Harnessing innovation in city development in Medellin, Colombia

Harnessing innovation in city development in Medellin, Colombia

Alliance member, the University of Edinburgh, collaborates on two year research project in the Colombian city Medellin, uncovering political and technical barriers to landslide risk-reduction strategies for informal communities.

Dr Soledad Garcia Ferrari, Senior Lecturer in Architectural Design at the University of Edinburgh, is leading the project which looks at the extent  to which urban innovation in Medellín has helped increase social equity and well-being in the city.

Their pilot research project identified politically and practically viable approaches to landslide risk-reducing strategies for low income communities, and is now being replicated in other communities across Medeliin and São Paulo, Brazil.  


Researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University have been participating in interdisciplinary research in Medellín, Colombia, a city that has recently pioneered innovative forms of planning and management and was acclaimed the ‘most innovative city in the world’ by the Urban Land Institute in 2012. Medellín remains, however, one of the most socially unequal cities in Latin America with over half of the city fabric produced informally. Research involving a team across UK and Colombian institutions has been evaluating the Medellín planning experience from ‘the ground up’, providing insights upon which other cities also undergoing similar development can draw.

Initial studies showed that “the city is spreading outwards without services and employment being provided. New low-income developments are replicating high-rise models which failed worldwide, and there is limited intervention in the existing informal areas, many vulnerable locations with high levels of risk.[1]” The overarching research question concerned how to make Medellin a more socially equitable and environmentally sustainable city.

Funded by a British Council Institutional Links Grant and working with a group of academic and non-academic organisations in Medellin, a team of researchers from Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt Universities worked in collaboration with Colombian researchers, in designing and implementing four work packages covering: heritage and cultural values; housing and habitat; public space and wellbeing; and mobility and socio-spatial integration.

The research showed that despite the city’s implementation of new planning instruments since 1990s and Medellín’s innovative approach to urban management known as ‘social urbanism’, socio-economic and spatial inequality remain major problems. The partnership saw opportunities in developing research that would inform further more community-based and focused innovation that could be adapted in other urban areas in the Global South.

Work within the housing and habitat theme identified the issue of landslide risk in informal settlements on the urban periphery. This led to further research exploring the scope for landslide risk-reducing strategies for informal settlements from the community and state perspectives; increased our understanding of the barriers to landslide risk-reducing strategies; and identified politically and practically viable approaches to landslide risk-reducing strategies within a wider and more complex context of social and physical risk.

A first project addressed these issues in a pilot informal community of 180 households. The second project up-scaled the approach developed in the first, exploring its adaptation in two further low-income communities in Medellin and one in São Paulo, Brazil. These projects confirmed that landslide risk in informal communities is not only a technical issue but also a political one, which necessitates collaboration between communities and the state and the overcoming of administrative barriers and mutual fear.

Strategies for community-based monitoring and mitigation of landslide risk implemented in Medellin and Sao Paulo are leading to a better understanding of how bottom-up approaches can be set up, optimising socio-technological arrangements if underpinned by collaboration between communities and relevant governmental bodies.

These projects are providing opportunities to analyse several layers of interaction between the community in the informal settlements and other actors, such as: between the community and academia, based on the ‘dialogue of knowledges’; between community and public sector agencies, which engage in ‘political’ dialogue; and between Global South and Global North; exploring community-based landslide monitoring systems whereby trained community volunteers regularly communicate images of key observation points via mobile technology, to experts in partner universities in the UK and Colombia.

Through involving communities at the micro-scale, the research will lead to understanding opportunities for co-producing landslide risk mitigation strategies benefitting the most vulnerable, within a complex institutional, political and economic setting.


For more information visit: http://www.medellin-urban-innovation.eca.ed.ac.uk/

[1] Garcia-Ferrari, S., Smith, H., Coupé, F. & Rivera, H. (2018) ‘City Profile: Medellín’, Cities, 74, 354-364.