The Most Beautiful for the Poorest

by Ronal Castañeda

Earth, how are you doing? (Issue I/2018)

In the early 1990s, the Colombian city Medellin was preceded by its dismal reputation. The urban hub was internationally known as a stronghold of violence and drug trafficking. Medellin became synonymous with crime, cartels and the city's most famous son, drug trafficker Pablo Escobar.

But for some time Medellin has been working on an image revamp. Massive investments in urban infrastructure and the redesigning of public space are making the city more attractive to its inhabitants. One particular draw is the Parques Biblioteca, the so-called "Library Parks".

Nine such complexes now stand across Medellin. The sprawling parks which surround a public library are mostly to be found in the periphery of the city. The green areas, dotted with futuristic building complexes, seem like beacons of progress in neighbourhoods once controlled by drug cartels, some of which are still gripped by poverty, unemployment and corruption, and that's exactly how they were conceived.

The idea for Medellin's library parks hailed from ex-mayor Sergio Fajardo, who is now running for presidency. Fajardo's vision was to completely rethink his hometown and "change its face". Juan Carlos Sánchez, who is responsible for designing the library's parks, sums up this vision: "It was about replacing an atmosphere of fear with an atmosphere of hope."  To do so, they aimed to restore dignity to public space. "The most beautiful for the poorest" was the underlying premise of the parks.

And so, especially in districts that had long been overlooked by the state, places of social co-existence were created - with the cooperation of world-renowned architects such as Giancarlo Mazzanti and Hiroshi Naito. Key to the creation of the parks was active participation and citizens’' participation of the citizens. They hoped that the project would offer educational opportunity. "If we'd just built buildings without social inclusion programs, it would not have worked," said Sánchez.

For that reason, the library doesn't simply offer books on loan but also free events such as concerts and readings, and the parks do not only offer scope for relaxation but also sports courses. They form a cultural and social axis that runs through the whole city and connects and reinvigorates places once lost to bullets and gangs.

Thanks to the Parques Biblioteca, Medellin has earned itself accolades like "City of the Year", "Most Innovative City in the World" and "Most Intelligent City". Copycats have also emerged, for example in the Brazilian Rio de Janeiro, where the Manguinhos Library Park was built in the middle of a favela.

Meanwhile, beyond its aesthetic makeover, Medellin's image shift has made great steps. In 1991, there were 266 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Today the figure stands at 19. And for the first time in its history, Medellin is also considered the country's most popular tourist destination. The library parks might not have single-handedly sparked this shift - but they did indeed give back a slice of dignity to the city and its residents.

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