,” he says.
If the message that sends is clear, so is the strategic shift in the use of public space. “[There is] a word that is not often used in politics, which is dignity. And that’s a respect for the humblest people in town. Usually you don’t talk about those things. Some people say, ‘Well, it’s just a building.’ It’s not just a building. It’s a public space, and the dignity of the space means the whole society has invested there. The whole society is present there.”
“We must close the gap between the public administration and the citizen,” Fajardo says. “For us it is basic to recognize and encourage new leadership, use our person to person interventions directly to reach the communities, share the processes of transformation step by step, generate working groups on projects, encourage and respect the work of the citizens groups, emphasize clarity in the processes and hand over to the community the responsibility for caring for everything that has been achieved.”
Fajardo thinks this is not rocket science – but it is not applied nearly enough. “This formula, apparently simple but with a very deep sense of what participating democracy should be like, functions in Medellín, and anywhere in the world for that matter, because it rescues the true sense of politics. This is nothing more than working with people for people, where the general interest always prevails over private interest, where everyone is invited to get involved in the changes, where no favors are negotiated for bureaucratic office or contracts and dignity and differences are respected. This is the only way to achieve the social transformations being demanded in the 21st century,“ he thinks.
“The main thing is the way of doing policies, of managing the city, vis-à-vis the citizens, in a transparent way, prioritizing investment in the places that need it, without making concessions to private interests and being clear on the precept that public funds are sacred.”
“Our proposal was based on clear principles: public funds are sacred; planning must not be improvised; and it must be transparent in terms of its management. And we have been faithful to these principles, telling all people, no matter what group they are from or their political preferences that we should work together for the development of the city, and love and care for it.”
Love is an interesting word when talking about urban projects. But maybe it’s just the right word — the right kind of nutrient for autocatalytic growth.
Photos: Comuna 13’s steep and dangerous streets before; attendants on the new escalators; a view of the escalator, stairs and plazas afterwards; a view from an escalator; a new public plaza; a new pedestrian and cart path along a formerly dangerous cliff edge; a view of the path from a distance; a new store adjacent to the escalator; the porch of a home adjacent to the escalator.