Medellín as a Mass Transit Success Story

Francis Fukuyama and Seth Colby write about the incredible turnaround in Medellín, Colombia focusing on the mayor’s theory that improving the physical environment in the city’s poorest neighborhoods has made a huge difference:

The most striking feature of Fajardo’s approach was his plan to erect high-quality public architecture in Medellín’s poorest neighborhoods. “Architecture sends an important political message,” he says. “When you go to the poorest neighborhood and build the city’s most beautiful building, that gives a sense of dignity.” Fajardo and his colleagues believed in social urbanism: the idea that modernist buildings and transportation systems of the sort Libia Gomez now enjoys would help bridge the enormous gulf of distrust separating the poor from mainstream society. In barrios like Santo Domingo and Comuna 13, the city created digitized maps of every street and building, noting where drug gangs operated and money flowed, and devised architectural features to disrupt them.

I saw a big exhibit about this at MOMA last year, and my reaction was to think that this story underrates the extent to which the improvement is being driven by the practical advantages of better transportation infrastructure much more than the rest of this stuff. Imagine a poor farming village located across a dangerously fast-flowing river from some vacant fertile farmland. Build a bridge over the river and the villagers will prosper. Build a road connecting a town to a gold mine and the town will prosper. Well, the “resource” that brings people to a city is access to the other people and especially the commercial centers where people with money are gathering to conduct business. Giving people the practical opportunity to get downtown is a huge driver of prosperity and economic opportunity and the Metrocable system seems like a very smart transportation solution to the specific geography of the city.