I just returned from a two week long backpacking trip through Colombia. I love to travel to get fresh perspectives and meet people different from me. As Colombia is a developing country, I had many assumptions about what I would encounter while there. Some of what I discovered there was not too surprising: incredibly kind and hospitable people, great food, and beautiful mountainous and Caribbean cities. However, I was also impressed by the many advancements this rapidly evolving country is making, especially in the realm of transportation and accessibility.
Most striking to me was the expansive multimodal and innovative web of transportation throughout Medellin, Colombia's second largest city. With a metro population of 4 million people, Medellin is situated in a valley of verdant mountains rendering many of its 271 neighborhoods pitched on steep and difficult to access hillsides. In 2012, the city was recognized as one of the most innovative cities in the world by the Urban Land Institute. Over the past fifteen years, Medellin’s proactive stance on increasing accessibility through strategic transportation and community initiatives has made it more interconnected and safe. The public transit system today includes a network of low-cost metro lines, buses, and cable cars connecting the mountains to the valleys and a series of free outdoor escalators on the mountainside of one of the city’s most isolated and impoverished neighborhoods.
Infamous in the early 1990s as the most dangerous city in the world (in 1991, there were 6,500 murders at a rate of 381 per 100,000 people), Medellin was the backdrop to Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel and the country's drug wars. I was fortunate to tour Comuna 13, the former home of Pablo Escobar and the epicenter of his cartel’s operations. This neighborhood is situated high on a hillside with significant barriers to access for its 12,000 residents: there is more than a 1,200 foot vertical ascent to reach it from its next closest neighborhood and metro station. For generations, the only way to access Comuna 13 was through a system of 350 steep stairs etched into the mountainside. Its isolation made it a perfect setting for Escobar to operate the cartel free from meaningful government intervention.
In 1998, Colombia approved a constitutional law that all municipalities must develop and implement master plans created with input from the community. This spurred organized action around inclusion, innovation, and community growth throughout the country. The Comuna 13 neighborhood embraced this directive and is now widely recognized as a model for reinvention, thanks to this focus on resident inclusion and access. Besides the colorful street art curated by neighborhood residents, the most significant catalyst for change was the intensive focus on improving residents’ mobility, both economic and physical, through public transportation.
In 2011, Medellin launched the Comuna 13 neighborhood’s $7 million public Urban Escalator Project, shortening its residents’ 30 minute, 30 story climb to their neighborhood to a 5 minute ride on the series of 6 escalators. As lively music plays, paid attendees and vibrant art welcomes residents, and now, visitors, alike to the neighborhood. The hillside, once defined by stairs, is transformed, much like the neighborhood, by escalators.
While riding the escalators and then taking in the view of the city from the a high vantage point, I was reminded that there is always room to think bigger, reimagine what is possible, and push boundaries. The combination of public engagement, policy shifts, and focus on social urbanism provided the framework for residents in Comuna 13 to reclaim their neighborhood.
Here in Rochester, it is exciting to see stakeholders, residents, and the government alike engaging in parallel actions: people are coming together to discuss big ideas and make plans for a more dynamic and connected city. There are so many initiatives in Rochester that are changing the way in which residents are connected to and engaged with the city. In just the past year, Rochester has experienced a surge in bike ridership, with the launch of the Pace bike share program. The Rochester Transit Service is in the process of redesigning the bus system to better connect residents and to reflect the changing needs of our residents through the Reimagine RTS project. ROC the Riverway is leveraging investment to transform our city’s use of and access to the Genesee River. The City of Rochester is writing the city’s new comprehensive plan, Rochester 2034, to develop a vision and strategy for its future economic, social, and physical development. The inner loop project is transforming neighborhoods defined by the highway into prime retail, residential, and recreation corridors. These collective actions are shaping the future of our city, today.
For new perspectives and ideas, I highly recommend a visit to Colombia to get inspired and see change in motion.