Medellín, Colombia’s second most populous city, is considered a
leading example in terms of their environmental policies and sustainable
initiatives. Whilst there are other green cities around the globe, the
transformation of Medellín is truly remarkable; considering just a
few years ago it was a stronghold for Pablo Escobar’s drug crimes and
deemed the ‘murder capital of the world’.
In the last decade, Medellín has won a bunch of awards and recognitions,
including the being a finalist of the Wall Street Journal’s ‘City of
the Year Award’; winning the ‘Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize’ issued by
the Singapore Government; the ‘Ashden Cooling by Nature Award’ for the
city’s innovative Green Corridor Project; and the ‘2020 Smart City
Award’ for all of Medellín’s social, urban and cultural transformations.
How did Medellín undergo such a drastic transformation and change its
public image worldwide? Medellín is situated in Aburrá Valley and
surrounded by mountains, so all the air pollution emitted from the six
million people living there is unable to disperse.
In 2013, The Atmospheric Emissions Inventory of the Aburrá Valley
found that 70% to 80% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) came from motor
vehicles; thus, many policies are targeting reducing cars, whilst
introducing public transportation, pedestrianization and improving
Medellín aims to cut its carbon emissions by 20% by 2030 and hopes to
be carbon neutral by 2050. To achieve this goal, the city launched many
‘Green Projects’ which targeted public transportation, the creation of
urban greenspaces and sustainable food productions.
Public Transport Initiatives
The city’s main transformation of the public transport sector was
overseen by former mayor Sergio Fajardo (2003 to 2007), who was later
named the ‘Best Major of Colombia’ due to his innovative work and
policies in Medellín.
In 2005, former mayor Fajardo launched the ‘Pico y Placa’ (the speed
and plate) initiative. This aimed to reduce the number of motor
vehicles on the road during rush hour traffic, by only allowing half
the registered cars to drive during rush hours (7am to 8:30am and
5:30 pm to 7pm) on a particular day. Even and odd license plate numbers
alternate each day on who can drive during these hours. Those violating
the rules can be fined up to $135 per offense.
In the same year, the Fajardo also began the construction of an
integrated and interconnected transportation system, which now links
all suburbs and neighborhoods to its center. This includes cable cars
to communities on the mountain sides, in order to promote social
inclusion and offset carbon dioxide emissions.
‘Medellín’s transportation systems promotes social inclusion
and offsets carbon dioxide emissions.’
The major public transport transformation was overseen by Área
Metropolitana del Valle de Aburrá, a council consisting of ten
municipalities in the Aburrá Valley, all of their mayors,
representatives from environmental non-profits, a representative
from the Colombian Government and more.
Being the largest municipality, Medellín council provides most of the
funding to transform itself and the other municipalities in the region,
as well as its mayor being the president of the council. Additional
budget for the projects comes mostly from property taxes, donations
and a portion of revenues generated from public services.
According to the global network of local governments for sustainability,
ICLEI, 506 buses in Medellín were remodeled to use cleaner technology.
This decreased pollutant emissions by 4066 tons of CO2 and 5.4 tons
of particulate matter in the air.
After more than a decade of drastically modernizing their public
transport, Medellín is not yet done! Currently, the city is working on
doubling its public transport connections, including its MetroPlús bus
system which works with low emission technologies, doubling bike lanes
in the next three years and adding 50,000 publicly rented EnCicla
e-bikes. Medellín is on its way to becoming the capital of electric
mobility in South America.
Medellín lines its streets with greenery!
In 2019, former Mayor Federico Gutiérrez (2016 to 2019), launched the
Green Corridor project, lining all the streets, sidewalks and waterways
of Medellín with strips of diverse plants, trees and vegetative cover.
This helped reduce the impact of the ‘heat island effect’, which
describes how urbanized areas experience higher temperatures. This is
because concrete and other artificial structures absorb and re-emit
more heat than natural landscapes.
According to the UNEP: ‘Urban parks can reduce ambient daytime
temperature by an average of approximately 1°C. Whilst green roofs can
cut energy use by 10 to 15 per cent.’
Urban trees can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere via sequestration.
Green spaces with healthy soil can also increase carbon sequestration,
biodiversity microhabitats, and storm water regulation due to its
‘When we made the decision to plant the thirty green corridors, we
focused on areas which most lacked green spaces,’ explained former Mayor
Gutiérrez. ‘With this intervention we have managed to reduce temperature
by more than 2°C.’
Including urban greenspaces is especially vital in a time where more
and more heat waves will hit major urban areas. Rather than spending
excessive energy on installing air conditioning around the city, cities
should start planting thousands to millions of trees throughout. In
addition to the Green Corridor Project, the Seeking Future Project
aims to plant a further one million trees in the region—to date they
have already planted 250,000.
Where is Medellín heading to next in the future?
Medellín’s next project to increase its green status even further is
heading towards quite a large-scale change. Metropolitan Greenbelt
Plan is a municipal government approved plan, under current mayor’s
Daniel Quintero’s council, aimed to address both urban growth and
increase urban greenspaces. The objectives of the Greenbelt Plan are
in alignment with the city’s 2030 sustainability targets; improving
environmental sustainability, social inclusion, housing improvement,
mobility and connectivity of municipalities.
The Metropolitan Greenbelt will stretch 72 kilometers and be split
into four ‘bands’, consisting of (1) the Buffer Strip, (2) the
Transition Strip, (3) the Mobility Corridor and (4) the Urban Strip.
Each band has certain activities which are allowed or prohibited
Outermost band ‘Buffer Strip’, will prioritize rural and environmental
protection, and involve projects to do with ecosystem restoration,
ecological tourism, sustainable food production, rural housing
improvement, removing informal settlements, hiking and biking trails.
Additionally, the Buffer Strip will be equipped with regular resting
areas, LED lighting and security cameras.
The next band from the outside in is the ‘Transition Strip’, which
will have public spaces, such as education facilities, eco-parks,
eco-orchards built within them. The transition strip will also be
constructed to function as environmental hazard mitigation and
‘Greenbelt Plan will improve environmental sustainability, social
inclusion, housing improvement, and connectivity of municipalities.’
The Mobility Corridor will be the second innermost band of the
Metropolitan Greenbelt, with its main purpose being longitudinal
connectivity. This section will link new transportation projects to
the existing city center transport connections, as well as provide
efficient public transport connection to more remote neighboring towns
along the valley’s mountainsides.
Finally, the Urban Strip contains the city’s center and surrounds the
Medellín River which bisects the Valley. It will be the location of
housing for those who need to be resettled due to this project, the
public and private sector and future urban development projects.
The project, developed between 2012 and 2013 by a team from the
National University of Colombia and funded by the Metropolitan Area
of the Aburrá Valley, is estimated to take 17 years to complete.
However, the Greenbelt project would need to relocate an estimated 6591
households from the outermost ‘Buffer Strip’ band. The most affected
area would be the informal settlement known as ‘Comuna 8’—which is
difficult, as this area has a constant incoming stream of new inhabitants.
Colombia’s long history of violence due to political polarization
resulted in a 10-year civil war, which further fragmented the country
and its people. Although Medellín has overcome many political and
drug-related crimes, these are still prevalent throughout the country.
Colombia has between 4.9 to 5.5 internally displaced people, who
mostly flocked to urban areas such as Medellín to escape crime and
40% of those living in Comuna 8 are internally displaced people, who
live in informal, self-built homes. The area is close to Medellín city
center but hard to access, due to its position on the steep mountain
slopes. Thus, the community needs to assess and outline who has the
priority to stay and who is able to relocate—which again, is a
difficult task to execute. To date, there is no deadline put in place
for when this decision will be made.
The Metropolitan Greenbelt Plan is putting strategies into place to
provide housing for those who need to relocate to the Urban Strip.
However, the project also threatens existing community farms, which
are units where many people grow their own food, as part of an urban
agricultural program known as the ‘EcoGarden Project’ in Medellín.
‘40% of those living in Comuna 8 are internally displaced people.’
The EcoGarden project encourages citizens—particularly youths—to
sustainably grow their own food, in order to have less reliance on
foreign imports. 441 people between ages 14 to 28 have already received
their own free EcoGarden starter kit from the regional government.
A proposed strategy, which would require much government support and
funding, proposes the implementation of new farming technologies in
both the Buffer Strip and the Urban Strip, in order to provide
incentive to people to live in multi-family housing units. The
introduction of hydroponic farming and rainwater collection are
sustainable and attractive solutions, and if successful, would also
reduce the space needed for housing. Hydroponics has shown to be a
success in providing food security to low-income communities in Uruguay.
Medellín is definitely a city to look to as an innovative, future
thinking leader for their green initiatives and environmentally
conscious policies. Even wealthier countries around the world can take
an example or two from Medellín, for inspiration to make their own
cities more sustainable.
Featured Image: Mike Swigunski | Unsplash
Barrows L., Lingjun B., Calvin E., Richardson J., Sollenberger G., Irazábal C., Buchholz N. (N/A) Growth Management in Medellín, Colombia.
Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Sede Medellín. Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Sede Bogotá. Universitat International de Catalunya.
Hinge A., Bush S., Jordan W., Kim J., Le Y., Poddar D. and Torreon C. (2017) Policy path to improve urban air quality in Medellín, Colombia.
Columbia University: School of International and Public Affairs. La Ciudad Verde.