The Medellin model

Medellin has taken a rockin’ approach to social investment over the past ten years. The city owns an energy company and has funneled 30% of its profits into projects that are designed to reduce social exclusion. It’s like living in something out of a Treasury Better Business Case. So much so that I’m surprised my google searching hasn’t found at least three consulting firms taking all the credit…

A major focus has been public transport. Some of Medellin’s geography is easy to serve. It’s stretched out in a long thin valley where a sparkling and efficient metro plies the arterial routes. The metro was constructed through a public-private partnership over a period of ten years and is the only one in Colombia.

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But some of Medellin’s geography presents major challenges. The poorer suburbs have historically stretched on hillsides too steep for buses and out of the question for light rail. Slum dwellers had to walk for hours to access key civic services. Undeterred, Medellin city has constructed gondolas up the hills and into the hearts of its poorest communities.

As the cable car climbs you can see the decrease in wealth: the buildings get shorter and the roofs become more and more makeshift. But the people who live there are now easily able to access employment, education and civic services in the valley floor. And the areas served by the cable cars are experiencing a renaissance. It’s transit driven development; people are now choosing to live there. It’s also some of the cheapest sight seeing money can buy.

The icing on the cake is Medellin’s commitment to other public works in poorer communities. The hulking black building you see in the top left of the cable car shot is the Spanish Library, one of the new ‘library parks’ dotted in Medellin’s hills. After three months of bemoaning the lack of prioritisation of education in Colombian communities, it’s totally refreshing to see money being well spent in this direction. They also have a micro-credit bank and support for entrepreneurs in low income areas.

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The good people who live in Medellin are justly proud of the progress the city has made. So much so that, in a land where a queue is pretty much an abstract concept, they form neat lines on metro platforms when waiting for trains, despite no official encouragement to do so.

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