The Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design
—Excerpt from Medellin: Environment, Urbanism and Society by Alejandro Echeverri Restrepo
The Northeastern Urban Integration Project in Medellín (Proyecto Urbano Integral, or PUI) was initiated by the City of Medellín in 2004 to harness opportunities presented by the MetroCable, a new cable-car project connecting three informal settlements to the metropolitan transit system.
The Puente Mirador
The Puente Mirador, located over the La Herrera stream, improves travel times to and from the Andalucía Metrocable station and has become a new public space and meeting place between previously separate areas.
In concert with the MetroCable, the PUI has made a significant contribution toward improving the quality of life for approximately 170,000 residents experiencing severe social inequality, poverty, and violence.

The PUI leverages the economic benefits of new mobility infrastructure to incorporate marginalized communities into the city. By reducing travel times to the city center from over an hour to less than ten minutes, the MetroCable has enhanced access to employment opportunities and eroded the boundary between the formal and informal city.

Working with the community to conceptualize, develop, and construct new open-space networks, the designers of the PUI have sensitively integrated a mobility infrastructure of the strategic goals of large and socially complex projects by developing processes that promote ownership by the community. 

Jurors discuss Medellín’s Northeastern Urban Integration Project

Settlments in 1948 Settlments in 1970 Settlments in 1996 Settlments in 2011
  • Precarious Settlements
  • Upgraded Precarious Settlements
  • Formal City
  • PUI Area

Medellín is located in the Aburrá Valley in the central Andes, 1,479 meters above sea level. Known as the "City of Everlasting Spring," it has only recently become a metropolis. It is the second-largest city in Colombia (after Bogotá) and the capital of the department of Antioquia. From 1938 to 2008, the population of Medellín increased from 168,000 to 2.34 million. This population skews relatively young, with almost 70 percent between five and forty-four years old.

Ninety percent of the population lives in about 30 percent of the city’s territory. Medellín is divided into 249 neighborhoods (barrios), 16 communes, and 6 zones. Of about 600,000 housing units, 77 percent are occupied by those at the lowest socioeconomic levels, while 19 percent house those in the middle and upper-middle levels. Four percent of the housing units are home to those at the highest economic level.

The city generates more than 8 percent of Colombia’s GDP, with the Aburrá Valley as a whole contributing close to 11 percent. Surpassing that of the other major cities of Colombia, the GDP per capita (with purchasing power parity) is U.S. $3,794; and corporate density is 25 companies per 1,000 people—the second highest in the country. Although Medellín was once known as "The Industrial City of Colombia," global and national economic dynamics have shifted the city’s focus to Medellín shares the Aburrá Valley with nine other municipalities, which collectively create a metropolitan urban area with a population of 3.5 million people.

Marginality in Medellín

The process of "informalization," understood as the formation of precarious neighborhoods, has been a characteristic of Medellín’s history throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, a consequence of the continuous migration toward the city.

The effects of this demographic growth became evident at the beginning of the last century, in the considerable rise in the demand for housing. This heightened demand was associated with the production of working-class residences for the huge numbers of manual laborers needed in the emerging industrial sector.1 From that time on, neighborhoods created through both public and private initiatives began appearing, primarily near the northeastern bank and along the tram route and principal roads. The public residences were the product of institutions such as the Instituto Crédito Territorial and the Banco Central Hipotecario, while the private residences represent investments by local landowners.

Despite these significant public and private efforts, the demand for housing continued to grow in the following decades. A migratory wave following the rural displacement and political violence of the 1950s pushed the city’s annual growth rate to 6 percent.

In ten years Medellín doubled its population; informal squatter settlements (urbanizaciones piratas) and illegal neighborhoods (barrios de invasión) began to appear in the most inaccessible peripheral areas. From this period we find the examples of Popular, Santo Domingo, and Granizal toward the eastern bank, and Doce de Octubre and Picacho toward the western bank.

Increasing in intensity, the new urbanizing dynamic began to generate profound segregation within the city’s physical, social, and economic western slopes, the informal city began to emerge; here one finds the ad hoc residences of the poor. Parallel to these areas, the middle and upper classes occupy the center and south of the valley, in the planned formal city. Medellín’s path diverged into two realities—two opposing "cities"—dramatically segregated by location and geographical relief.

Room inside one of the settlements
Violent Deaths Index 2003
Image map of death Index
  • 140 - 269 Homicides
  • 59 - 123 Homicides
  • 30 - 40 Homicides
Highlighted are of homicides
Map of metro lines
Opened 2008
Metrocable "New West" (Line J)

2.8 kilometers

119 cable cars

Opened 2010
Parque Arví Metrocable (Line L)

4.6 kilometers

27 cable cars

Opened 2004
Metrocable Santo Domingo (Line K)

2 kilometers

90 cable cars

Moves about 27,000 people per day

Thirty years later, a new wave of violence and rural displacement, combined with emerging narcotics trafficking, drove informalization in dramatic political and social directions. The neighborhoods of the northern slopes of the valley, commonly termed "comunas," became the habitat of illegal gangs—bands of assassins who acted on the orders of narcotics traffickers and other criminals. State control and presence in these sectors was almost nonexistent. As a result of informalization, 25 percent of Medellín’s territory (a total of 2,400 hectares) now lies in marginal neighborhoods.

The public administration, along with academic and other nongovernmental organizations, has been trying to address decades of inequality by implementing programs aimed at transforming the quality of life for the inhabitants of marginal neighborhoods. Many difficulties of the informal city—inequality, violence, and segregation—were an inherent aspect of its past. Although they remain challenges of the present, there is a move toward change so that they will not be part of the future of Medellín.

Social Urbanism
Under the leadership of Mayor Sergio Fajardo in 2004, the city bet on a public policy focused on reducing the profound social debts that had accumulated over decades, in addition to the legacy of violence. To address these problems, structural transformations that combined programs of education, culture, and entrepreneurship were implemented. Neighborhoods located in the most critical zones of the
Sattelite image of homicide area
city were given special attention; for the transformation of the comunas, this involved social urbanism and urban projects that drew on the best technical knowledge and designs.

The strategic urban projects that were defined as priorities in the municipality’s development plan (Library-Parks, the Schools of Quality, the City Center Plan, the Poblado Plan, the projects for "a New North," and the Integral Urban Projects, as well as others) were sponsored by Medellín’s Empresa de Desarrollo Urbano (EDU), a decentralized entity founded in 1993 as part of the city’s municipal structure.

The EDU experienced an internal transformation as specialized interdisciplinary teams dedicated to each of the strategic urban projects were set up, becoming vital instruments that planned and executed urban projects in the prioritized territories. Each strategic project had a manager responsible for creating channels of communication and coordinating relations between the various actors and institutions.

The EDU assumed sole technical leadership over this exclusive group of projects and territories. Some of the keys to success were the political leadership and inter-institutional coordination. Teaming with the city’s planning office and rigorously monitoring all of the internal processes of administration and execution enabled, in only a few years, the completion of a wide range of highly complex projects.


The most significant event in the establishment of improved mobility within the Aburrá Valley was the establishment of the Metro in 1995. With 31 kilometers of track, it is (with the Metro of Santiago, Chile) one of the most efficient in Latin America. The Metro’s speed is 37 kilometers per hour, while the cable-car system Metrocable's is 18 km/hour, and city buses run at speeds of about 15 km/hour. In 2006, the Metro released the master plan for 2006–2020, entitled "Trust in the Future."Several expansion projects were subsequently evaluated, including new cable-car systems, trams along 80th Avenue and Ayacucho Street, and the extension of Line B to the east.

Medellin Metro line
EDU Meeting
EDU City
Integral urban project methodology

The Proyecto Urbano Integral (PUI)/Integral Urban Project is an instrument for planning and physical intervention in areas characterized by a high degree of marginalization, segregation, poverty, and violence. PUIs are targeted to solve specific problems in a territory where the state has generally been absent.

The Integral Urban Project strives to integrate community participation, inter-institutional coordination, promotion of housing, and the improvement of public space and mobility. In addition, the PUI promotes support for collective amenities and the restoration of the environment.

With these criteria, the northeastern communities of Medellín provided a fitting test for the pilot project. These sectors of the city had the lowest ratings on the quality-of-life index and index of human development. At the same time, in the same area, there was the launch of the Metrocable, a system of transportation that connected these informal settlements to the city Metro system by cable car. The PUI helped to select the location of the stations, with the objective of complementing and amplifying the positive impact of the Metrocable.

The PUI implemented a process of neighborhood consolidation through a series of projects that generated both increased accessibility and greater structure in the region. These projects were characterized by community amenities—parks, streets, walkways, and pedestrian bridges that connected neighborhoods. The PUI northeast is focused on improving public infrastructure as a means of social transformation, primarily in the densely populated areas of the city that formed in the 1950s, largely through extralegal urbanization.

The methodology applied in the northeastern PUI was gradually developed during the project. This method is similar to those used in comparable projects: first comes identification of the issues, next a diagnosis, and then a formulation of strategies to solve or minimize the problems. In addition to the high degree of institutional coordination, this project was innovative because of its sustainability phase; this phase began parallel with the intervention and continues after it, involving the community as an active part of the process from the start.

PUI Components

Physical: Based on urban interventions and strengthened by community participation. Includes the construction and improvement of public spaces, housing, and public buildings, and restoration of the environment.

Social: Relying on a strategy of identifying problems and opportunities, establishing and approving projects, and using participatory design practices such as public workshops. Combined with strengthened community organization and leadership promotion, this allows for restoration of the social fabric.

Institutional: Involving the coordination of activities carried out by all elements of the municipality in a particular zone. In addition, alliances with the private sector, NGOs, national and international bodies, and community organizations are promoted.

Picture of Imagen