stairway to dignity

of 158 /158
STAIRWAY TO DIGNITY On the socio-economic impact of the electric escalator in Medellin Drs. Letty Reimerink Master Thesis Latin America Studies CEDLA Master’s Program November 2014 Student no. 10686789 Supervisor: Dr. Ir. Christien Klaufus Second reader: Prof. Dr. Michiel Baud

Upload: letty-reimerink

Post on 07-Apr-2016




0 download

Embed Size (px)


Master thesis Latin American Studies (CEDLA) on the socio-economic impact of an outdoor electronic escalator in a poor neighborhood in Medellin (Colombia).


Page 1: Stairway to dignity


On the socio-economic impact of the electric escalator in Medellin

Drs. Letty Reimerink Master Thesis Latin America Studies CEDLA Master’s Program November 2014 Student no. 10686789 Supervisor: Dr. Ir. Christien Klaufus Second reader: Prof. Dr. Michiel Baud

Page 2: Stairway to dignity


Page 3: Stairway to dignity


Acknowledgement First of all I would like to thank Christien Klaufus for being an excellent

supervisor. She has been a great support in writing my research proposal, during

my fieldwork, and above all in the process of writing my thesis. She has given me

advice, literature suggestions and showed a great interest in the topic of my

research. What I most appreciated were here critical comments, always pushing

me to the limits to get the most out of my research and go the extra mile. Just the

way I like it!

I also owe many thanks to Gerard Martin, who is not only a nice guy, but also

an expert on Medellin, who knows everything and everybody. In the run-up to

and during the World Urban Forum he has opened many doors and introduced

me to many valuable contacts that I later interviewed. I am very grateful to all

the professionals I spoke with, who were willing to invest their time and share

their knowledge and opinions with me.

During my first days in Medellin I had the opportunity to tag along with a

group of Dutch architects and urban planners on a number of excursions in the

city. These were organized by Colombian/Dutch architects Camila Pinzon and

Pepijn Verpaalen from Urbanos. Many thanks to them for letting me join in and

provide me with an interesting introduction to Medellin and great company at

the start of my fieldwork.

My Spanish turned out to be sufficient to do my interviews in Medellin, but

academic writing in Spanish is another thing. I am therefore incredible thankful

to my fellow-student Cecilia Conde for doing an excellent job on the translation of

the summary of this thesis. Medellin slang was another obstacle I had to

overcome. With the help of fellow-student Johana Muñeton from Medellin I could

decipher the lyrics of the rap the boys from Comuna 13 sung. Un abrazo para los


Since I spent most of my time during the last year on my research, I have not

been able to work very much. I therefore really appreciate the contribution for

the travel expenses of my fieldtrip I received from the Van Eesteren-Fluck & Van

Lohuizen Foundation. I hope they like the result.

Page 4: Stairway to dignity


On a more personal note I really want to thank my father for always

supporting me in my studies. Also my partner Ted, who had just met me and

after just three months already had to let me leave for Colombia. He not only

stuck around, but provided an invaluable daily LinkedIn lifeline, and kept my

spirits up when I was a bit down, halfway through my fieldwork. He gave me the

best coming-home ever and has been a valuable co-reader of my thesis. Love you!

And last, but certainly not least, I want to express by deepest gratitude and

respect to all the wonderful people I met and spoke to in Comuna 13. They

opened their homes to me and shared their, sometimes very personal, stories. I

was amazed by the hope and pride some of them showed when talking about

their neighborhood. I am especially grateful to 23-year old Jorge (figure 0.1) of

the surveillance team of the escalator. He made me feel welcome in his

neighborhood and thanks to his openness and help I have been able to gain the

trust of other inhabitants. Without him and without them there would be no

thesis. I hope their neighborhood will thrive in the years to come.

Figure 0.1: Jorge, my ‘assistant’ on the surveillance team1

1 All the photographs in this thesis were taken by the author, unless otherwise mentioned

Page 5: Stairway to dignity


“En un barrio con todas las dificuldades del mundo, hacer

algo material que sirve para el descanso, para el diálogo,

para encontrar a tanta gente del algo ilógico!”

“In a neighborhood with all the difficulties in the world, to make something

material that can be used to relax, to have a dialogue, to meet so many people

from all over the world…that is something illogical!”

Adriana Maria Restrepo

Informal community leader of La Independencia 1

Figure 0.2: Adriana Maria Restrepo and her daughter Stefania Jimenez

Page 6: Stairway to dignity


Page 7: Stairway to dignity


Table of Content

List of Figures 9

List of Tables 10

List of Maps 10

List of Boxes 10

List of Acronyms 11

Glossary 12

1. Introduction 13

2. Methodology 19

2.1 World Urban Forum: the abstract urban reality 19

2.2 Key concepts 20

2.3 Research methods 22

2.4 Research experiences 27

3. Medellin: from murder city to model city 29

3.1 From planned to informal city 31

3.2 The paisa-culture 33

3.3 Comuna 13 at the heart of the violence 35

3.4 Focus on mobility 39

3.5 The birth of ‘social urbanism’ 42

3.6 Comuna 13 and the electric escalator 44

3.7 Concluding remarks 47

4. Quality of life without a penny more 49

4.1 Rise in mobility 49

4.2 Pesos or pausas? 52

4.3 Economic neighborhood development 63

4.4 Concluding remarks 71

Page 8: Stairway to dignity


5. Public space reconquered 73

5.1 Public space, space identity and sense of security 74

5.2 Role of public space in strengthening social tissue 83

5.3 Bridging the gap: public space as arena of citizenship 92

5.4 Concluding remarks 98

6. Governance: mayors, planners and the public 101

6.1 Fighting inequality 102

6.2 Participating public 115

6.3 Concluding remarks 121

7. Conclusions 123

Bibliography 129


Appendix I: Observation results 135

Appendix II: Survey questions and results 137

Appendix III: List of inhabitants interviewed 141

Appendix IV: Lyrics of rap 144

Appendix V List of professionals interviewed 147

Summary in English 149

Summary in Spanish (Resumen) 154

Page 9: Stairway to dignity


List of Figures

Title page Electric escalator seen from above

Figure 0.1 Jorge, my ‘assistant’ on the surveillance team

Figure 0.2 Informal community leader Adriana Maria Restrepo and her

daughter Stefania Jimenez

Figure 3.1 Artist impression electric escalator (source: PUI, municipality of


Figure 4.1 Situation before escalator (photo: municipality of Medellin)

Figure 4.2 Situation after escalator

Figure 4.3 Disabled man using escalator

Figure 4.4 Instructions when entering the escalator

Figure 4.5 Members of surveillance team of escalator

Figure 4.6 Painted facades above escalator

Figure 4.7 Mural alongside escalator

Figure 4.8 Commercial activity around metro cable station Santo Domingo

Figure 5.1 Women chatting in public space

Figure 5.2 Children playing on slide in public space

Figure 5.3 Children of different racial backgrounds mingling during

neighborhood event

Figure 5.4 Outside visitors on viewing platform on top of escalator

Figure 5.5 Painted houses visible from escalator

Figure 5.6 Murals along ‘boulevard’

Figure 6.1 Biblioteca España in Santo Domingo

Figure 6.2 Colegio de calidad in Comuna 13

Page 10: Stairway to dignity


List of Tables

Table 4.1 Current employment

Table 4.2 Kind of employment

Table 4.3 Level of education

Table 5.1 Sense of inclusion

Table 5.2 What do you consider your territory?

List of Maps

Map 3.1 Colombia and Medellin


Map 3.2 Metro and metro cable lines (source: Metro de Medellin)

Map 3.3 Location of Comuna 13 and Las Independencias neighborhood with

escalator (source: PUI, municipality of Medellin)

Map 3.4 Master Plan Comuna 13 (source: PUI, municipality of Medellin)

Map 4.1 Mobility patterns and bus stops in Las Independencias (source: PUI,

municipality of Medellin)

Map 5.1 Natural neighborhood boundaries (source: Google Earth 2013)

List of Boxes Box 3.1 Technical data on electric escalator (source: PUI, municipality of

Medellin and interview César Hernández)

Page 11: Stairway to dignity


List of Acronyms

BCN Bloque Cacique Nutibarra

BM Bloque Metro

CIAM Congrès International d’ Architecture Moderne (International

Congres of Modern Architecture)

DANE Departamiento Administrativo Nacional de Estadísticas (National

Administrative Department of Statistics of Colombia)

DAPARD Departamiento de Prevención de Desastres (Department of Desaster


EDU Empresa de Desarollo Urbano (Urban Development Company)

EPM Empresa Publica de Medellin (Public Company of Medellin)

FARC Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionairy

Armed Forces of Colombia)

GEA Grupo Empresarial de Antioquia (Entrepreneurial Group of


GNP Gross National Product

IDB Inter-American Development Bank

INDER Instituto de Deportes y Recreación de Medellin (Institute of Sports

and Recreation of Medellin)

ISVIMED Instituto Social de Vivienda y Hábitat de Medellin (Social Institute

of Housing and Habitat of Medellin)

NGO Non-governmental organization

PUI Proyectos Urbanos Integrales (Integrated Urban Projects)

UN United Nations

WUF World Urban Forum

Page 12: Stairway to dignity



arepa maize pancake, Colombian specialty

colectivo privately operated mini-bus

colegio de caldidad quality school

comuna urban region; Medellin is divided into 16 comunas. The

term ‘comuna’ is also used in a negative connotation to

refer to the poorer hillside neighborhoods in Medellin.

desplazado displaced person

estrato socio-economic groups according to income, into which

the population is subdivided

finca estate, ranch

minutos (cell phone) minutes

paisa term used to refer to inhabitants of Medellin and the

province of Antioquia

pausa pause

peso Colombian currency

plaza public square

rancho dwelling consisting of four pillars and a roof

tramo stretch of the electric escalator; the whole escalator

consists of six separate tramos

sancocho local dish

vacunas protection money that gangs extort from local shop

owners and bus drivers

Page 13: Stairway to dignity


1. Introduction

The world is urbanizing very rapidly with more than half of its population

living in urban areas. In Latin America this percentage almost reached 80% (UN,

2011). Policy makers and researchers all over the world are confronted with the

question of how to accommodate this growth in a sustainable way. This is not just

a question of building more dwellings. It is a complex and multi-layered

challenge involving many topics like equal access to clean air, water and public

services like transport, health care and education. It is about guaranteeing

people’s safety, about preventing the city coming to a standstill in a traffic jam,

about creating a strong social fabric to make people more resilient and to create a

city not just for the people who inhabit it, but together with them. And these are

still just a few of the many challenges ahead. With the growth of the cities,

however, also inequality has risen. Not global inequality - because on the whole

the differences between all the people on the planet have declined – but

inequality within countries, even within developed countries. Since 1980 the

Gini-coefficient- which measures inequality – has risen in the US by 30%, in

Sweden by 25% and in China by 50% (Minton Beddoes, 2012). Strikingly, the

exception is Latin America, where inequality has declined, although it remains

the largest in the world (World Bank, 2013). It is no coincidence that the theme of

the 7th UN Habitat World Urban Forum, that took place this April in Medellin,

focused on the topic of ‘Equity in Urban Development’, where ‘equity’ refers to the

distribution of opportunities rather than distribution of income (UN Habitat,

2014). And also at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, rising income

disparity is seen as the number 4 Global Risk (World Economic Forum, 2014).

So when I decided on a topic for my thesis, I knew it had to focus on urban

development. Not only because it is a very relevant topic, but also because I

myself have been working in the field of housing and urban development for the

last twenty years as a communications consultant and a journalist. My focus in

these projects has been making different parties work together and involving

citizens in shaping their cities. Despite good intentions of municipalities, housing

associations, architects, planners, project developers and other parties involved,

Page 14: Stairway to dignity


this is not always an easy task and sometimes even impossible. Urban projects –

whether it is a housing or infrastructure project – are sometimes not used as they

were intended by the designers and developers and therefore miss their impact.

Or to put it more academically: “While professional designers and political elites

may negotiate and enact competing future images of the city, these are rarely

consistent with the daily spatial experiences and understandings of urban

residents and workers” (Low, 2009, p. 25). As a social-psychologist I am

interested in how people actually live together, how they use the city and how

they interact with their physical environment.

As a starting point of my research I chose mobility, because it is a key

element in the academic discussion on urban development. At the same time it is

a comprehensive concept, encompassing mobility in all its forms from physical,

virtual to social mobility. The most obvious form is the physical travel of people.

If the increasing urban population will all use cars, our cities will come to a halt.

Basically this is what the protests of June 2013 in Brazil were about. Poor people

were going onto the streets to demonstrate for lower or zero tariffs for public

transport, but also the middle classes and rich people were protesting, because

car traffic was completely congesting the cities.2 The Movimento Passe Libre

(Free Fare Movement) which organized the protests used the motto: “A city can

only exist for those that can move around it”. This is a demand for a fundamental

right to the city (Caldeira, 2013, p.3). Former mayor of Bogotá, Enrique Peñalosa,

stated that “when cities get richer, most things, like housing, health care and

education get better. But transportation gets worse when cities get richer. There

is a conflict for money – does the government spend it on new roads or buses? –

and there is a conflict for space – does it belong to those with cars or to those

without cars?” According to him democratic equality should mean that “a bus

with 80 passengers should have 80 times the space of a car with one person in it.

And a person with a $30 bicycle has the same rights as a person with a $30,000


The academic discussion on mobility has taken a gigantic leap in the last

decade and is no longer just focusing on transportation, but has become more 2 Lecture James Holston, 2014.02.20, Amsterdam 3 Enrique Peñalosa in TedTalk, 2013.09.13

Page 15: Stairway to dignity


multi-disciplined. The definition of mobility has been broadened, adding virtual

and imaginative forms of mobility to the actual physical mobility of goods and

persons (Urry, 2002). More technical transport issues are combined with

questions regarding social cohesion and social mobility. “Urban transport

networks are critical in framing the mobility opportunities of individuals and

thus in shaping social practices and networks of interaction within various

spheres of city life” (Miciukiewicz and Vigar, 2012, p. 1941). Academic research

on mobility has become more focused on individual choices and conditions

influencing the use of urban transport system. Kaufmannn et al. (2004) have

developed the concept of ‘motility’, which was also at the core of the research done

on the metro cable, and is a good example of taking individual choices and

condition into account. “Motility encompasses interdependent elements relating

to access to different forms and degrees of mobility, competence to recognize and

make use of access, and appropriation of a particular choice, including the option

of non-action” (Kaufmannn et al., 2004). Context is another aspect that has

gained more interest. Miciukiewicz and Vigar (2012, p. 1948) argue for example

that mass transit systems might be very effective in densely populated areas, but

much less so in megacities in Latin America, where there are often conflicts on

land use and the government has low access to certain areas. Here, more

informal modes of transport are often much more effective.

For various reasons I chose the Colombian city of Medellin for my fieldwork.

The income inequality in Colombia is one of the biggest in Latin America and

within Colombia, Medellin has one of the biggest inequalities with a Gini-

coefficient of 0,5034. At the same time Colombia has built a reputation when it

comes to innovative transportation systems. Bogotá has its Transmilenio bus

system and Medellin has the only metro system in Colombia with connecting

metro cable lines to the poorer hillside neighborhoods. In 2004 the first metro

cable was built and in 2012 it inaugurated another innovation: the first open-air

escalator. Both transport systems are interesting because they are part of a

connection between the inner city in the valley and the poor neighborhoods on

the slopes of the hills surrounding the city. This spatial segregation has made it

4 Source: DANE, Informe de Calidad de Vida 2013, (visited on 2014.10.15)

Page 16: Stairway to dignity


more difficult for the urban poor to take advantage of everything the city has to

offer. Studying the “mobilities of the urban poor — their physical movements as

well as the associated representations and practices—will enable a better

understanding of mobilization towards collective claim making as well as

individual attempts to achieve social mobility” (Jaffe et al., 2012, p. 644).

There has already been done extensive research on the impact of the metro

cable, but so far no research has been done on the outdoor escalator. There are

other outdoor escalators in the world, for example in Hong Kong and Barcelona,

but building one in one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods, like

Comuna 13 in Medellin, is definitely ground breaking. It is no surprise that

Medellin has been the center of attention of urban planners and journalists from

all around the world. This project has contributed to Medellin winning some

prestigious international prizes, like the one for Most Innovative City in the

World , which in 2013 was awarded by the Urban Land Institute.5 All the

international recognition Medellin has received has shifted attention away from

the essential question: how does the population in the area benefit from the

electric escalator?

The electric escalator is a very small-scale and relatively low-tech solution,

compared to the metro and the metro cable. As explained before, a lot of academic

discussion focuses on the impact of large scale urban transport solutions, which

are crucial, but cannot explain or solve all issues related to mobility, simply

because they don’t connect to every corner of the city. The urban fabric is much

more detailed than large-scale transport systems can accommodate. So instead of

analyzing mobility of the poor on an urban level, I focus my research on the

neighborhood impact of this new form of mobility infrastructure. On this level a

concept like neighborhood attachment also plays a role (Jacobs, 1961; Low, 2009;

Di Masso, 2012; Scannell and Gifford, 2010). Is an urban intervention like the

escalator strengthening or disrupting this attachment? I formulated the following

research question:

What does increased mobility infrastructure mean in terms of socio-economic

benefits for the inhabitants of Comuna 13 in Medellin?


Page 17: Stairway to dignity


I will present my research data around three central topics. First I want to

establish if there actually has been an increase in physical mobility and if the

population has had any economic benefits from this new form of transportation.

Secondly, I am interested in the impact on social cohesion. More specifically I will

look into how the escalator has changed the public space and how that influenced

the sense of security, the social tissue, the feeling of inclusion and citizenship and

the (perceived) image of the neighborhood. Finally, I will go into the governance

of the urban transformation in Medellin and how mayors, planners and the

public have interacted. This is especially interesting because the poor areas,

where the majority of these interventions took place, are in areas of the city that

have gradually grown without any state planning or intervention. And now the

state and its urban planners are entering into new territory where formality and

informality are colliding. How did this process take shape and was the project

successful in the eyes of professionals and inhabitants? I will first take a general

look and then zoom in on the project of the electric escalator.

In my empirical chapters (4 till 6) I will connect the data to relevant

theoretical insights to answer the above mentioned questions. The empirical

chapter will be preceded by an outline of the methodology used and a chapter

sketching the relevant background on Medellin and its urban transformation, to

provide the context in which the project of the electric escalator is set.

With this research I have taken an in-depth look at a micro-cosmos within

Comuna 13. I have gained more insight into what the social and economic impact

of a new transport solution on a local level is, but also how this relates to the

world of planners and politicians. With this I hope to add a piece to the academic

discussion on mobility and public space and its possible influence on creating

more equitable cites.

Page 18: Stairway to dignity


Page 19: Stairway to dignity


2. Methodology

2.1 World Urban Forum: the abstract urban reality

On the 5th of April 2014 the city of Medellin turned into the world capital for

urban thinkers. Mayors, urban planners, architects, NGO’s and academics from

all around the globe gathered in the convention center in the center of the city to

discuss how cities all around the world can become more equitable. Police forces

in the center made sure nothing happened to the 25,000 visitors, because these

were Medellin’s seven days of fame and a unique opportunity to show the world

its remarkable change. Mayor Anibal Gaviria proudly took the stage and showed

the audience flashy videos and graphics with impressive downward going lines of

homicide rates. Talks and workshops focused around problem analysis and plans

to solve these problems. There were slogans and figures, chats in English and

Spanish, men in suits mixing with African women in traditional colorful dresses.

The urban reality was reduced to an abstract discussion in which the upper few

took the lead.

For me the WUF was an ideal way to get some facts and figures and get

introduced to the key players in Medellin. The result was a booklet filled with

email addresses and phone numbers. A good start of my research. During the

WUF I even managed to make a first visit to the object of my research: the

electric escalator. I was slightly overwhelmed: the sun was shining, the escalator

and the painted houses that surround it made up a colorful picture. It was

crowded with people. International groups were taken on a guided tour. On top of

the escalator were street vendors selling handicrafts, ice cream and fruit salad.

The escalators looked like a tourist attraction and not like the dangerous place I


After a week of discussions, key note speeches and guided excursions I could

not wait to see ‘the real thing’. The veil was lifted, the theatre lights dimmed, the

police went about their regular business, the metro was returned to its daily

commuters. Finally my real encounter with Medellin and its inhabitants could

begin. I stayed until the end of June in the city to conduct my fieldwork.

Page 20: Stairway to dignity


2.2 Key concepts

As pointed out in my introduction ‘mobility’ is a key concept in urban

research. Mobility can be seen as ‘corporeal’ travel, the physical travel from one

place to another. But travel can also be virtual or imaginative through internet,

phone or television for example. Urry (2002) argues that virtual and imaginative

travel do not substitute for corporeal travel. ‘Proximity’ and eye to eye contact

remain important factors that are also closely connected to concepts like social

capital and social mobility (Urry, 2002; Putnam, 1995, 2000; Miciukiewicz and

Vigar, 2012; Portes and Landolt, 2000). So access to modes of transport that

facilitates physical travel seems important in diminishing inequity.

The exploration of my research question is based on three key concepts:

economic benefits, social benefits and governance of urban intervention projects.

With the electric escalator a new form of transport has been added, so the first

question that has to be answered is if this actually leads to increased mobility.

How many people are using the escalator and for what purpose? Has it mobilized

certain groups that were not mobile before? Are there alternative modes of

transport? To look at individual and circumstantial conditions influencing the

use of this new form of transportation I use the concept of ‘motility’ (Kaufmann et

al., 2004), which I referred to in the introduction, and “factors that may limit the

mobility of socially excluded people” (Church et al., 2000, p. 198), like physical

accessibility, safety, the availability of facilities in the neighborhood etc. In

chapter 4 I will examine the meaning of these concepts for the electric escalator.

These concepts also touch upon the key concept of ‘economic benefits’. Lack of

transport relates to social exclusion and to a lack of access to everything the city

has to offer in terms of opportunities to get ahead in life (Kenyon, 2003; Lucas,

2012). But it is difficult to reverse this and conclude that better access to

transportation leads to an economic improvement. Dávila and Brand (2011) have

not been able to establish this relationship for the metro cable in Medellin.

To look at the economic situation of the people living around the escalator I

chose to focus on rise in income, which is the most direct indicator of economic

benefits, but also on indirect indicators, like savings in travel time which might

lead to more time to work or study, and the rise in real estate prices following the

Page 21: Stairway to dignity


upgrading of the area. In chapter 4 I will make a brief comparison with the

escalator built in Hong Kong where economic activity and real estate investments

significantly increased (Zacharias, 2013) and with the tramway in favela Santa

Marta in Rio de Janeiro (Menezes, forthcoming 2015).

The second key concept is the social impact, because the electric escalator is

more than just a mode of transport. It is an urban intervention in public space.

Even more than that: it is creating public space, where there has hardly been any

before. Public spaces are vital in creating sustainable cities. They create room for

encounters, for active citizenship (Harvey 2003; Di Masso, 2012; Rodriguez

Osorio and Arbeláez Sierra, 2012) which can contribute to a sense of belonging

(Jacobs, 1961). But in public space liberties and norms and values collide (Di

Masso, 2012; Jacobs, 1961). Is the public space really public or are certain groups

attributing public space? In a neighborhood which for years has been dominated

by violence, it is interesting to see how public space contributes to more social

interaction. Do neighbors actually meet and talk in the streets more than they

did before? The electric escalator not only provides transport for the local

residents, it also contributes to opening up the neighborhood for people from

outside, like representatives of state institutions and visitors. How do these

different groups interact? And does the escalator change the (perceived) image of

the neighborhood? In a neighborhood with a history of violence does a rise in

activity on the street – the principle of more eyes (Jacobs, 1961) - contribute to a

sense of security? Or is the removal of social and physical disorder the main

contributor to a rising sense of security (Chappell et al., 2011)? Low states that

“the social construction of space is the actual transformation of space […]” (2009,

p. 24). So do people shape spaces or do urban spaces influence how people

behave? In what way have people made this newly created space their own?

What is the actual geographical impact? In the study of Brand & Dávila (2011) on

the electric escalator the impact of the metro cable was only limited in a

geographical sense. “The boundary is nothing more than the marked transition

from one sphere of control to that of another” (Low, 2000, p. 154). What are the

boundaries of influence for the electric escalator?

Page 22: Stairway to dignity


The third key concept is that of governance. How did the city administration

interact with planners and the public to execute the huge urban interventions in

the city. Participation is something the city administration holds high and is also

part of the law6. There have been various Talleres de Imaginarios (Imagery

Workshops) where inhabitants have been invited to let their imagination loose

and think of what they would really want in their neighborhood. However, Brand

and Dávila (2011) already concluded in their study on the metro cable that

participation was very strong in the beginning of the project, but it slipped in the

further development of the neighborhood. How was the project of the electric

escalator developed and what was the involvement of the inhabitants? Research

on Brazil (Caldeira & Holston, 2005; Fernandes, 2007) has shown that the

solution to segregation cannot be found in simply changing the urban plan. It

also has to focus on building state institutions and democracy from the bottom

up. Or as Jane Jacobs (1961, p. 238) states: “Cities have the capability of

providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are

created by everybody”. Discussion among planners, academics and people

working in the social realm shows that there is a discrepancy in the perceived

success of the project of the electric escalator. The more general discussion on the

urban interventions focusses on the imbalance between the award-winning and

innovative architectural projects and the social content. Do projects like the

electric escalator really contribute to a more equitable city in which also

marginalized groups can claim their ‘right to the city’ (Di Masso, 2012;

Fernandes, 2007; Harvey, 2003; Soja, 2010)? I will go into the various aspects or

this discussion in chapter 6, concluding with challenges the city is still facing.

2.3 Research Methods

Transport studies are often very technical in nature. “Transport policies are

often based on ‘commonsense’ assumptions underpinning economic modelling and

technological development, rather than exploring the diversity of urban contexts

[…]” (Miciukiewicz & Vigor, 2012, p. 1946). Jane Jacobs already came to the

conclusion that just solving traffic problems, would not solve the problems of the

6 Colombian law no. 388/1997

Page 23: Stairway to dignity


city. “How can you know what to do with traffic until you know how the city itself

works, and what else it needs to do with its streets?” (1961, p. 7). It clearly is not

enough anymore to approach the concept of mobility on the basis of technical

data and assumptions about the behavior of travelers. Studies on mobility are

increasingly complex; they

“…transcend the dichotomy between transport research and social

research, putting social relations into travel and connecting different

forms of transport with complex patterns of social experience

conducted through communications at a distance. It seems that a ‘new

mobilities paradigm is being formed within the social sciences. […]

Accounting for mobilities in the fullest sense challenges social sciences

to change both the objects of its inquiries and the methodologies for

research.” (Sheller & Urry, 2006, p. 208).

My research on the electric escalator is in essence a multi-disciplined study.

First it looks on the increase in travel opportunity and on the impact this has on

the personal lives of people. This is not just about saving time. Sheller and Urry

(2006, p. 213) in my opinion justly state that “time spent traveling is not dead

time that people always seek to minimize”. Secondly, it is a neighborhood study,

where the intervention in public space is the focus and the impact this has on the

collective development of the neighborhood. Places and people come together

here. Where geography used to focus on the built environment and anthropology

on people, places and people are no longer considered separate entities. Or as

Low states: “The social construction of space is the actual transformation of space

— through peoples’ social exchanges, memories, images, and daily use of the

material setting — into scenes and actions that convey symbolic meaning. (2009,

p. 24). And thirdly my research can be regarded as a study on governance,

zooming in on the plans and intentions of the policy makers and the involvement

of the public in making these plans.

Interestingly, Ouweneel (forthcoming 2015) feels that “we should sense a

certain tension between the institutionalized and personalizes perspectives.

Scholars zooming in on the neighborhood level would stress personalized social

Page 24: Stairway to dignity


interactions […], whereas scholars discussing urban policies tend to stay within

the institutionalized relationships and discuss policies, programs and projects.”

I deliberately chose to combine this top-down view of planners and

administrators with the bottom-up view of the inhabitants to see how these come

together. But in combining the physical urban interventions (‘housing/

infrastructure’) with the sense inhabitants make of the newly created spaces

(‘belonging’), one cannot escape a neighborhood focus. Qualitative research

methods are most likely in this case and - as Ouweneel (forthcoming 2015) points

out - if you want to observe and talk to people, it takes time to really get to know

them, so logically this means that within a given period of time you can only

involve a limited number of informant in your research.

Although the focus on personalized experiences is imminent, I wanted to do

justice to the various academic disciplines involved in my research, which

justifies a combination of research methods. When it comes to public space,

research is primarily based on observations in that public space and perceptions

of the people occupying these public spaces. Jane Jacobs (1961) was one the first

to approach urban studies from the bottom up by observing what is actually

happening on the streets. Low (2000) used in her study on plazas a combination

of behavioral maps and time-space descriptions, counting the population and

their movements, with more qualitative observations and semi-structured

interviews. Since my research is also focusing on what is happening in a more or

less well-defined space, this approach seemed also appropriate for my research.

I used different quantitative methods. The first was a observations during

different hours of the day and days of the week. However, I did not do

observations after dark, because I was not completely sure it would be safe. I

counted the number of people using the escalator and divided them into sex and

age groups (see appendix I for observation results). Secondly, I did a survey

among 50 inhabitants to gain information about frequency and purpose of use,

alternative travel opportunities and some general demographical data (see

appendix II for survey questions and results). I also received some statistical data

from the municipality on demographics and levels of income and education,

which supplemented my own data. On the qualitative side I observed what was

Page 25: Stairway to dignity


happening in public space and I did semi-structured interviews with fourteen

inhabitants living within a circle of about 250 meters around the escalator. This

was a territory that had more or less natural boundaries. This was the same area

where I did the survey. The main focus in the interviews was on people’s

perceptions of what had changed in the neighborhood (context-based). Do they

think they have economically advanced and/or gained social benefits from this

new mode of transport? I realize that my research is conducted in an area that

was tortured by violence for many decades and that most of the inhabitants have

been desplazados. Personal histories may very well influence their attachment to

and behavior within the neighborhood community. However, I chose in my

interviews not to go into their life stories too deeply and focus on their

experiences with regard to the electric escalator. I did use literature (Cañas et al.,

2008; Rozema, 2008; Martin and Martin, forthcoming 2015) and interviews with

professionals to gain more insight into their background as a community. I used

Atlas-ti to label the audio recordings of these interviews (see appendix III for a

list inhabitants interviewed).

The more quantitative data give insight into how this new form of transport

is used. Observations are very useful because they reveal patterns (Sheller &

Urry, 2006), that people might not be aware of themselves, whereas the more

qualitative data give insight into what this form of mobility means to people in

their daily lives. It is only possible to gain insight into people’s personal

circumstances and motives – which is a key element in Kaufmannn’s ‘motility’

concept – by speaking to them. I enhanced the reliability of my research through

triangulation, using multiple research methods and sources of data to cross-check

the result. The observations not only made it possible to check if the figures on

the use of the escalator that were given to me by the authorities were valid, but it

also gave me the opportunity to discern these travel patterns and distinguish

various groups that made use of the escalator. For example, I was assuming that

people would generally use the whole trajectory of the escalator, whereas in

reality most of the users only traveled part of it.

To complete my research in the neighborhood I organized a focus group with

five of the fifteen members of the surveillance team. During my research it

Page 26: Stairway to dignity


became very clear to me, that this was a group that deserved special attention.

First of all, they can be considered the ‘eyes and ears’ of the escalator. They are

present all the time and can see what is happening in public space and thereby

adding to my own observations. The second reason for doing the focus group was

that the surveillance team is the only group that had a direct economic benefit

from the escalator, which made it interesting to discover what the impact of the

escalator is in their lives. I made an audio recording of the focus group session

and had it transcribed by a native speaker.

The only group that was still missing in my research were children. Since

there are a lot of children in the neighborhood, I somehow wanted to make their

voices heard. I got in contact with Casa Kolacho, which organizes workshops on

rap and graffiti for young children. This is an initiative of rap artist Jeihhco who

wants to prevent young children entering gang life, by giving them alternative

things to do in their free time, like graffiti painting or rap music. I was invited to

join a two hour workshop of six children (boys from age 9-13) who live in the area

around the escalator. Especially for me they changed the assignment for that day

and they let the children write a rap-lyric about their neighborhood and how it

had changed. At the end I made a videotape of them performing it (see appendix

IV for lyrics).

For the more top-down research on the planning and participation I spoke to

fifteen professionals. These ranged from academics, people that are of were

involved in municipal organizations, journalist and people working on social and

cultural projects in Comuna 13. I combined the information from these interviews

and conversations with secondary sources like official plans and documents and

newspaper articles (see appendix V for list of professionals interviewed). The

questions focused around their role in the project or the community – although

some were not directly involved, but could contribute by painting a broader

picture of urban development in Medellin – and how they assessed the projects.

With nine of them I had more structured interviews and with six I had more

informal conversations. These were usually people I spoke to because they could

introduce me to other people, but while talking to them, it turned out they often

had interesting stories to tell themselves. Of the more structured interviews I

Page 27: Stairway to dignity


made transcriptions and on the informal conversations I made notes. Since the

group was very diverse I could study the project from various angles which

contributed to a more complete picture.

All the interviews were done in Spanish and the quotes used in this thesis are

translated by me, except the interview with geography professor Peter Brand,

whom I interviewed in English, his native language.

2.4 Research experiences

To complete this chapter I would like to add some personal notes on my

research. I started this chapter with an impression of the World Urban Forum

with which I jumpstarted my fieldwork. In the week after the forum I made my

first solitary visit to Comuna 13. Before leaving for Colombia I had spoken to

Ralph Rozema, a former researcher who four years ago investigated the violence

in Comuna 13, and now works as a journalist in the Netherlands. I also spoke to

Adriaan Alsema, a Dutch journalist living in Medellin.7 Both could not give me a

clear picture of the violence in the area right now. According to them it seemed to

be better now, but it was difficult to say, because everything could change at a

moment’s notice. In short, I did not really know what to expect. I first went in on

a weekday morning at 6 AM, expecting a lot of activity from people going to work.

But nothing much was happening. I sat on a bench somewhere along the upper

part of the escalator. The monotonous sound of the escalator rolling, added to the

sense of tranquility. The scarce passers-by greeted me friendly, children were

looking at me with curiosity. But nobody made real contact. We were not used to

each other yet and kept our distance. I sat there for three hours counting the

occasional users; peacefully, but also with a feeling of being observed. Who was

watching whom? A couple of days later I returned to take my seat at the same

bench. Only after half an hour I was approached by one of the members from the

surveillance team. He wanted to know what I was doing. They had noticed me

before, he said. His name was Jorge. He was 23 years old. When I told him what I

planned on doing he immediately said: “I am going to help you!”

7 Adriaan Alsema is editor in chief of

Page 28: Stairway to dignity


When a week or so later I started with my survey, his help turned out to be

very useful. I started with approaching people at the escalator to do the survey,

but people were very hesitant, because they did not know me. I did not get very

far. In the end Jorge arranged with his superior that he could use his time to

stroll with me through the neighborhood. For two days we went door to door in an

area of around 250 meters surrounding the escalator. He explained to the people

what I wanted and I asked the questions. I asked some inhabitants we spoke to if

they were willing to do an interview with me. Most agreed and I later called them

back to make an appointment. Jorge proved to be invaluable. Without him it

would not have been that easy to gain the trust of the people. They were still a

bit hesitant – clearly not being used to all this attention – but they were willing

and sometimes even very proud to talk about their neighborhood. After a couple

of visits friendly greetings were exchanged.

Through the contacts I made I later got invited to an event, where

representatives from the municipality and NGO’s spoke and handed out diplomas

to people who did a course in primary child care. This also proved to be an

interesting occasion to observe how people interact in this community. Of course I

remained the exotic outsider, but the people excepted my presence and I have not

felt insecure for one minute. But then again, you never know who is keeping an

eye on you.

Page 29: Stairway to dignity


3. Medellin: from murder city to model city

Map 3.1 Colombia,

Medellin, with its (official) 2,3 million inhabitants, is the second city in

Colombia (figure 3.1). It is one of Colombia’s main economic centers and the

capital of the province of Antioquia. The city is located in the Valle de Abburá at

an altitude of around 1,500 meters above sea level, and is therefore often referred

to as the ‘city of eternal spring’. Its worldwide fame, however, does not derive

from its agreeable climate, but from its violent past as drug capital and its

notorious leading drug baron Pablo Escobar. As recent as 1991 Medellin was the

most murderous city in the world with a homicide rate of 381 for every 100,000

inhabitants. In 2007 it had dropped to 26 per 100,000 inhabitants (IDB8).

Although figures rose again in 2008 to 47, in 2011 they have settled on 24 for

every 100,000 inhabitants (IDB, Municipality of Medellin, 2011, p. 26). The city is

fighting hard to lose this stigma and let the world see it has other qualities as

well. The dangerous and murderous image of Medellin has lately been slowly

8,5687.html (visited on 2014.07.31)

Page 30: Stairway to dignity


overshadowed by a more positive image of a city laboratory that fosters

innovation and is taking unprecedented measures to transform the city.

An important turning point was the year 2004 when the independent mayor

Sergio Fajardo took office. He decided to invest the biggest part of the municipal

budget in the poorest parts of the city. Building public landmarks like libraries in

remote areas, investing in better connections between the city center en the poor

hillside neighborhoods, upgrading education, and investing in public space are

the most important measures that have been initiated under his administration.

This line of intervention has become known as ‘social urbanism’: a combination of

physical, social and institutional measures. In just a few years Medellin

succeeded in gaining worldwide fame as a model city for urban transformation.

In this chapter I will provide the contextual framework for my research on

the electric escalator, which is just a small intervention in this urban

transformation. In paragraph 3.1 I briefly describe how the city has developed

over the years and how it slowly turned from a planned city into an informal city

when huge waves of migrants flooded the city from the 70’s onward. In paragraph

3.2 I will analyze something that is very important in defining Medellin, which is

the typical paisa9 culture of hard working entrepreneurs, which has brought

Medellin a lot of wealth, but also has a negative impact on society. According to

some, paisa-culture is at the root of the drug cartels. To understand Medellin,

and especially the situation in Comuna 13, one has to have an idea of the violent

past, but also how gang life is still a defining factor in its society. This is

described in paragraph 3.3. The last three paragraphs are dedicated to the more

recent urban developments, which started in the 80’s and 90’s with a focus on

mobility infrastructure, which formed the backbone of the urban interventions in

the poor neighborhoods under mayors Fajardo and Salazar (2004-2011). To finish

this chapter I will zoom in on Comuna 13 and the project of the electric escalator

and how this fits into the larger picture of urban interventions.

9 Inhabitants of Medellin and Antioquia are referred to as paisa.

Page 31: Stairway to dignity


3.1 From planned to informal city

Medellin was founded in the 16th century and was a fairly insignificant small

town for two centuries. But by the time of its independence from Spain in 1885, it

had developed into a political center, a position it retains until today. This was

the result of agrarians starting to invest their capital into industry. They became

the new elite of the city. Medellin was the state capital and the center of

economic activity and higher education. As one of the first cities in Colombia,

Medellin had a tramway, electrical street lighting and telephone. The municipal

company that provided all these services by 1955 became autonomous and

operated under the name of Empresas Publicas de Medellin (EPM). This system,

in which a public service operates autonomous from the state, is maintained until

today and has turned out to be very profitable for the city as a whole. Today EPM

is the second largest company in Colombia with an annual profit of around 1

billion US dollars. “Between 2001 and 2011, EPM transferred an average of 50%

of its surplus to the municipality, which represented 27% of the city’s capital

investment” (Coupé et al. 2013, p. 64).

In 1899 the philanthropic organization Sociedad de Mejoras Publicas (Society

of Public Improvement) was established. This public-private partnership

connected the city council and the economic interests of the elites. By that time

Medellin was a major industrial city and the industrial elite was afraid the city

would develop in an unorganized and chaotic way. They envisioned a modern city

with good infrastructure and public services. With these economic interests in

mind, the city in 1913 approved the plan for the ‘Future of Medellin’. Due to its

rapid growth in the 1940’s the city was in need of another plan. This became the

Master Plan, developed under supervision of the Catalan modernist architect and

urbanist Sert and his Austrian colleague Wiener. This lead to the creation of the

first Metropolitan Area in Colombia. As part of the Master Plan there were

limitations set as to how far up the hills one could build. This Master Plan fitted

very well in the modernist tradition of city planning which was advocated at the

1928 CIAM congress and which had followers all over Latin America (see also

Caldeira and Holston, 2005). “However, the Master Plan counted on a growth of

up to 500,000 inhabitants, but by 1951 the city had more than 350,000

Page 32: Stairway to dignity


inhabitants and twenty years later, in 1973 the population exploded to more than

a million” (Samper, 2010, p. 63). As a consequence the city expanded beyond its


From the 70’s onward the city struggled with this massive migration of

mostly poor, rural people, who suffered from the terror of the guerrillas in the

countryside and sought refuge in the city. Medellin soon could no longer

accommodate this growth. People were settling illegally on the slopes of the

mountains. Now the city has 2,3 million inhabitants and the metropolitan area as

much as 3,6 million. According to historian and architect Luis Fernando

Gonzalez “there are probably about 1 million illegal settlers. Two thirds of the

total population is in estrato 1, 2 and 3 and just a quarter belongs in estrato 4,5

and 6 [estratos are socio-economic groups according to income, into which the

population is subdivided. They range from 0-6]. Although the growth rate of the

city is declining, in absolute numbers the city and the whole region are still

growing”. 10

How did the city administration react when the city was growing beyond its

officially established limits? In the 60’s and 70’s they were still investing in social

housing projects. When the first illegal settler arrived, they were tearing down

the newly built illegal dwellings. But the truth was that they could not

accommodate the influx of people and could not offer any alternatives. In the 80’s

they even stopped investing in social housing altogether. Instead, the state

withdrew completely from the peripheries of the city, like Comuna 13, leaving the

people to cope on their own. “It is this state negligence that allowed the informal

city to thrive. This absence of the state is also the source of many of the entire

city’s problems. It is this paradox that the communities who lived in these areas

found themselves in” (Samper, 2010, p. 71). The vacuum that existed in these

outskirts made it an excellent area for criminal gangs and later for the urban

guerrillas (militias) to infiltrate the city.

10 Interview Luis Fernando Gonzalez, historian and architect, and professor at the Department of Housing, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28

Page 33: Stairway to dignity


3.2 The paisa-culture

The start of the migration coincided with the collapse of the economy in the

70’s due to globalization. “So by the 70’s the ‘harmonious’ contract between state

and elites in the construction of the future of the city is lost due to the collapse of

the industries” (Samper, 2010, p. 67). However, up until now, the industrial elites

play a very important role in the city and its development. This close cooperation

between city administration and industrial elites is part of the paisa-culture,

which distinguishes Medellin from other Colombian cities.

Some of the largest companies in Colombia are based in Medellin and

concentrated in three conglomerates, Cemento Argos (cement), Grupo Sura

(finance) and Grupo Nutresa (food) who work closely together in an informal

organization called Grupo Empresarial de Anitoquia (GEA, Enterpreneurial

Group of Antioquia), also informally known as Sindicato Antioqueño (Antioquian

Syndicate). The GEA-companies are all interwoven and own parts of each other’s

stock, which protects them from foreign takeovers11. They invest - mainly

through their foundations Pro Antioquia and Fraternidad Medellin - a lot of

money in the public sphere. For example Bancolombia paid for the construction

and maintenance of the building of the Parque Explora (Explora Park, a science

museum for children). The success of the urban changes at the beginning of this

millennium, which I will further discuss in paragraph 4, 5 and 6 of this chapter,

are attributed partly to this culture. “What sustained this urban policy of

effervescence and innovation was an underlying unity and sense of pride of

Antioquia province and its capital Medellin, along with the solidity and stability

of its large business corporations and the local bourgeoisie” (Coupé et al.,2013,

p.63). According to Fukuyama and Colby (2011) there is a civic-minded business

elite that tolerates a high municipal tax rate and which has come to believe that

a safer city is worth the extra cost. According to Gloria Molina, an architect who

was born and raised in Medellin, it is part of the culture of Medellin that

entrepreneurs generate development in the city. She says: “They are like patrons.

They do it for solidarity. Many of these companies are family businesses who

11 Information on GEA is derived from an informal conversation with Sebastián Restrepo on 2014.04.21, who is working under Fajardo at the province of Antioquia and used to work for him at the municipality.

Page 34: Stairway to dignity


have it in their statutes to invest in the city. But it is becoming less, because the

children of this older generation all studied abroad and are not raised with this

conscience.” 12 Although this close connection between business elites and city

administration seems to have very positive effects on the city, it is not very

transparent. Looking at it with a European view, one could say that nepotism

and an undermining of democratic processes lurk.

This sense of pride, that some refer to as something positive, for others is the

root of all evil. According to many people I spoke with, this mentality has also

been at the root of Medellin developing into the biggest drug metropolis in the

world. The extreme focus on money, status and excellence has a dark side as well.

One of the most famous rap artists in Comuna 13, Jeihcco, said the following

about it:

People from Medellin have a big problem and that is that they are the

best in the world. It’s the best city, the most innovative, the most

educated, the most…most…most. […] It is a culture in which the end

justifies the means. And that is what we teach our children in school:

to be better than the other, no matter what, to be arrogant, to survive

even if we have to lie. The paisas historically are the ones that have

inflicted the most harm on this country. Here they have created

paramilitaries, here they have created the biggest drug cartels. These

are consequences of our culture. Many people say that what happened

to Medellin was Pablo Escobar. No, Pablo Escobar is one of the victims

of this culture. When he was a child, his mother said to him: “Son,

work to earn money. And when there is no work, find another way to

get money.” This is the culture that makes us what we are today.

This focus on money and status makes children very susceptible to gang life,

because with this rapid money they can buy status symbols like sneakers and

smartphones. ”We don’t have a problem with a guy in one of the neighborhoods

wearing a pair of sneakers, or a mobile phone. That’s fine. But how does he get

this phone? Is he going to kill someone for it? Is he going to extort someone? Or is

12 Interview Gloria Molina Velez, architect and professor at Universidad de Anitoquia, 2014.04.15

Page 35: Stairway to dignity


he going to work hard for it? And that starts in school. You don’t do that through

words, but through examples”. 13

3.3 Comuna 13 at the heart of the violence

One cannot sketch a brief history of Medellin without paying attention to the

violence that strangled the city for decades, starting at the end of the 70’s. The

violence is closely connected to the situation in Colombia as a nation, but it also

has aspects that are typical of Medellin. It was Medellin that was the cradle of

the biggest drug cartel in the world led by Pablo Escobar. It was also Medellin

that provided a fertile ground for the urban guerrillas to infiltrate the city in its

impenetrable hillside neighborhoods that lacked any state control.

These left-wing militias offered support and a form of legitimate

authority by means of tackling the criminals in the area. They

established parameters for social conduct and showed the people that

they were ‘on their side’ by redistributing property and goods

confiscated from local companies, and recruiting boys and girls for

activities that made them well-known and respected’ (Cañas, et al,

2008, p. XXIV).

In the 80’s Medellin suffered from the drug cartels with their armed

organizations, the guerrillas that were taking over the city and the

paramilitaries that were fighting them. Alongside these organizations

operated various criminal gangs, often moving from one group to another,

dependent on who was paying them most.

Various violent groups were contesting the territory, extorting people

and companies and forcing them to pay vacunas [protection money],

and controlling the micro-market for drugs. They erected boundaries

between neighborhoods and prevented free movement. This led to

social disintegration, fear and murder (IDB, municipality of Medellin,

2011, p. 38).

13 Interview Jeison Alexánder Castaño alias Jeihcco, rap artist and initiator of Casa Kolacho, 2014.06.03

Page 36: Stairway to dignity


Even after the violent death of Pablo Escobar in 1993 the homicide rate

remained high. But his death had an important symbolic meaning which born

and raised paisa Gloria Molina expressed as follows:

When we absolutely hit rock bottom, his death represented the

beginning of the way up […] But many of my generation were

accustomed to a life of easy money without having to fight or work for

it, without having to study. For this to change it needed another

generation. And still this mentality has not disappeared’. 14

The biggest drug baron was dead, but the drug trafficking continued. The

organization fell apart into smaller pieces which became less visible.

Comuna 13 was one of the most violent areas in Medellin, because here the

confrontation between guerrillas on one side and paramilitaries and gangs on the

other side was very direct and intense. Jorge Gaviria, ex-director of the Program

for Peace and Reconciliation explains the situation.

There were various criminal groups active in this area. Local gangs

called ‘combos’ engage in a variety of activities. They have some arms,

but lack a clear leadership. They have their own territory, consisting of

a couple of blocks. Then you have ‘bandas’, which are better organized

with a clear hierarchy and more heavenly armed. They are less

connected to a territory, because they go where they can make money.

These combos and bandas united to fight the militias that were settling

in the neighborhood, but these were far better organized than these

gangs. The gangs got help from the autodefensas , also known as

paramilitaries. 15

The first group of paramilitaries that entered the neighborhood in 2000 was the

Bloque Metro (BM) led by the Castaño- family. They took over a lot of these local

gangs to fight the militias. Next to Bloque Metro another paramilitary group, the

Bloque Cacique Nutibarra (BCN) emerged about a year later, led by a man called

Don Berna. “These paramilitary groups were initially created to combat the

guerrilla in areas with limited state presence, but many of them became involved

14 Interview Gloria Molina Velez, architect and professor at Universidad de Anitoquia, 2014.04.15 15 Interview Jorge Gaviria, between 2004 and 2010 director of the Program for Peace and Reconciliation, 2014.04.30

Page 37: Stairway to dignity


in extensive human rights violations against the civil population” (Rozema, 2008,


Whereas in other parts of Medellin the paramilitaries successfully defeated

the guerrillas, in Comuna 13 they did not. This is why in 2002 the state police

and the military entered Comuna 13 in an unprecedented four-day military

operation called Operation Orion, to once and for all end the presence of the

urban guerrillas. This operation has had great symbolic meaning, but it did not

put an end to the violence. Although they defeated the guerrillas, now the

paramilitaries took over the neighborhood. “It is like a novel: they made an end

to the militias, but BM and BCN took over and in the end they killed each

other.”16 The BCN defeated the BN, largely due to the strong position of its leader

Don Berna, who was also a powerful figure in the criminal underworld and one of

the leading drug lords after the death of Pablo Escobar.

When paramilitaries took over Comuna 13 the situation did not improve.

Paramilitaries prohibited informal gatherings in the streets and

collected vacunas from shops, supermarkets and bus and taxi

companies. When the paramilitaries took control of Comuna 13, they

announced 400 job vacancies. Teenagers were attracted by both money

and status (Rozema, 2008, p. 441).

The government could not defeat the paramilitaries so in the end negotiating

demobilization seemed the only option. In 2003 the municipality initiated an

official program. If paramilitaries would voluntarily hand in their weapons they

could enter into a re-socialization program and get an education and help finding

a job. 868 members of the BCN demobilized.

It [the demobilization process in Medellin] has been controversial from

the start. Advocates emphasize its contribution to reducing levels of

violence, whilst critics allege that the program has allowed the

perpetrators of human rights violations, to walk free, virtually, and

even rewards them with benefits (Rozema, 2008, p. 425).

16 Interview Jorge Gaviria, between 2004 and 2010 director of the Program for Peace and Reconciliation, 2014.04.30

Page 38: Stairway to dignity


Although the violence in Medellin did decrease after this, there were still

close connections between members of BCN and the criminal world. They

just continued their illegal activities.

Although the state was very content with its security politics and

reintegration strategy for the members of the BCN, because homicide

and other criminal rates were going down, many social movements and

community leaders thought the state did not sufficiently confront the

paramilitaries with their intimidation strategies with which they

sought to control the entire city (Instituto Popular de Capacitación,

2005, p.22).

When paramilitary, turned drug lord Don Berna was extradited to the US in

2008, homicide rates immediately went up again, because a fight broke out for

his succession. This made an end to the peace that was initiated by the


Gangs still remain active in Comuna 13 ever since, but according to Gaviria

these gangs are not very well organized. Their main activity is extortion and drug

trafficking. They are “instruments of criminal organizations. They work for

whoever pays them. Some might work for guerrillas one day, paramilitaries the

next and then…The boss is called ‘money’. There is no other.”

In some neighborhoods informal security agencies were established. These

are former paramilitaries and although they don’t wear paramilitary uniforms,

people know who they are dealing with. “In such cases, it is not the formal,

legitimate apparatus of the state that takes care of the safety of its citizens, but

instead a sort of ‘ parallel state ’ that weakens democratic institutions” (Rozema,

2008, p. 450). According to Gaviria still not many people trust the police either,

because of the large quantities of money that enter the force. “They get paid well,

but the bonus on assisting delinquents is just too high. And it’s monthly, without

taxes and direct.”

Many groups have fought each other over time and contested each other’s

territories, but for the population things did not change for a long time. Or as

Alonso Salazar (2002, p.17) has put it:

Page 39: Stairway to dignity


Maybe what has identified the autodefensas , the guerrillas and on

many occasions the authorities, is the practice of social cleansing. It is

the manifestation of a system of territorial control, based on the

arbitrariness of the military power.

Although the situation seems to have improved in the last years, one can

never be completely sure about the local situation. Violence and crime are deeply

rooted in the DNA of the city, even if today they are much less visible. As for

Comuna 13, this part of the city is still a vital connection to the only road leading

up north to Urubá on the Panamanian border. Here all the drugs and arm

traffickers enter the city. So it will always be a center of attention for criminal


3.4 Focus on mobility

Instead of focusing on building houses to accommodate the continuing influx

of people into the city, the city administration in the 80’s switched its focus to

mobility. It had to keep the city moving and connected to communities in the

Metropolitan Area to keep up the economy. In 1984 it began constructing a north-

south metro line, connecting the poorer neighborhoods in the north to the

industrial area in the south. Due to political turmoil the project got delayed and

was not inaugurated before 1995. But up until now Medellin is the only

Colombian city with a metro system. “The metro is run by the Metro de Medellin,

an autonomously run private company, which is owned in equal parts by the

municipality and the province of Antioquia. The Metro Company is one of few

metros in the world that is self-financing in operational terms” (Coupé et al.,

2012, p. 63).

In 2004 the first metro cable line K to Santo Domingo in the northeast was

inaugurated. According to Peter Brand, director of the Department of Geography

at Universidad Nacional in Medellin, this line was motivated by numbers.

It was about getting the money on the mass transport system. The

metro was in serious financial problems after a huge delay of three or

five years. They were supposed to have a capacity between 750,000 and

900,000 passenger a day, but it was operating with around 250,000

Page 40: Stairway to dignity


passengers. So the metro cable car was one way of getting more people

onto the metro. 17

The choice for the location of this metro cable had everything to do with the

density of the population in this area.

In 2008 they added a second metro cable in the western part of the city,

connecting the metro station of San Javier in Comuna 13 to a new expansion

area of the city, called La Aurora. Ivan Sarmiento, civil engineer and professor at

the Universidad Nacional in Medellin explains this choice as follows:

The city needed expansion areas to house the new inhabitants, so it

had to look for cheap land and found it on top of the hill. But people

needed to get there as well. There were some dirt roads, but all very

steep, so they decided on building the metro cable. First they used the

apartments to accommodate 70,000 athletes for the 2010 South

American Games. So it was a housing solution and it served to improve

the image of the city when the athletes arrived. 18

Finally, in 2010, the third metro cable was inaugurated, connecting the metro

cable station of Santo Domingo with the recreational zone of Parque Arví (Arví

Park). This line is more a touristic route and people have to pay extra (around

$US 2), whereas they can directly transfer from the metro to the other metro

cables without an extra charge. According to Peter Brand “the L-line was built to

generate extra traffic on the K-line during the slower hours of the day, because

people would go down from Santo Domingo in the morning and come up at night,

whereas people going to Parque Arví would go up in the morning and come down

late afternoon” (see figure 3.2 for map of all metro and metro cables lines).19

Medellin keeps investing in good mobility infrastructure. In 2011 a Bus Rapid

Transit (BRT) system was finished and now the city is working on a tramway and

another metro cable. According to traffic expert Iván Sarmiento the challenge is

to “keep daily travel time limited to an average of 1,5 hours, which is acceptable

17 Interview Peter Brand, director of Department of Geography, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28 18 Interview Iván Sarmiento, civil engineer and professor at the Faculty of Mining, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.05.08 19 Interview Peter Brand, director of Department of Geography, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28

Page 41: Stairway to dignity


for a city of this size”20. But even with investments in public transport and

limitations on car use, the richer people in the city will not trade their car for

public transportation. In this respect the city remains highly segregated. But

still, the choice of Medellin to invest so much in public transport sets the city

apart from other major cities in Latin America. For example in São Paolo the city

administration makes a completely different choice. Here more traffic is

associated with more consumerism and the government “has chosen to emphasize

it as a way of promoting the social mobility of the poor. The individual

automobile is central to this policy” (Caldeira, 2013. p. 3).

Map 3.2: Metro and metro cable lines, source: Metro de Medellin

The investments in the metro cable system in Medellin have had a huge

impact in opening up areas of the city where up until then the state had had no

presence at all and criminal gangs were the only authorities. Although this was

not the objective of mayor Luis Perez (2001-2004), who was responsible for

building it. Peter Brand states:

It was mayor Fajardo [2004-2008] who realized that it was the

entrance and access point through which urban improvement could be

built. That kind of thing in terms of social urban aspects wasn’t

thought of when the first line was conceived and built. Nor was there

any concern or any ideas around the problem of mobility. Those kinds

of arguments weren’t used then.21

20 Interview Iván Sarmiento, civil engineer and professor at the Faculty of Mining, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.05.08 21 Interview Peter Brand, director of Department of Geography, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28

Page 42: Stairway to dignity


3.5 The birth of ‘social urbanism’

As described earlier Medellin’s most prominent problem in the 80’s was the

insecurity felt by its population.

This bears close relation to the co-existence of various criminal and

violent groups and the connections to the world of drug trafficking and

in a later stage with various insurgent and counter-insurgent groups

which have added to this insecurity, which is deepened by the fact that

the state has not been able to regulate social conflicts (Cañas. et al,

2008, p. 26-27).

Fear infiltrated every part of society and practically paralyzed it. But in the

beginning of the 90’s civil society started to wake up. “In 1990 a large number of

academics, civil servants, artists, representatives of the church and social

organizations gathered for three days to talk about the problems in the city”

(IDB, municipality of Medellin, 2011, p. 41). The driving force behind it was

Alonso Salazar, who in 2008 became mayor. Out of this initiative emerged

Corporación Region, one of the most influential NGO’s in the city. During this

time a lot of creative minds in the city joined forces, also on the subject of urban

transformation. “In 1993/94 there was a program called PRIMED, which

operated independently with finances from Germany.[…] This was a very

important moment, because for the first time people from institutions and

academics connected to think together about the problems in the city”22 There

arose a new consciousness about the reality in Comuna 13 and other poor

neighborhoods and some housing renovation project got off the ground.

In 1991 there was another important change. Colombia adopted a new

constitution with decentralized power. For the first time mayors were not

appointed by the state or the governor but could be elected by popular vote.

This has modified the ways in which the mayor’s office operated and in

turn has modified the relationship of the mayor ‘s office with its

citizens. The overall power structure and image has shifted from an

22 Interview, Alejandro Echeverri, director Urbam Eafit, d.d. 6 May 2014

Page 43: Stairway to dignity


authoritarian approach to a more citizen-oriented policy (Samper,

2010, p. 69).

This opened up the system for independent candidates who were not affiliated

with one of the traditional parties in Colombia. However, it did not instantly

change the confidence in the authorities. Years of neglect and insecurity among

large parts of the population had left their marks, which was also reflected in the

elections. For example “in the 2000 mayoral elections 56,92% of the population

that had a right to vote abstained from voting” (Cañas, et al, 2008, p. 25). Since

then this figure is only slowly declining.

In 2004, in his second time participating in the elections, Sergio Fajardo was

the first independent candidate that took over the mayor’s office in Medellin.

Gloria Molina comments on this change in politics: “Nobody had ever heard of

Fajardo, but he went on the streets and was able to connect with the people”.23

Fajardo had a goal: to make Medellin, la más educada (Medellin, the most

educated). Had the focus of the city administration in the previous years been on

transportation and a number of projects in the city center, Fajardo took a radical

turn and allocated most of his budget to the poor areas of the city. Already in

2002 he had gathered a group of people from NGO’s, academia and private sector

around him - the same people who were from the 90’s on participating in

discussions and projects to change the city - to help him make a government plan.

When he won the mayoral election in 2004 he made Alejandro Echeverri head of

the Empresa Desarollo Urbano (EDU, Urban Development Company), who

turned it into a multidisciplinary institute with its sole focus on the poorest areas

in the city.

Fajardo wanted to solve two basic problems in the city. He wanted to reduce

social inequality which created a ‘social debt’ between the rich and the poor, and

he wanted to end the violence. Education was his tool to provide opportunities for

the children in the poorest communities and thereby repay the social debt. The

strategy of Medellin, la más educada consisted of a combination of physical, social

and institutional measures. Among other things Fajardo built library parks in

the poorest neighborhoods. These libraries were built by renowned architects and 23 Interview Gloria Molina Velez, architect and professor at Universidad de Anitoquia, 2014.04.15

Page 44: Stairway to dignity


offer – next to the library function – community spaces for gatherings, courses,

computer access and many things more. He also invested in public space and

renovated city parks, thereby using materials that were of the same quality as

those used in the more wealthier parts of the city. He built ten colegios de calidad

(quality schools). He invested in day care for children and enhanced the capacity

of the public universities by 200%. To stimulate economic development he built

several centers for small entrepreneurs in poor neighborhoods. Establishing

public buildings in these long neglected areas was also a form of re-establishing

state presence. This approach to urban transformation became known as ‘social


The redevelopment of larger urban areas was organized in Proyectos Urbanos

Integrales (PUI’s, Integrated Urban Projects). In total there were 5 PUI’s for the

city. The first one – the pilot project – was the one for Comunas 1+2 (Santo

Domingo). In this densely populated area Fajardo could make use of the newly

inaugurated metro cable to bring the urban transformation to this region. His

line of thinking and the projects initiated by him were in 2008 continued by his

successor Alonso Salazar. They both new each other very well from their days at

Corporación Region and shared the same vision. Under his administration the

Master Plan for Comuna 13 took shape, of which the electric escalator is just one

project, albeit a project that received worldwide attention.

3.6 Comuna 13 and the electric escalator

Comuna 13 – and especially the neighborhood of Las Independencias, where

the escalator is located - is one of the most densely populated areas in the city

with more than 130 dwellings per ha, and an average of 4,1 inhabitants per

dwelling (see map 3.3 for location of Las Independencias and escalator in

Comuna 13).24

The project of the electric escalator is just a small link in the Master Plan of

Comuna 13 which has been conceived in 2007. This was the third PUI the city

took on. “The Master Plan wanted to tackle the poorest areas in Comuna 13 with

a double focus: first on public space and mobility, and secondly on public

24 Municipality of Medellin

Page 45: Stairway to dignity


buildings.”25 Its aim was to improve the connection between the planned city and

the informal city and also between different neighborhoods, some of which are

separated by natural boundaries like a small valley. The idea was to create a

natural route – either on foot or by bus – even from the most upper

neighborhoods to the metro station San Javier (see map 3.4 for Master Plan).

Map 3.3 Location of Comuna 13 and Las Indenpendencia neighborhood with escalator. Source:

PUI, municipality of Medellin, red arrow added by author

Boardwalks were widened, flowerbeds constructed, playgrounds and football

courts built and along these routes public buildings arose, like a school or a

justice building, as a representation of the state that had been absent in these

parts of the city for so long.

25 Interview César Hernández, general manager PUI (2004-2011), 2014.06.06

Page 46: Stairway to dignity


Green arrow points at metro station San Javier.

Red arrow points at location of escalator.

Red areas are locations of public buildings. Map 3.4 Master Plan Comuna 13, source: PUI, municipality of Medellin. Arrows added by author.

Technical data electric escalator The escalator consists of 6 tramos of 94,5 meter in total which bridge an altitude of more than 38 meters. The inclination of each tramo is 30 or 35 degrees. The entire ride takes 3,28 minutes (this was timed by author). The technique was developed in Japan and fabricated in China. What is unique is that the six parts were not delivered as a whole, but were assembled on location, because otherwise they could not be brought into this very narrow and steep area. The escalator also has two public buildings, one on the foot and one on top of the escalator, which also has a viewing platform. The total costs were about US$ 6 million (see figure 3.1 for artist impression of upper part escalator and viewing platform). Box 3.1 Technical data electric escalator, source: PUI Comuna 13 and interview César Hernández, 2014.06.06

Page 47: Stairway to dignity


Figure 3.1 Artist Impression electric escalator. Source: PUI Comuna 13, municipality of Medellin

3.7 Concluding remarks

In the course of three decades Medellin changed from murder city under the

rule of Pablo Escobar into a model city of social urbanism winning international

prizes for its achievements. However, underneath the visible changes still

remains a city that is deeply segregated. Poor, illegal settlers still come to the

city in search of a better future. Criminal gangs still control large parts of the city

and its economy, living off vacunas and drug trade.

The historically close connection between the industrial elite and the

government still remains until today, its positive side being the financial

contributions entrepreneurs make to public spaces, but on the downside probably

also making democratic processes less transparent. The paisa-culture,

characterized by its entrepreneurial skills and focus on ‘being the best’ has made

Medellin an industrial and economic center and contributed to its wealth, but

according to many also has negative effects. It creates a culture where money and

status symbols are the driving values transmitted in schools.

Page 48: Stairway to dignity


Social change in Medellin was instigated by the intellectual elites that joined

forces to fight fear and insecurity. Out of this civil movement came two

independent mayors who at the beginning of the century turned things around in

the city, with their new social urbanism approach, for which major investments

done in public transport in the decade before, paved the way. They made a

beginning with repaying the social debt that exists between the rich and the poor.

Page 49: Stairway to dignity


4. Quality of life without a penny more

In this chapter I will address three topics. First I will establish, on the basis

of my own observations and official data, that physical mobility has actually

slightly increased because of the escalators. Secondly, I will address the question

of the personal (economic) benefits of the escalator. In line with theories of

Kenyon et al.(2003), Lucas (2012) and Church et al.(2000) on transport related

social exclusion I argue that the electric escalator has only had a negligible effect

on the economic situation of the inhabitants, with the exception of the members

of the surveillance team that did experience a rise in social mobility. I especially

used Kaufmannn’s (2004) motility concept and its three criteria – access,

competence and appropriation – together with Church’s (2000) factors that might

limit the mobility of socially excluded people, to study the circumstances and

individual motivations to access mobility infrastructure. On the basis of these

theories I argue that in the case of the escalator a piece of transportation

infrastructure has been created that is easily accessible and does benefit a

limited amount of people. It has opened up the neighborhood and created access

for state institutions. However its added value is relatively small to really have a

huge impact.

Thirdly, I examine the economic effects on a neighborhood level. I use three

indicators for these economic neighborhood effects: the effects of the escalator on

neighborhood image, the development of real estate prices, and the economic

activity in the neighborhood. I make comparisons to the developments in the

neighborhood of Santo Domingo, Hong Kong where another outdoor escalator has

been built, and favela Santa Marta with its tramway, concluding that economic

neighborhood development in Las Independencias has not really progressed yet.

4.1 Rise in mobility

In my research question I focus on the socio-economic impact of the electric

escalator on the inhabitants of Comuna 13. But before I go into its socio-economic

effects, there is the question of physical mobility. Did the electric escalator

actually lead to an increase in physical mobility in this neighborhood? To answer

Page 50: Stairway to dignity


this question I looked at the analysis made in the PUI that led up to the

construction of the escalator, I looked at the official numbers, provided by

Terminales Medellin which runs the escalator, and I collected my own data using

surveys and observations. In interviews with people from the neighborhood I

tried to discover which motives people had to use or not use the escalator.

As I have outlined in the previous chapter, Comuna 13 is a part of the city

with more than 140,000 inhabitants divided into twenty official neighborhoods.

So the effects of the electric escalator are limited to the direct surroundings. That

is La Independencia 1, which is part of the neighborhood Las Independencias,

consisting of three parts. When the municipality in 2007 made a Master Plan for

Comuna 13 it did extensive research on the mobility patterns of its inhabitants

(see map 4.1). On the basis of these mobility patterns, the municipality concluded

that 12,000 people living in this area would potentially benefit from the

construction of the escalator. According to Terminales Medellin, 1,500 people use

the escalator on a daily basis and according to Mariano Caravaj, the manager of

Terminales on the site, this number has risen in the last months to 2,000 a day.26

During eight hours, spread over four days I made observations myself and

counted the number of users. If I extrapolate my findings the number of 2,000

users a day seems valid (see appendix I for results of counts and observations).

According to the members of the surveillance team and inhabitants I

interviewed, more people use the elevator at night than in the morning. Many

people take a colectivo (mini bus) from a street about 300 meters above the top of

the escalators to go to work or they walk. José, one of the inhabitants, said that

he already leaves for work at 4.30 AM and the elevator does not start running

until 6 AM, so he walks.27 Chota, one of member of the surveillance team, told me

in an informal conversation that many people like to take a warm bus in the

morning, but at night they prefer a relaxing stroll and ride on the elevator to a

crowded bus that gets stuck in traffic.

In the survey (n=50) with inhabitants in the area, more than half indicated to

use the escalators more than eight times a week, which is daily or twice daily (see

appendix II for survey questions and results). That would mean that 26 (visited on 2014.08.11) 27 Interview EEM_2014.05.19_José

Page 51: Stairway to dignity


Map 4.1: mobility patterns and bus stops in Las Independencias

1,000 of the alleged 2,000 daily users are a fixed group and the other half are less

frequent users or visitors from outside the neighborhood. If we compare these

numbers to the 12,000 people living in the area, it seems relatively safe to

conclude that only a small part of the inhabitants in the area actually use the

electric escalator. This is being substantiated by the data of my survey. The

people who were living more than around 200 meters away from the escalator –

especially in the upper parts of the neighborhood – indicated that they used the

escalator less frequently or not at all. For them it would be easier to walk further

up to the next street where they could take a colectivo (see map 4.1 for indication

of nearest bus stops). However, there were also inhabitants that did live close to

the escalator, but did not use it frequently. In the survey 18 people indicated that

they were going out more than before the escalator was there, and 25 people said

their behavior had not changed. So there seems to be at least a slight increase in

mobility. Doing the shopping and going to work are the most frequently

mentioned objectives to use the escalator. Other frequented destinations are the

medical center, school, or going out. Many residents use it just to take a stroll

through the neighborhood (see also next chapter). Often the escalator is used in

white dotted lines = vehicle routes

thick green dotted lines = primary

pedestrian routes (the one in the

middle is where electric escalator

was built)

thin green dotted lines = secondary

pedestrian routes

red dot = nearest bus stop at bottom

of escalator

red arrow indicates nearest bus

stop, which is about 200 m further

up, outside of image

Source: PUI Comuna 13, Municipality of


Red dot and arrow added by author

Page 52: Stairway to dignity


combination with the colectivo at the bottom of the escalator and the connecting

metro that takes people to the city center.

4.2 Pesos or pausas?

In this paragraph I focus on the personal benefits people experience.

Especially I am interested in answering the question if their lives have

economically improved. I use different theories that have examined the

connection between transportation and social exclusion and social mobility. The

mere presence of a form of transportation is not enough to explain its effects. One

needs to take a closer look at which circumstantial and personal factors influence

the choice to make use of these opportunities. Theories by Church et al. (2000)

and Kaufmannn et al. (2004) provide more insight into these criteria. I will

analyze the situation in La Independencia 1 with these theories and argue that

the escalators have not contributed to more income or better job opportunities,

except for one group: the surveillance team of the escalator.

The biggest benefit of the escalator is that people do not have to walk up the

357 concrete stairs that were there before, which took them between 20 and 60

Figure 4.1: situation before escalators Figure 4.2: situation with escalator (source: municipality of Medellin)

Page 53: Stairway to dignity


minutes, depending on their physical condition. “People can rest when they come

home from work”, “it benefits a lot to disabled and elderly people”, “now my knees

don’t hurt as much”, “it’s so much more convenient than walking up the stairs”,

“what relaxation!”, are the most commonly mentioned benefits of the escalator in

the survey (see figure 4.1 and 4.2 to compare the situation before and after). Of

course the electric escalator is just a tiny piece in the connection between this

neighborhood and the city center and it is doubtful if one can call an electric

escalator a form of mass transport. “More than transportation it is a matter of

local pedestrian accessibility”, says transport expert Iván Sarmiento.28 That,

according to him, also explains why the Metro Company was not interested in the

exploitation of the escalators. However, even if it is just a small link in the

transportation system, it is still interesting to look at how the enhancement of

mobility effects the social and economic exclusion of the inhabitants in this area.

In the last decades there has been extensive research on the relationship

between the lack of transportation and social exclusion. Transport-related social

exclusion can be defined as:

The process by which people are prevented from participating in the

economic, political and social life of the community because of reduced

accessibility to opportunities, services and social networks, due in

whole or part to insufficient mobility in a society and environment

built around the assumption of high mobility (Kenyon et al., 2003, p.


Las Independencias and Comuna 13 as a whole have definitely not been able to

fully participate in the economic and social life of the city. They have been cut off

from society for a long time and still suffer from stigmatization. Transport

surveys demonstrate that it is usually the poorest and most socially

disadvantaged people who also experience transport disadvantage.

Transport disadvantage and social disadvantage interact directly and

indirectly to create transport poverty. This in turn leads to

inaccessibility to essential goods and services, as well as ‘lock-out’ from

planning and decision-making processes, which can result in social 28 Interview Iván Sarmiento, civil engineer and professor at the Faculty of Mining, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.05.08

Page 54: Stairway to dignity


exclusion outcomes and further social and transport inequalities will

then ensue (Lucas, 2012, p.106).

The problem of transport poverty and social exclusion is very multidimensional; a

lot of aspects have to be taken into account. Church et al (2000, p.198-200)

identify seven factors that may limit the mobility of socially excluded people. The

inhabitants of Comuna 13 can still be considered socially excluded, so these

factors might help to analyze their situation. I will briefly describe five of them

which are most relevant for the situation in Comuna 13.

First there is the geographical exclusion which in Comuna 13 is very obvious,

given its location in the periphery of the city. The community has been built not

only on the outskirts, but also on the steep mountain slopes, with a constant

danger of landslides, which makes it even less accessible. So even though it is

now through a metro line connected to the city center, large parts of Comuna 13

are still very difficult to access.

Secondly, there is the exclusion from facilities. The neighborhoods up on the

mountain have been excluded from facilities for a long time. According to Edward

Soja the distribution of these services throughout the city – which is a political

decision - is an endogenous factor that can create unequal rights to the city and

spatial injustice (Soja, 2010, p.47). A lot has been invested in recent years to

improve this situation: for example medical facilities and secondary schools have

been built in the area.

Thirdly, there is economic exclusion, which in Comuna 13 is still very present,

because the area is still very much cut off from formal jobs. According to figures

from 2001-2005 “55% of the working population in Medellin works in the

informal sector and in Comuna 13 this is even higher” (Coupé, F., 2013, p. 71). In

a recent survey done by the municipality of Medellin only 34,5% of the population

of Las Independencias indicated to have work and of those only 20,5% had a job

in the formal economy, which are usually found in the city center (see table 4.1

and 4.2).

Time-based exclusion is the fourth factor worth mentioning, because long

travel time and the cost of transportation play an important role in this economic

exclusion. Time is an important factor according to Church et al.(2000), because

Page 55: Stairway to dignity


Current employment

Table 4.1, source: municipality of Medellin, January 201429

Kind of employment/income

Table 4.2, source: municipality of Medellin, January 2014

people in poor areas who also have to take care of children or other family

members, are constantly struggling with time. Also when it comes to education,

these neighborhoods lag behind. More than 56% only has primary education and

another 40% also has secondary education. But people with a proper professional

training are hard to find here (see table 4.3 for education levels).

This lack of education is also connected to the fifth and last factor of Church

et al. (2000) I want to discuss, which is fear-based exclusion. The inhabitants of

Las Independencias have suffered in the 80’s, 90’s and at the beginning of the

new millennium from the presence of various violent groups in the area, which

prevented them from going out for a long time, unless it was inevitable.

There were dead people lying in the streets. I couldn’t walk down nor

up, because they would kill you. Things like that. It was very hard. […]

29 The source of this table and all the following tables is the municipality of Medellin. They are part of an investigation executed in January 2014 and were handed to me by Diana Patiño who at that time worked as a political researcher for the municipality of Medellin.

Page 56: Stairway to dignity


One of my daughters was going to school in another part of town, in La

Floresta, and another more close by, to the monks. Sometimes I could

send them there and sometimes not. Then I had to call the school that

they couldn’t come because there was too much violence and shooting

going on. Well, the teachers understood, but of course they missed a lot

of classes because of the shootings and killings. Claudia (47)30

As this quote shows, the violence influenced the possibility of getting a good

education, because violence influenced mobility and thereby the opportunity to go

to school. This seems to have improved now, which is also illustrated by Johana,

who states that people now even feel safe to go out at night and therefore might

even go to night school to catch up on the education they missed as a child.31

Level of education

Table 4.3, source: municipality of Medellin, January 2014

Concluding, it is safe to say that some of the factors that enforce social

exclusion according to Church et al. (2000) have improved in Comuna 13.

The situation is much safer, there are more facilities in the neighborhood en

the area is by metro line connected to the city center. However, other factors

still persist and contribute to the ongoing social exclusion. The most

important one is being cut off from the formal economy and long travel

times that make it difficult to combine different roles. Also many areas are

30 Interview EEM_2014.05.26_Claudia 31 Interview EEM_Johana_2014.05.15

Page 57: Stairway to dignity


still beyond easy access. The electric escalator has only had a very minimal

effect in improving this situation. It is just a small link, that has improved

access to other forms of transportation.

I have discussed the concept of transport related social exclusion, but one can

also turn the medal and approach the subject from a more positive side and study

social mobility, which is next to the physical displacement of people or goods, the

other important aspect of mobility in current academic research.

Social mobility can be described most generally as the transformation

in the distribution of resources or social position of individuals, families

or groups within a given social structure or network. […] The most

frequently used indicators for the measurement of social mobility are

occupational transitions. (Kaufmann et al,, 2004, p. 747).

Spatial and social mobility are highly connected, but “many spatial and social

mobility studies tend to limit their scope by merely describing actual and past

fluidity. [This] is insufficient to understand the impact of a particular social

phenomenon” (Kaufmann et al,, 2004, p. 749) . The new concept of ‘motility’ seeks

to link spatial and social mobility. As Church et al. (2000) do, it studies the

individual and circumstantial conditions which influence mobility.

Motility can be defined as the capacity of entities (e.g. goods,

information or persons) to be mobile in social and geographic space, or

as the way in which entities access and appropriate the capacity for

socio-spatial mobility according to their circumstances. […] Generally,

motility encompasses interdependent elements relating to access to

different forms and degrees of mobility, competence to recognize and

make use of access, and appropriation of a particular choice, including

the option of non-action. (Kaufmann et al,, 2004, p. 750).

Brand and Dávila (2011, p. 649-650) have used this concept to study the

metro cable in Medellin’s neighborhood of Santo Domingo. When applying the

concept of ‘motility’ to the electric escalator the outcome is very similar to that of

the metro cable, but there are also slight differences, for example in access. In

Santo Domingo there was enough alternative transportation available in the

form of buses. In Las Independencias, there are also colectivos available, but the

Page 58: Stairway to dignity


electric escalator does play an important role in accessing these connections for

people living on these steep slopes. If they are in any way disabled, it was

virtually impossible for them to reach these buses. Now they can make use of the

escalator, provided they live close by and are able to walk to the escalator. So for

a limited group, the escalator has actually provided access to transportation they

did not have before. According to Marta Perez, one of the sociologists involved in

the project, in this area the concentration of disabled and elderly people is higher

than in other parts and that was one of the reasons the municipality chose this

location.32 Another indicator of this is the relative high number of elderly people

using the escalator. I witnessed some young people carrying a very old lady in a

chair to the escalator. Figure 4.3 is a clear example of how the escalator benefits

disables people that would otherwise be excluded from public transport. Contrary

to the metro cable the electric escalator is free of charge, which also enhances


Figure 4.3: Disabled man using escalator

32 Interview Martha Perez, sociologist at EDU, 2014.05.15

Page 59: Stairway to dignity


Concerning the factor ‘competence’, for both forms of transportation – the

metro cable and the escalator – some competences are required to use them. The

logistics and the use of a metro cable were more sophisticated than that of buses

and users had to be trained for that. Also for the use of the electric escalator,

people needed to acquire competences. For us it is maybe hard to imagine, but

many inhabitants of Las Independencias had never seen an electric escalator,

because they had never visited a shopping mall in their lives. Martha Perez tells

me that they took a group of children and some adults to a shopping mall in

another part of town. They were absolutely amazed that something out of a chic

shopping mall would be put in their neighborhood. Back home the children were

used to explain to others how the electric escalator works.33 There are also clear

instruction on entering the escalator and one member of the surveillance team is

standing on each tramo to give instructions or help people use the escalator in an

appropriate way. Figure 4.4 shows which competences are needed when entering

the escalator.

Figure 4.4: Instruction when entering the escalator

33 Interview Martha Perez, sociologist at EDU, 2014.05.5

Page 60: Stairway to dignity


The third factor in Kaufmannn’s motility concept is ‘appropriation’, which is

about how individuals act upon these modes of transportation. The metro cable

can be seen as clear link to formal urban life, especially for the ones that have

jobs in the formal sector. The electric escalator has a slightly different function

and is used by a much broader group and for different purposes, so the level of

appropriation can in that respect be considered higher. It is more an informal

mode of transport on a very small scale and local level. What also added to the

appropriation level is that local people helped to build the electric escalator.

Some of the construction workers, like 23-year old Jorge, now are part of the

surveillance team. Appropriation, however, can also take shape in the opposite

direction; equally as with the metro cable, the electric escalator did play a

significant role for state institutions to gain access to these areas that were

before completely controlled by criminal gangs. Maybe this has proven to be even

more valuable than enhancing the mobility of the local residents. With this

access came subsidies for renovating homes, educational projects for child care

and other socially oriented projects.

Connecting the escalator to the motility concept of Kaufmannn, I conclude

that the escalator is easily accessible, because it is free of charge and it provides

– for a limited group of people – access to other forms of transportation that were

out of reach before. It requires limited competences to use and has a high level of

appropriation, both because inhabitants use it for different purposes and because

it provides an entrance to people and institutions from outside, that could not

enter the area before. However, because of its small size, its effects on different

forms of mobility are still very limited.

The theoretical studies show that transport and transport-related social

exclusion and social mobility are multi-dimensional issues. Adaptations to the

transport system alone are not sufficient to substantially diminish social

exclusion and contribute to social mobility. Church et al. (2000) conclude that

improving transport may only partially contribute to the solution. For example

solving the problem of travel time and costs to have better access to jobs might

not have that much influence if there are not that many jobs available. No

Page 61: Stairway to dignity


wonder it has been very difficult up until now to produce empirical evidence that

improving transport infrastructure leads to diminishing economic exclusion.

This research is no exception. My data have shown no real indication that the

economic situation of the people living around the escalator has improved in any

way. 50-year old José, who works independently states: “My work is very

independent from my mode of transport. The people I work for don’t care if I

travel in a plane, by metro or in a taxi. That doesn’t matter at all. […] My income

basically has stayed the same.”34 Or 52-year old Nelson who delivers gas

canisters to his clientele in Comuna 13. He used to carry them on his shoulders

up the 357 stairs and even further to his costumers. Five times a week he had to

carry up a bottle. Since he is in pretty good physical condition, that took him

about 20 minutes. Now on average he needs 10 minutes. So that saves him

roughly 50 minutes a week. To my question if his income has improved he

answers: “I earn the same, but I have to work less and can relax more. The

biggest benefit of the electric escalator is that I can rest on it.”35 Of course there

is the odd exception to the rule, like the husband of Luz who is an independent

contractor for housing renovations.36 He has benefitted because a lot of people in

the area have received subsidies to improve their houses and he gets more

painting jobs because of that. But these are rare examples. What struck me

during the interviews was that none of the respondents spontaneously mentioned

the factor ‘time’. Even when asked about it, they did not consider this a great

benefit or an opportunity to acquire more work. The factor ‘rest and relaxation’

seems to play a far more important role and to be adding substantially to their

quality of life.

However, there is one significant exception. The surveillance team of the

escalator, consisting of a group of fifteen boys and girls, in age varying between

21 and 36 years, does have a clear economic benefit. They all live in Comuna 13,

most of them in the area around the escalator, and are hired by Terminales

Medellin, to supervise the escalator. Their work consists of helping people,

making sure everybody uses the escalator in a correct way, cleaning the

34 Interview EEM_2014.05.19_José 35 Interview EEM_2014.05.15_Nelson 36 Interview EEM_2014.05.12_Luz

Page 62: Stairway to dignity


escalator, maintaining the surrounding gardens and welcoming strangers into

the neighborhood and explaining the project to them. The economic benefit they

have is clearly recognized and appreciated by other inhabitants, which regularly

pointed to them when I asked them what the economic benefits of the escalators

were. Working for Terminales has made a world of difference to them. 23-year old

Chota did not believe when they said he would earn $ 700,000 pesos per month

(around US$ 350). “I said, lady you must be mistaken, but then she repeated the

number […] How wonderful reality can be! […] The truth is I have never earned

that much money in my life.”37 What the members of the surveillance team (see

Figure 4.5: members of the surveillance team of the escalator

figure 4.5) appreciate most, like other respondents, is the improved quality of life,

which in their case is addressed mostly in terms of proximity between work and

home. “I used to work in a call center near Aguacatála station [other side of

town]. Every month they changed shifts, but I usually got the one from 3–11 PM.

So I came back home every night at midnight. It frightened me to walk up here

during that hour. […] It is so convenient to work close to home”, says 28-year old

37 Focus group 2014.06.12

Page 63: Stairway to dignity


Leidy.38 Mayi (24) is another girl on the team that highly appreciates working

close to home: “I can go and see my daughter for fifteen minutes in day care

during my half hour break. They give her to me and we can spend more time

together.”39 She and others in the group also state that they are now dealing with

their money more responsibly, whereas before they just spent it. This might have

to do with the fact that some of them are starting a family, but it can also be

related to the fact that this job gives them a kind of social standing and

responsibility. They are part of the community and have a representational job in

which they not only watch the community members, but are being watched

themselves as well. Contrary to the other inhabitants in the area the members of

the surveillance team clearly show upward social mobility. In Kaufmannn’s

definition they have made an “occupational transition”. With this they have

improved their economic situation and gained more social status in their


4.3 Economic neighborhood development

In the previous paragraph I focused on possible economic benefits the

escalator might have had on an individual level. In this paragraph I look at

factors relating to the escalator that have had an impact on the economic uplift of

the neighborhood as a whole, or have failed to do so. I identify three of these

consequences. First there is the improvement of the neighborhood image, which

might in time have an impact on the economic possibilities of its inhabitants.

Secondly, there is the rise in real estate prices, which is also influences by

subsidies for housing improvements and legalization of houses. And thirdly, I

discuss possibilities for improved economic activity in the neighborhood. When

relevant I make a comparison to the impact of the metro cable in Santo Domingo,

but also to the outdoor escalator in Hong Kong and the tramway in favela Santa

Marta in Rio de Janeiro.

Concerning the first point, it is safe to say that Comuna 13 has suffered from

stigmatization for many years. It was seen as a poor and violent area. Now that

38 Focus group 2014.06.12 39 Focus group 2014.06.12

Page 64: Stairway to dignity


more people from outside can freely and safely enter the neighborhood, this

image is slowly beginning to change. I will also go into this topic in the next

chapter, but in this chapter I would like to emphasize the possible contribution

an improved image might have on job opportunities for its inhabitants. This is

illustrated by the story of 26-year old Soreida. She tells me that in the past, when

she applied for a job and put in her cv that she lived in Comuna 13, nobody would

even invite her for a job interview. “There is still a lot of prejudice”, she says “but

now, if I say that I live near the escalator, that makes a difference.”40 So the way

in which the escalator influences social mobility might not just be connected to its

role as a piece of transport infrastructure, but also to its impact in uplifting the

neighborhood as a whole. Although I was not able to find any concrete evidence of

this just yet, this story is an indication of a possible change in the future.

Considering the second factor, there are indications that the real estate prices

have risen in close proximity to the escalator. Soreida lives 50 meters from the

escalator and states: “A little further away from the escalator you can still buy a

house for $ 8 or 9 million pesos [around US$ 4,000 – 4,500]. Here, in this area,

people have sold their houses for $ 30–40 million pesos. But I would not consider

selling; where would you go then?”41 Most people have lived in Comuna 13 for a

very long time – the survey showed an average of more than 24 years. Most of the

people interviewed stated that they had no intention of moving. Only Leida is

dreaming of her own little house in Robledo [another area of town, more centrally

located], with a park in front and space to park a car. “If they would give me $ 40

million pesos [roughly the price of a house in Robledo] for this house, I am gone”,

she states.42 In general real estate prices do not seem to be on top of everybody’s

mind here. But when asked, most of them state that they think prices have gone

up. “Of course, some people want to sell. Before, when the situation was still very

much unsafe, more people would not maintain their houses very well, but now

that the authorities are here, it’s a totally different thing”, states 52-year

Nelson43. According to José real estate price is not an incentive for people to

40 Interview EEM_Soreida_2014.05.15 41 Interview Soraida 2014.05.15 42 Interview EEM_Leida_2014.05.12 43 Interview EEM_Nelson_2014.05.15

Page 65: Stairway to dignity


move. “Yes, there are people suddenly moving because they have a new job

opportunity with better pay in a different place, but I don’t think it is because of

the escalators that they move.”44

The only other well-known outdoor escalator in the world is the one in Hong

Kong. Research has shown that in the twenty years after its inauguration in

1993 real estate prices and investment levels have increased significantly along

the escalator. Also there is more commercial activity in the streets leading to the

escalator (Zacharias, 2013). Of course both projects are only partially comparable.

The escalator in Hong Kong is much longer (850 meters) and not located in a

slum but in a middle class residential area. Also developments over a period of

twenty years are hardly comparable to a period of two years. Maybe more

interesting is the comparison to the tramway built in favela Santa Marta in Rio

de Janeiro, which from a stigmatized neighborhood has developed into a ‘model

favela’ and now attracts foreign investments in houses and businesses, thereby

leading to significant increases in real estate prices (Menezes, forthcoming 2015).

The escalator has provided access to state institutions and these have also

brought subsidies for home improvements to the neighborhood, which have

influences real estate prices. Although for me it was difficult to find any system

in the distribution of the subsidies, some inhabitants I interviewed said they had

received subsidies and others did not. Cecilia, who lives fifty meters from the top

of the escalator along the ‘boulevard’ they constructed, received $ 6 million pesos

from ISVIMED, the social housing institute connected to the municipality. “They

changed my house completely. It became a kind of model house. […] But there

are many houses, many that received a subsidy.”45 She did not have to apply for

the subsidy. The people from ISVIMED came by and selected the houses around

the elevator that would receive a subsidy, she stated (see figure 4.6 for painted


And then there was a project called ‘Se pinta de vida’ which was initiated by a

company that produces paint. They provided the paint to paint some facades in

the run up to the World Urban Forum. This project, which was a collaboration of

a foundation linked to the paint company, an NGO and the municipality (EDU), 44 Interview EEM_Jose_2014.05.19 45 Interview EEM_Cecilia_2014.05.13

Page 66: Stairway to dignity


involved local artists who designed murals and roof paintings. In total they

painted 1,380 facades, 45 rooftops and 17 murals (see figure 4.7 for murals). More

than 4,000 people benefited from this project.46 During the time I spent in the

area, there was one house the owner put up for sale, but two months later, when

I left, it still was not sold, so it would be too early to say that there is a real estate

boom in the area around the electric escalator.

Figure 4.6: painted facades in area above escalator Figure 4.7: mural alongside the escalator

A second development that influenced real estate prices is the legalization of

houses that before were illegal. Martha Perez, who was involved in the process

prior to the start of construction of the escalator, explains: “In 2012 the

government started actualizing cadastral registrations at a national level. This

coincided with the inauguration of the escalators.”47 An official registration also

has a positive influence on the value, together with the fact that a lot of houses

were renovated and painted during that time. When a house is legalized, people

also have to pay more taxes, but Martha Perez assures that taxes were not raised

46 (visited on 2014.08.13) 47 Interview Martha Perez, sociologist at EDU, 2014.05.17

Page 67: Stairway to dignity


for people with a low income (estrato 1+2), although some inhabitants say they

have had tax raises.

Some people even complained about negative economic effects. Except one, all

the people I interviewed owned their houses. One family did not and they were

confronted with rises in rents during the last couple of years. People were also

complaining about rising public utility bills, but this is probably connected to the

improvement of the infrastructure. “I am in estrato 1 and pay almost $ 200,000

pesos. Before I didn’t pay for the light and there was only one container of water

for a lot of people and now I have my own connection. Before I didn’t have a

telephone either.”, says Claudia (47).48 Maria Elvia is a 57-year old woman with

just one kidney and no income. She has always worked for other families as a

nanny, next to raising her own four children. She never built up a pension and

cannot work anymore. She is a widow and her children have to support her. For

her things get very tight sometimes: “Sometimes I have to choose between a meal

and running water. Well you don’t want to be without running water, so then I

skip the meal.” 49 On top of that costs of groceries and other daily living expenses

have risen in the last years.

62-year old Miria lives right next to the escalator. Her husband receives a

small pension. She sells mango cream and minutos (cell phone minutes). She has

been doing this for years, but she sells more now that the escalator is here.

However, this small benefit has not improved their economic position. Miria

complains about rising prices. “Everything has become much more expensive.

We, as owners of this house, have to pay more taxes now. Also the public utilities

have gone up and prices for daily products. […].But that has nothing to do with

the electric escalator. This is just how things are in this country right now.”50

Behind the newly painted facades there is still a lot of hidden poverty,

especially for people who are renting their home and are subjected to rises in

rent. Lidia (52) and her husband, who has a small pension, belong in this

category. “ It is very hard. There is unemployment and when people have no job,

48 Interview EEM_Claudia_2014.05.26 49 Interview EEM_MariaElvia_2014.05.24 50 Interview EEM_Miria_2014.05.19

Page 68: Stairway to dignity


they really have a hard time. It is very hard. My income is very low, everything is

so expensive and if you don’t have money, you can’t buy food. It’s very hard.” 51

Apart from real estate prices and costs for daily living expenses it is

interesting to see if the escalator has triggered any economic activity in its

surroundings. This is next to image and real estate prices the third factor I want

to investigate. The research done in Santo Domingo on the impact of the metro

cable is an interesting comparison. Here there was only a small economic impact

on the neighborhood level (see figure 4.8 for activities around metro station Santo


While it is true that in the immediate vicinity of the stations and

where urban upgrading has been undertaken below the overhead

cables, the number of shops, bars and restaurants, workshops and

small businesses has increased significantly. […] However, outside

these tightly defined areas, neither small-scale economic activity nor

house prices or rents appear to show important changes (Brand &

Dávila, 2011, p. 655).

Figure 4.8: commercial activity around the metro cable station in Santo Domingo

51 Interview EEM_Lidia_2014.05.19

Page 69: Stairway to dignity


According to Peter Brand, Santo Domingo has always had the function of a

neighborhood market, so there was activity before the metro cable came.

When the metro cable came there was a concentration of passengers,

movement, new opportunities and certain businesses multiplied,

became more dynamic and - according to hear-say - changed

ownership. Local traditional shop owners have sold out to more

established companies. Not on a huge scale but this is what we were

told that’s been happening. Because there are some very profitable

points along the stations of the line. It’s quite restricted, though. There

tend to be small businesses, not much, that have changed and there is

a bank now. But considering the population these changes are not that

big. It’s still pretty modest. In certain points it’s quite impressive how

dynamic business is.52

The area around the electric escalator does – up until now – not seem to

generate any development of local businesses. The small street that leads up

from the bus stop to the bottom of the escalator – which is technically in another

neighborhood called 20 de Julio, is full of small shops, most of them selling food

and other daily products. I have had informal conversations with a couple of the

shop keepers. They all have been there way before the escalator was built. One

shop changed owners in 2012, the year of the inauguration. All of them stated

that the escalator has had no positive impact on sales. Shop owners still have to

pay vacunas to local gangs, which is about $ 2,000 pesos a day (US$ 1).53

Along the escalator are two shops at mid-level and one at the top of the

escalator. The one at the top belongs to Nelson, the gas salesman. His wife is

running the shop and one of his sons manages the internet part of the shop. They

sell sodas, candies and ice creams. The two shops at mid-level also sell clothing

and household goods. One of these shops closed during my stay and the owner of

the other shop moved in there, because it was closer to the escalator. Leida, one

of the residents I interviewed, thinks that it will be difficult to generate more

economic activity, because the shops on the side of the escalator charge much

more. “It is convenient for daily things like a soda or some cookies, but to buy 52 Interview Peter Brand, director of the Department of Geography, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28 53 Interview César Hernández, general manager PUI (2004-2011), 2014.06.06

Page 70: Stairway to dignity


things like clothing, it is much cheaper to go to 20 de Julio or to the city center.”54

The woman in the shop complained to me that business was bad and that

tourists did not buy anything, “not even a soda”. However, when I was at the

escalators the first time, which was during the WUF, there were all kinds of local

people selling fruit salads, ice cream and handicrafts at the top of the escalator.

But this does not seem to be worthwhile during regular days.

Community leader Adriana Restrepo dreams of microenterprises in the

neighborhood. “It is not allowed yet [by the municipal rules], but I see

opportunities for microenterprises; children making marmalade, women making

arepas, artists showing their work.”55 César Hernández, former manager of PUI,

thinks the current administration is economically not doing enough for this area.

This administration has done absolutely nothing in terms of touristic

promotion of the area. […] If you go there as a tourist there is

absolutely no infrastructure. We should prepare the local people. For

example how to start a business on the ground floor. […] The economic

department at the mayor’s office should use this potential. To create

local products connected to the escalator: a t-shirt, a key hanger, some

handicrafts, there are loads of possibilities. How can you expect the

economy to develop if the government doesn’t do anything? The people

stay poor, poor and poor on top of that. Poor people don’t take

initiative, they don’t have access to information and they are

surrounded by gangs.56

The question is whether microenterprises will help in diminishing poverty.

Bateman et al. (2011, p. 3) strongly dispute this because there is a lack of

demand in these local communities. “The limited form of microenterprise

development is often described as simply recycling poverty”. The question is

whether demand from outside, in the form of tourists, can compensate for this.

So looking at economic developments on a neighborhood level there is a slight

improvement in the image of the neighborhood, but real economic effects are not

noticeable yet. There is an increase in real estate prices which is limited to the

54 Interview EEM_Leida_2014.05.12 55 Interview EEM_Adriana_2014.05.12 56 Interview César Hernández, general manager PUI (2004-2011), 2014.06.06

Page 71: Stairway to dignity


houses directly bordering the escalator. On the whole economic activity has not

really increased in the neighborhood. There is no government support for this

and people lack the competences to start a business. In top of that it is highly

questionable if these businesses could compete with businesses in the city center.

4.4 Concluding remarks

Many theories on mobility have looked at connections between transportation

and social exclusion and established a very multi-layered connection (Kenyon et

al., 2003; Lucas, 2010; Church et al, 2000; Kaufmannn et al, 2004).

Improvements in transportation do not automatically lead to better physical and

social mobility. This was confirmed by my research data. One has to take into

account individual choices and circumstances, which Church and Kaufmannn do.

Looking at the electric escalator as a transportation infrastructure, moving

people from A to B, it has had a great impact on a very limited group of people.

These are the people that are disabled and could not climb the 357 concrete

stairs. For them it is a small, but vital missing link to connect them to other

forms of transportation or to just move around within the neighborhood. For

other people the biggest benefit is the fact that they can relax and do not have to

climb the 357 stairs. For the majority of the people this new mobility

infrastructure does not seem to have had any impact on their social mobility in

terms of gaining more income. So when it comes to choosing between pesos and

pausas, the biggest benefit seems to be pausas. In this sense the escalator

definitely adds to the quality of life, a topic which I will further explore in the

next chapter.

Another positive aspect that contributes to the quality of life is that through

the escalator official institutions have gained access to the neighborhood, which

brought with them all kinds of subsidies and community projects that benefited

the inhabitants. In Kaufmannn’s terms the electric escalator provided easy

access to other forms of transportation, little competences were needed to use it

and it was appropriated by large groups in the area for different purposes, one of

the most important being that government institutions used it to gain access to

the neighborhood. However, it did not succeed in taking away the barriers that

Page 72: Stairway to dignity


are blocking access to the formal economy of the city and with it to economic and

social mobility. The big exception are the members of the surveillance team

which not only have gained formal work, but also benefit from working closer to

home – being able to better combine domestic and work obligations - and

receiving social recognition in the neighborhood, which definitely contributed to

their social mobility.

When we look at the escalator not as a means of physical transport, but as an

urban intervention uplifting the neighborhood, then there are some other

interesting effects. First the escalator clearly uplifts the image of the

neighborhood and slowly de-stigmatizes it, something that in the long-run might

have its effects on the opportunities of the inhabitants on the job market.

Secondly, real estate prices in close proximity to the escalator are rising. This did

not have a huge impact yet, but given the examples in favela Santa Marta in Rio

de Janeiro and the escalator in Hong Kong, it is certainly worthwhile monitoring

this development. Thirdly, there has not been much economic development in the

neighborhood yet. There is still a wide spread vacuna-system and inhabitants

lack entrepreneurial skills to set up a business. Some say that the municipal

government should offer more support in adjusting legislation to make it easier

to set up a small business and to train people. However, as Bateman et al. (2011)

and local inhabitants state, it is questionable whether the consumer market in

these poor neighborhoods is big enough to accommodate such businesses and

whether they can compete with bigger, more efficient businesses that on top of

that operate in an area with lower transportation costs. Maybe an increasing

amount of tourists can contribute to a rise in demand, but then they do have to

start spending some money.

It seems that the key factor in upward mobility is access to work.

Transportation infrastructure alone cannot solve this problem. In the positive

case of the surveillance team it was a public company that through the project of

the escalator provided work. So maybe the solution has to be found in other

public investments in infrastructure that also in the long run provide formal jobs

for inhabitants, giving these neighborhoods at least a little push in the right


Page 73: Stairway to dignity


5. Public space reconquered

In this chapter I look at the social behavior of the inhabitants living around

the escalator. How do they interact? I approach this question from the

perspective of public space, because the escalator and the area around it –

including the two communal buildings at the top and the bottom of the escalator

– are newly created public spaces and as such they offer a space to interact. I look

at public space from three different angles: its influence on a sense of security, its

meaning in creating identification, attachment and social cohesion and finally its

role as a place where people can develop their active citizenship.

In the first paragraph I go into the question how people relate to public spaces

and how they identify with them and make them their own, for example through

art. Public spaces are closely connected to a sense of security. Wilson and

Kelling’s broken window’s theory is confirmed in the sense that the low key police

presence does seem to make people feel safer and especially the fact that the area

is clean contributes to the quality of life of the inhabitants and a sense of

security. The ‘territory’ or ‘turf’ has been reconquered on local gangs, although

there is a waterbed effect of gang violence spreading to other neighborhoods,

which indicates that the positive effects are limited by clear boundaries.

In the second paragraph I demonstrate how the way people interact in the

neighborhood has changed in the last years. Slowly they are working their way

out of the negative vicious circle of crime, gang violence, distrust and persistent

stigmatization. People are attached to this place, but now this also takes shape in

more casual interaction on the streets, people doing things together, slowly

starting to trust their neighbors again and generally developing a sense of pride

when faced with people from outside and with negative press coverage. Public

places play a vital role in creating these spaces for casual encounter and thereby

strengthening social cohesion. This does not turn La Independencia 1 overnight

into a model neighborhood; irritations and a certain form of segregation between

people from different racial backgrounds remain.

In the final paragraph I address the topic of public space and its role in

activating citizenship. Up until now the inhabitants of the neighborhoods have

Page 74: Stairway to dignity


not expressed themselves explicitly as citizens. They act more like passive

consumers, being grateful for all the government has done. They lack certain

skills, but maybe the situation is not ripe yet to really stand up and claim public

space to stand up for their own rights.

5.1 Public space, space identity and sense of security

I will briefly describe the violent situation the population in this area has

endured and how it has turned into a neighborhood where people feel relatively

safe. I describe the importance of public space in this development and how the

territory has slowly been reconquered on criminal gangs, although the situation

remains volatile.

As described in Chapter 3, Comuna 13 was one of the most violent areas of

Medellin during the 80’s and 90’s and beginning of the new century. During the

80’s the neighborhood was infiltrated by the urban guerrillas and in the 90’s the

paramilitaries entered to fight them. After Operation Orion in 2002, when the

army and police forces violently entered and took over the neighborhood,

paramilitaries returned as drug barons. All of them had their network of local

street gangs. Children and adolescents from the neighborhood were recruited to

work for the criminal gangs and contribute to their main source of income: the

drug trade, completed with extortion practices of local shop owners and bus

drivers. Local, gangs, controlled small areas in the neighborhood and were often

named after the corner they operated on. The neighborhood of Las

Independencias was especially affected. With its high density of mostly illegal

dwellings, its steep hillside location and its lack of public space, this was the

ideal hiding place for criminals. The families of many of the inhabitants I

interviewed carry this burden of a violent past with them. For many years they

were constantly afraid of their children being recruited by gang members. This is

what happened to the brother of Soreida and Johana. They say that he was

always in the street and could not be kept in the house. Finally he got stuck in

gang life, which in the end cost him his life. Soreida says: “He could not handle

all the displacements we had to endure very well [the family moved several

times, fleeing the violence of the guerrillas].[…] But in the end it is all about how

Page 75: Stairway to dignity


you deal with the situation yourself and the choices you make.”57 Even if they

were not recruited, children (and adults) were in constant danger of being hit by

stray bullets. A lot of them have stories about that, like Claudia: “There were

dead bodies in the streets almost daily. I could not go out many times. I had to

lock myself up in the house. It was very hard.”58 Fate was not equally distributed.

Adriana Maria Restrepo says that one family she knows has lost all five of their

children, while she survived with all four of hers. She also states: ”There was an

incredible consumption of drugs in the neighborhood and children were smoking

marihuana on every street corner.”59 The police was hardly present in this area

for a long time. It was dangerous to be a policeman in this area. Soreida tells the

story about a young man working for the police. He could not visit his mother

who lived in the area, because gang members would kill him. One day the mother

went to the leader of the gang and asked permission for her son to visit her just

once. The gang leader granted the permission, but did not keep his word. When

the son came, gang members tore him out of the house, tortured and finally killed


Although all of my informants agree that the situation has improved a lot,

there is no consensus on the moment the change began. Many refer to Operation

Orion in 2002 as a life changing moment. This was the first time there was

actually impressive state presence in the neighborhood, “cleaning” it – as some

refer to it - from criminals. Others state that the biggest change has taken place

in the last couple of years and can mainly be attributed to a truce that has been

established in 2013 between the two major gangs in the city. Although none of

the informants sees the construction of the escalator as the main factor which

caused the violence to diminish, most of them do see positive effects. “Due to the

escalator, the police is now more present in the neighborhood. Before it was a

little more complicated”, says Leida61. To my question if security has improved,

José answers: “Yes, maybe not 100%, but 70-80% at least.” To my question if this

is related to the escalator he very convincingly states:

57 Interview EEM_Soreida_Johana_2014.05.15 58 Interview EEM_Claudia_2014.05.26 59 Interview EEM_Adriana_2014.05.12 60 Interview EEM_Soreida_Johana_2014.05.15 61 Interview EEM_Leida_2014.05.12

Page 76: Stairway to dignity


Yes. There is a relation with this project, because the neighbors and

the people in general who live in this neighborhood feel a sense of pride

that they have this means of transportation integrated into their

neighborhood. In some way or other, we like the fact that we are the

first and that this is actually a public service which has not the aim to

be profitable for the construction company. This has had a very

positive impact on the public sphere and how people treat each other.62

This quote is interesting, because the question was about the diminishing of the

violence and the answer does not really go into the violence, but stresses the

factor ‘pride’ – which is something collectively felt by the neighborhood – and the

factor ‘public’. Further on in this chapter I will discuss the topic of neighborhood

pride more in-depth. Right now I would like to focus on the public sphere or space

this escalator has helped to create and how this is connected to a sense of


The term ‘public’ derives from the Latin word ‘populus’ meaning ‘the people’.

Hence public space should belong to the people, meaning they should all have

equal access to it. But “for streets to be livable, they must first be recognized as

public places” (UN Habitat, 2013, p. 30). Even if we call it ‘public’ in reality there

are all kinds of mechanisms at work that make public space more a space for

particular groups, thereby excluding others. “Public spaces can be central to

people’s self-definition, both individually and collectively” (Di Masso, 2012, p.

126), which is confirmed in my interviews when people, like the above cited José,

speak of the escalator as ‘theirs’ and something that makes them proud. If a

social group is connected to a space it has certain expectation about this place

and how people should behave in it. This is what Di Masso calls urban place

identity. The residents of a place connect the place to their self-image. In this

way the identification with an urban space becomes closely connected to their

personal identity. There is a strong social dimension in place attachment. People

connect to places because they feel attached to a social group that this place

represents (Scannell and Gifford, 2010, p. 4) However, if a group of people try to

control public space, then exclusion of other groups is imminent. Di Masso calls

62 Interview EEM_Jose_2014.05.19

Page 77: Stairway to dignity


this psychological notion ‘territoriality’. Territorial behavior has the objective to

establish who this space belongs to. We can see this behavior quite clearly when

gangs take over the neighborhood (Di Masso, 2012, p. 126). Jane Jacobs refers to

this kind of territoriality, calling it ‘turf’ (Jacobs, 1961, p.47). According to her

impersonal streets with no sidewalk activity create anonymous people who

choose to ignore each other. In such a situation it is much easier for others to

take control over a street or neighborhood, because the natural mechanisms to

watch out for each other and correct each other’s behavior are lacking (Jacobs,

1961, p. 57).

In Las Independencias this has been the case for years. Gangs were in

control. People would stay in their houses. There was hardly any casual contact

on the street, which according to Jacobs is so vital in creating safe streets. With

the construction of the electric escalator it seems that the state has reconquered

public space and gave it back to the community. César Hernández, former

manager of the PUI, gave a very vivid insight into the construction process of the


During construction of the first part of the escalator, they killed the

leader of one of the gangs […]. He just came out of prison, arrived as

‘chef of this zone’ and said: “You didn’t ask for my permission. How did

you get here? Etc.” He had two bodyguards and there was a moment, I

remember it was broad daylight, at one in the afternoon, he was

talking to a shop owner at a corner shop, and they came and killed

him. A guy with a rifle, from another gang.

During the whole construction there were a lot of shootings and a dozen people

were killed, one of them a 9-year old boy who accidently got in the crossfire.

Hernandez calls the project a “threat to the gangs”.

It is an invasion into their territory. People are entering it…from the

construction, the police, the municipality. What happens to them?

When they first heard about the project and that we wanted to tear

down houses, they took over the territory and said “No, you can’t pull

down these houses, they belong to us.” They took over the houses [at

the moment when the owners were at the municipality, handing in

Page 78: Stairway to dignity


their keys] and took out everything of value: bathroom, kitchen, steel

pipes, window panes. […] It was a really crazy gang. There was a lot of

tension between them and us as government representatives. […] I can

tell you 20,000 of these stories. […] But in the end they came to a

conclusion: when we murder someone from here, we have to run and

they will get us. 63

It is not only the state that is reclaiming public space, but also artists. In all

of Comuna 13 there are around 4,000 hip hop artists. With their raps and graffiti

they are making their claim on public space. This is important, because “culture

links members to places through shared historical experiences, values, and

symbols” (Scannell and Gifford, 2010, p.2). Last year there was a confrontation

between them and local gangs. Jeihhco, a local socially engaged rap artist, tells

the story of what happened after one of their friends was murdered last year:

We went on the street to commemorate our friend with candles and

palm leaves, all very peacefully. But one of the gang leaders was

annoyed, because we were on his territory. That created a threat,

because we were with so many. His anger wasn’t pointed at our social

engagement, but at our pacification. But to make it clear, normally the

relation is very peaceful and mutually respective. […] When we make a

graffiti or something we ask them for permission to go there.

Unfortunately these are matters of war. These are guys of 18 or 20 that

we grew up with. They are not trained. They are afraid. They don’t see

what is going on. They are on drugs and because of that they commit

acts of war. Also against people from the neighborhood. And because

we are so many rappers, we are young and we are out on the street, it

is impossible not to become a victim.64

It is clear that gang violence is still very much a part of Comuna 13. However,

the creation of more public space and openness, where gang members cannot hide

that easily, seems to have a positive effect.

This newly created space is step by step taken over by rap artists and other

inhabitants who are starting to discover the meaning of public space (see next 63 Interview César Hernández, general manager of PUI (2004-2011), 2014.06.06 64 Interview with Jeison Alexánder Castaño alias Jeihcco, rap artist and initiator of Casa Kolacho, 2014.06.03

Page 79: Stairway to dignity


paragraphs). In Jane Jacobs’ words: “There must be eyes on the street, eyes

belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street” (Jacobs,

1961, p. 35). In the past the gang member were the natural proprietors of the

small alley and streets, but now this seems to be changing, at least around the

escalator. The surveillance team, that is the eyes and ears of this area, is taking

on this responsibility right now, more than anyone else. The violence and the

gangs have not vanished all together, but according to César Hernández, there

were five gangs active in the area before and now there is only one.

Andres Borraez, a master student of professor Brand at the Universidad

Nacional in Medellin, is doing research on the relation between violence and the

urban interventions in Santo Domingo, where the first metro cable is located. He

discovered that violence diminished in close proximity to the metro stations and

around the nearby created plazas and the public library. The clean and open

spaces with people on the street seem to have had a positive effect here. But the

violence has spread to other locations.65 This is called the ‘waterbed effect’ which

can be defined as “the consequence of a policy measure with an intentional or

unintentional influence on a territory outside the territory of intervention” (Slob

et al., 2008, p.11). For Las Independencias I did not investigate this effect on the

basis of homicide rates, as Borraez did for Santo Domingo, but it seems likely

that there is a waterbed effect here as well. Some of my informants in the

neighborhood point to other adjacent neighborhoods like El Torre, as not being

safe. Also respondents living further away from the escalator and closer to the

higher up neighborhoods have a smaller sense of increased security than others


I had the following conversation with Claudia, who lives about 250 meters up

from the end of the escalator:

Letty: Is it true that there is a truce between gangs now?

Claudia: No, I don’t think so. No. Even if they do little things now, the

killings continue.

Letty: So nothing has changed?

Claudia: Ehemm,..well, yes, it has changed a little.

65 Informal conversation with Andres Borraez, 2014.05.06

Page 80: Stairway to dignity


“According to Wilson and Kelling’s broken windows theory, physical and

social disorder lead to fear and cause citizens to retreat into their homes. This

breaks down informal social control mechanisms and may lead to more serious

crime” (Chappell et al., 2011, p. 522). This might explain why people living at

greater distance of the escalator are feeling less secure. I observed myself that

the area around the escalator is very clean. There is no trash on the streets. The

higher up you walk, further away from the escalator, it is noticeable that there is

more trash and many of the houses are not nicely painted anymore. The idea

behind the broken windows theory is that if the police is more present and acts

strongly against small criminals this would contribute to diminishing disorder

and prevent criminals from committing more serious crimes. People do

experience more police presence, but they don’t seem to be very active in

targeting small criminals. They are mostly seen by inhabitants sitting on a bench

on top of the escalator or doing their rounds around the neighborhood. The link

between disorder and fear of crime has been re-established in another study, but

it was also shown that the extra police presence in itself often leads to an

increase in fear of crime (Hinkle & Weisburd, 2008). This does not seem to be the

case in La Independencia 1. The state presence in the form of police seems to be

highly appreciated, maybe because it is very low key and in no way comparable to

the police intervention during Operation Orion, which was very violent. However,

to me it still seems quite remarkable that the police presence is appreciated so

much, given the fact that the police is not very highly respected and still partly

corrupt (see chapter 3).

The surveillance team plays an important role in maintaining the area and

keeping it clean, but this is restricted to the escalator itself, the ‘gardens’ around

it and the small places with public benches between the different tramos.

However, given the negative effect extreme police presence might have on the

sense of security, it might have been a very wise choice to use local youths,

instead of professional security people or police, and train them in surveillance

and education of people. They are less threatening and more familiar, because

they come from the neighborhood.

Page 81: Stairway to dignity


Another study into the broken windows theory shows that it is the

diminishing of physical disorder – more than the diminishing of social disorder –

that significantly contributes to the quality of life (Chappell et al, 2011). The

young children from the neighborhood who wrote a rap lyric for me about their

neighborhood, during one of their workshops in Casa Kolacho, repeatedly said

that the streets used to be very “ugly” and there was a lot of violence. Now this

has changed. So the topic of clean streets seems to play an important role in how

children experience their neighborhood and in their sense of security (see

appendix IV for lyrics of rap). My data show that the people living closer to the

escalator use it more often, are more proud of it and state that it contributes to

their quality of life. This shows that especially the physical environment does

play an important role in increasing people’s sense of security, so does a low key

police presence, which in essence confirms the broken window’s theory.

The question is how far the positive impact of the escalator reaches. Where

are the boundaries of this territory? “The boundary is nothing more than the

marked transition from one sphere of control to that of another” (Low, 2000, p.

154). It is clear that there are certain unofficial boundaries that separate the safe

area around the escalator from other neighborhoods where its impact is absent

(see map 5.1 boundaries of influence escalator). Also the members of the

surveillance team of the escalator are not likely to go beyond certain borders into

another neighborhood. Andres explains: “What I mean to say is that if you want

to pass certain boundaries, you can go there. No problem. However, if I would

walk into that other neighborhood wearing this jacket, this uniform, that is

during my work, I could not.”66 The violence has diminished, but gangs are still

present, they just moved their ‘turf’ into surrounding neighborhoods. What has

changed in recent years is that gang members are not that easily identifiable

anymore. Before everybody knew who was part of a gang, and now it is more

hidden, say many of my respondents. I asked the members of the surveillance

team if they would recognize gang members in the area. Chota says: “You

recognize them by their faces; they immediately scare you. They give you a bad

look. But they don’t scare me [laughs nervously]. Yes, they do scare me, a lot. So

66 Focus group_2014.06.12

Page 82: Stairway to dignity


it’s better to avoid them.”67 What happens here is that the state has taken over

the territory or turf of the gangs. As earlier stated, it is common in territories,

that the dominant group, imposes certain behavioral rules on others. In this case

one could say that Terminales has also created a territory with strict rules of its

own, at least where it concern the escalator itself. These rules are clearly

indicated at each tramo of the escalator. Gang members who pass by are also

expected to behave accordingly. However, as one can hear in Chota’s reaction, he

does not dare to force the gang members to comply with these rules if they would

violate them. This indicates the volatility of the situation.

Map 5.1: Boundaries of influence escalator indicated by red line (source: Google Earth 2013)

As stated earlier it is difficult to mark a clear moment in the past that

changed the security situation in the area. But for Andres from the surveillance

team it is very clear: “Three years ago there were conflicts. Violent ones. Two

67 Focus group_2014.06.12

Page 83: Stairway to dignity


years ago they started to diminish. And for a year now, nothing has happened.

That is the summary of what happened.”68 The escalator seems to have a positive

effect on making the area more safe, but the situation is way more complex than

that. Inhabitants as well as professionals seem to be aware that things can turn

around again in a second. César Hernández states: “Comuna 13 is still one of the

most volatile areas concerning security in all of Medellin. If tomorrow a guy from

one of the upper neighborhoods kills a guy from a neighborhood down below, the

pact that we call ‘electric escalators’ is broken.”69 Asked what the neighborhood

now needs most, my informants all agree on two things: something to keep the

children busy and avoid them being on the street and get in contact with local

gangs, and the second thing is employment, because without work poverty will

persist and young people will not have any opportunities in life.

5.2 Role of public space in strengthening social tissue

In this paragraph I will address the meaning public space has for creating a

sense of identification and attachment to a place, for social interaction that

strengthens trust and social capital. In short how public space contributes to

creating a stronger social tissue and inhabitants starting to feel a sense of pride

for their neighborhood.

Jane Jacobs already discovered that attachment to a place is an indicator of

resilience of a neighborhood. “When people start investing in their houses, that is

a form of attachment” (Jacobs, 1961. 272). La Independencia 1 is a neighborhood

that hosts many desplazados, people that have fled the violence of the guerrillas

in the more rural areas. Many of their children were born in this neighborhood.

Others have come in more recent years. There is a relative high number of single

mother household, because many have lost their husbands to the violence.

The people who participated in my survey, on average lived in the

neighborhood for 24 years. Many of them have started out with a simple rancho,

consisting of some pillars, a floor and a simple roof. In the course of the years

they have turned these ranchos into real houses with walls, tiled floors and nicely

68 Focus group_2014.06.12 69 Interview César Hernández, former manager of PUI (2004-2011), 2014.06.06

Page 84: Stairway to dignity


painted walls. This leads to a great diversity in the built environment. Some are

there a long time and have been able to invest more, while others do not have the

financial means or are just renting their house. I could witness this myself. For

example Johana lives with her two small children and her mother in a very small

one room apartment, where they used to live with thirteen people. They cook,

sleep and live in the same simple room with bare brick walls and a cement floor.

Almost next door lives José. He is divorced and lives alone in a house with two

rooms, tiled floors and nicely painted walls. The house is decorated with care and

equipped with a washing machine and impressive audio-visual equipment.

Martin & Martin (forthcoming, 2015) state that in Medellin there is a lot of

diversity in attachment in these poor neighborhoods, depending on factors such

as the years they lived there, the level of informality and the degree of

participation in the formal economy.

As indicated in chapter 4, the inhabitants I interviewed were on the whole not

interested in moving to another part of the city. They invest in their homes,

which by now are almost all legalized and have access to public facilities. My

findings also contradict studies in comparable neighborhoods (in the periphery,

but relatively well connected by public transport) in other Latin American cities.

“In provincial town like Riobamba - with decent bus services between city center

and the suburbs, enabling residents to operate through entire city and part of

surrounding countryside– residents feel no particular ties to their neighborhood

territory (they identify with suburban territory). […] If they saw opportunities for

social advancement, residents moved away from their neighborhood, either

temporarily or permanently” (Klaufus, 2012, p. 90).

But what does attachment to a neighborhood, shown by investments done in

the home, say about social interaction in the neighborhood? When the first illegal

settlers came here at the end of the 70’s there was a strong sense of community.

The neighborhood of Las Independencias was established by land

invasions that took place between 1978 and 1980, and its identity has

been shaped by the hardships and the struggles that were connected to

building houses and adapting these fragile pieces of land in areas that

Page 85: Stairway to dignity


were basically inappropriate for urbanization (Cañas et al. 2008, p.


Rap artist Jeihhco also speaks of men and women working together to set up


These neighborhoods in the peripheries, on the slopes of the hills, were

made house by house by the entire community. The women made

sancocho and the men made the house and everything. It took them

eight days to build a house. This is how they made these

neighborhoods…working like a community.70

The years that followed the early settlement, were characterized by violence,

which did was not a good environment to build social relations. There was a lot of

distrust and people would not stay on the streets more than necessary. Now,

things have changed. Soreida says: “Before people were scared and kept to

themselves. They stayed more in the house. There was less contact with other

people because you never knew who you could trust. Now people are much more

open. It would have been inconceivable before for investigators to do research.

Nobody would have opened the door. Now everybody feels free to talk to


This newly developing trust is an essential asset for social cohesion in the

neighborhood. “Honesty and trust lubricate the inevitable frictions of social life”

(Putnam, 2000, p.135). But even before the escalator was there, there was a

social network that people could fall back on. This was clearly shown when EDU

had to tear down around 60 dwellings to build the escalator. EDU-sociologist

Martha Perez says: “People don’t want to move for many reasons. One of them is

that everybody knows them. Another one is family. Sometimes they are so poor,

that they can’t leave. Now they know everybody and in case they don’t have

anything to eat, they know that someone will bring them food.”72 These social

networks are a form of social capital. People are “granting resources to others out

of solidarity with members of the same territorial, ethnic or religious community

(bounded solidarity)” (Portes & Landolt, 2000, p. 533).

70 Interview with Jeison Alexánder Castaño alias Jeihcco, rap artist and initiator of Casa Kolacho, 2014.06.03 71 Interview EEM_Soreida_Johana_2014.05.15 72 Interview with Martha Perez, sociologist at EDU, 2014.05.17

Page 86: Stairway to dignity


Already Jacobs (1961) used the term social capital, but Putnam really put it

on the map. He refers to social capital as “features of social organization such as

networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination of cooperation for

mutual benefit” (Putnam, 1995, p. 67). In La Independencia 1 family relations

play an important role and seem to take precedence over social contacts with

neighbors. This is what Putnam (2000, p.23) refers to as “strong ties” which

connect a person to family and close friends versus “weak ties” that connect

people to more distant acquaintances that sometimes even move in different

social circles. In this neighborhood strong ties clearly take precedence over weak

ties. Sometimes family members all live together in one house, but a lot of the

times children who have moved out stayed in the same neighborhood. Or José,

who is divorced, but also stayed in the same area to be close to his children. As

did the husband of Adriana whom she also divorced. One of her children is even

living with him. An important improvement is the fact that family members who

live in other parts of the city can now visit. Leidy says: “My family members that

lived outside Comuna 13 never came to visit, because they were afraid. Now

they’re not afraid anymore and they come like it’s normal. Everything is quiet en

anybody can enter. There are no problems and everybody feels safe. Before, no.”73

“The ability to stay in touch with significant others, such as important friends,

family and so forth, for example, enables social actors to maintain their social

capital” (Ohnmacht et al., 2009, p. 14).

Another way we can identify belonging is the emotional energy created by of

all kinds of interactions between people in the home, on the street and in the

neighborhood (see figure 5.1 and 5.2 for casual neighborhood contacts in public

space). When neighbors meet on the street they each bring their own mental

schemas about living together. When they interact they actively as well as

passively create new mental schemas (Ouweneel, forthcoming 2015). Before these

kinds of interactions were probably more limited to the house and to family

members, but now, with the construction of the electric escalator and its public

spaces, there is much more opportunity to engage in these kinds of interactions

and thereby strengthening the sense of belonging and attachment to the

73 Focus group_2014.06.12

Page 87: Stairway to dignity


neighborhood. All these casual contacts help to strengthen public identity and a

sense of trust. “The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many

little public sidewalk contacts.[…] The sum of such casual, public contact at local

level […] is a feeling for public identity of people, a web of public respect and

trust and a resource in time of personal neighborhood need” (Jacobs, 1961, p. 56).

Many people I interviewed use the escalator as a means to engage in these

casual contacts. Especially old people. An 86-year old man I spoke with on the

street said that he would not leave the house before and now he was regularly

going up and down the escalator for a little stroll. During my visits to the

neighborhood I met him several times. He was often sitting on a bench before the

small store of Nelson and his family, having a piece of cake. Or Miria: “We go up

the escalator and have a stroll through the neighborhood. It’s nice.”74

Figure 5.1: women chatting in public space Figure 5.2: children playing on slides in public space

The possibility the escalator offers in providing the space for this

neighborhood interaction is, however, not the only explanation for increased

interaction. As Leida explains: “Before we didn’t have any kind of recreation. For

74 Interview EEM_Miria_2014.05.19

Page 88: Stairway to dignity


example, now with the project of painting the facades, people are talking to each

other. There are now much more projects that involve the community.”75 The

project of painting of the rooftops was done in close cooperation with the

inhabitants. Hip hop artist Jeihhco and a couple of his friends received the

assignment from the municipality to make the paintings, but together with the

inhabitants they decided on the theme. This also created new moments of

interaction. By using these public spaces, they create new meaning or as Low

(2009, p. 24) ) states: “the social construction of space is the actual

transformation of space - through peoples’ social exchanges, memories, images,

and daily use of the material setting - into scenes and actions that convey

symbolic meaning”.

Most of my informants confirmed that they did have more contact with

neighbors now, but they vary a lot in intensity. Sometimes I noticed that the

people I interviewed did not even know who was living in the house next door.

And of course, because of the density of the population, there are also irritations,

like in any other neighborhood: dogs barking, loud music or cooking smells are

part of daily annoyances.

Another observation I made is the segregation between people of different

origin. The ones of Caribbean origin lived in general more on the outskirts of the

neighborhood, further away from the escalator. During a festive community

gathering, organized by EDU and two other organizations, all the people came

together on the viewing platform on top of the escalator. However, people of clear

Caribbean origin did not mix with the whiter part of the population, with the

exception of the children (see figure 5.3 for children mingling during

neighborhood gathering). Another day, in an informal conversation I had with

Adriana Restrepo, she referred to “these people” [of Caribbean origin] as “vulgar”.

So many people do know their neighbors, but certainly not all of them and many

people choose to stay within their familiar boundaries of the family. However,

people do spend more time on the street and this does increase casual contact. Or

as a UN-report states: “Streets as public places also promote social inclusion by

providing the opportunity for communities to interact and discuss various issues

75 Interview EEM_Leida_2014.05.12

Page 89: Stairway to dignity


of common interest […]. Community interactions contribute to people’s well-

being” (UN Habitat, 2013, p. 41).

Figure 5.3: children of different racial backgrounds mingling during neighborhood event.

The sense of pride people feel for the escalator and its surroundings reflects

their “identification with urban space and the development of a collective sense of

belonging” (Di Masso, 2012, p. 127). It seems that this is strengthened by the fact

that more and more people from outside visit. People do not just come to visit the

escalator. The public spaces within the communal buildings of the escalator – one

at the bottom and one at the top – can be used for public gatherings, like

community meetings, educational trainings or courses in sports, art or dance.

This is a new phenomenon in this neighborhood.

In the beginning is was mostly INDER76 that organized judo and

karate classes. They came most often to the neighborhood. Probably

because they are well known on a national level. So they came without

fear to this neighborhood, but they were the only ones. No one else

came. And now many projects have come and is it all thanks to the

76 Sports organization of the municipality of Medellin

Page 90: Stairway to dignity


escalators that have created this opportunity. Andres (21), member of

surveillance team77

These public buildings are used by people from outside as well as inside the

community. The importance of these visitors entering the neighborhood cannot be

sufficiently stressed, because they also contribute in building weak ties with

people from other social circles in society.

Many people from other countries come here. Many tourists. They go

up on the escalators and down again. The president was here also one

time. And the mayor. And the governor of Antioquia. They brought

with them the law: many policemen and soldiers. And that is good for

us. All because of the electric escalator. Miria (63)78

Community leader Adriana Restrepo refers to role the escalator plays in the

community as follows: “The escalator has become the mother of all of us. Then

the father came: the mayor. And then the aunts and uncles, which are the people

that visit from outside (see figure 5.4 for outside visitors).”79

Figure 5.4: outside visitors on viewing platform on top of escalator

77 Focus group_2014.06.12 78 Interview EEM_Miria_2014.05.19 79 Interview EEM_Adriana_2014.05.12

Page 91: Stairway to dignity


The inhabitants realize that – considering the violent reputation of Comuna

13 – it is something special that these outside visitors come and therefore they

feel responsible for their safety. “You have seen that many foreigners come here

and nothing bad happens to them. Of course people think: ‘O dear, I am in

Comuna 13 without a bodyguard, without police.’ That is super cool! Honestly,

that fills me with emotion”, says Chota.80 Another example of this pride is the

way the inhabitants react to the rumors that inhabitants and visitors had to pay

vacunas to use the escalator, which was reported in a newspaper (El Colombiano,

2012.01.26). It was quite remarkable that when I talked to people in the

neighborhood, they spontaneously mentioned this – stating that it was a lie -

without me even asking about it. Later on I received confirmation from César

Hernández and also from community leader Adriana Restrepo that there was

extortion during the construction, but never were inhabitants or visitors asked

for money. It seems that this reaction is closely connected to their sense of pride.

It is ‘their’ escalator and they do not want anyone thinking badly about it or just

assuming that it is not safe to use.

Turning a negative image around takes time. One example that illustrates

this is the use of term comuna. All of Medellin is subdivided into comunas, which

also have different names, like El Poblado or Laureles. However, only the poorer

neighborhoods are in the daily language referred to as comunas, which is a

negative connotation. Comuna 13 is notorious well beyond the city limits.

According to rap artist Jeihhco this is one of the reasons why the city

administration specifically chose this location to build the electric escalator.

“Comuna 13 is a brand”.81 José complains that part of the press tends to report

only on the negative issues. “The press have made Comuna 13 famous, well

beyond the national borders, and not in a positive way.”82 And Leida notices that

people from other parts of town do not make a distinction between different

neighborhoods. “When there is a shooting in El Salado [another neighborhood in

Comuna 13], then they immediately say Comuna 13 is unsafe.”83 It is clear

80 Focus group_2014.06.12 81 Interview with Jeison Alexánder Castaño alias Jeihcco, rap artist and initiator of Casa Kolacho, 2014.06.03 82 Interview EEM_José_2014.05.19 83 Interview EEM_Leida_2014.05.12

Page 92: Stairway to dignity


however that the inhabitants of La Independencia 1 are fed up with the burden of

this stigma and are very eager to show the world that things have changed. Or as

Adriana Restrepo emphasizes: “There are good people living here.”84

5.3 Bridging the gap: public space as arena for citizenship

In this paragraph I focus on the third of role public space, which is that of

“natural arena of citizenship where individuals, groups and crowds become

political subjects” (Di Masso, 2012, p. 124). As mentioned already in the previous

chapter and the previous paragraph, one of the main effects of the electric

escalator is that it has literally opened up the neighborhood to the outside world.

Various municipal institutions have now access to the area. Has this contributed

to a sense of inclusion? Do inhabitants feel more connected to the city and its

institutions and do they start behaving as active citizens? It is certainly true that

various institutions have entered the neighborhood and this is closely linked to

the construction of the escalator. First of all the escalator has made this

neighborhood more within reach, because transportation has improved and

representatives of institutions do not have to climb the 357 stairs anymore.

Secondly, security has improved, which made access easier.

However, the escalator seems to be in itself a reason to invest in this area. As

stated earlier the municipality and its related organizations have invested in

repairing and painting roofs, painting facades, let artists paint murals and

construct a playground for children. The area that is visible from the escalators

has received a visual uplift. One can speculate whether this is aimed primarily at

improving the lives of the inhabitants or at improving the visual attractiveness of

the neighborhood for outside visitors. As far as I could establish, the investments

were initiated by the institutions and they were the once that decided which

houses or families would benefit. I would think it is safe to say that it is no

coincidence that investments were only made in dwellings that are visible from

the escalator

Aside from investments in improving housing and infrastructure there have

been other investments as well. Inhabitants mention activities for children and

84 Interview EEM_Adriana_05.12

Page 93: Stairway to dignity


adolescents, courses in child care, cooking meals together, doing handicrafts

etcetera. The people living in the area appreciate this attention. Leida says:

“They have turned their eyes on a population that has been forgotten for a long

time.”85 Claudia states: “The escalator has benefitted us as a whole, because it

draws attention to the neighborhood, although the actual benefit of using the

escalator is limited to a small number of people.”86

Figure 5.5: painted houses visible from escalator Figure 5.6: mural along ‘boulevard’

People state that the relations with the representatives of the municipality

are good. According to community leader Adriana Restrepo the escalator has

played a major role in instigating this change. “The escalator is the mother and it

accomplished the transformation of the city.” She continues stating: “Every

project is a process. When they started it was complete chaos.[…] Now every

department of the municipality is involved. The focus is on educating people and

calming down this zone. I expect that in five years this neighborhood will have

improved so much.”87

85 Interview EEM_Leida_2014.05.12 86 Interview EEM_Claudia.2014.05.26 87 Interview EEM_Adriana.2014.05.12

Page 94: Stairway to dignity


“Public space in the city should be considered as an essential space for the

construction of social life and as a fundamental means for the formation and

expression of the political expectations of the population” (Rodriguez Osorio and

Arbeláez Sierra, 2012, p. 167). However, based on my interviews with

inhabitants and observation, my impression is that the inhabitants have been

rather politically passive up until now. ‘Gratefulness’ does better describe their

attitude than does ‘citizenship’. They are grateful that for the first time they are

being seen by the official institutions. They gladly receive whatever is being

offered to them by the institutions. This is also the way in which they talk about

the escalator. They call it “a gift” or an “invention of God”. The fact that they

have received this gift makes them very proud and they cherish this gift, but

their attitude is very passive. I have not heard any stories of them making an

active claim towards the authorities in what they think is important.

Dagnino (2006, p. 22) states that citizenship has always played a dominant

role in Latin America and it has evolved from being a “strategy of the dominant

classes and the state for the gradual and limited incorporation of excluded

sectors” to “the emergence of new political subjects actively defining what they

consider their rights and fighting for their recognition”. This political

engagement of the people themselves is still lacking in this neighborhood.

Informal community leader Adriana Restrepo speaks of educational projects

where people learn to interact and listen to each other to make them speak up.

She also talked about a network of women that has been active in the

neighborhood. However, my other female respondents have not said anything

about this network. I had also heard about a women’s leader in Las

Independencias that has acquired some fame outside Comuna 13. Her name is

Maria del Socorro Mosquera, but not even Adriana Restrepo seemed to know her.

Of course my group of respondents was not very big, but still, I did not get an

image of a well-organized, actively engaged neighborhood community in the area

around the escalator.

When looking at citizenship, it is interesting to compare the neighborhood

around the escalator to favela Santa Marta in Rio de Janeiro. Here we have a

very similar situation: a poor neighborhood on a steep hillside. People needed to

Page 95: Stairway to dignity


climb more than 700 stairs to reach the top of the hill. In 2008 they built a

tramway. Tourists came, that first were welcomed warmly, but now they are

buying houses and investing in businesses, and local residents are afraid they no

longer can afford to live there. Now the government even wants to build a

restaurant with a viewing platform for the tourists. Here, in 2010, the people

have organized themselves. When former president Lula da Silva visited the area

in that same year, he received a letter from one of the community leaders saying

that favela residents were proud to receive him, but they also stated that his visit

was an opportunity for them to “exercise their citizenship and consolidate their

rights” (Menezes, forthcoming 2015). This is a clear example of people in a poor

neighbourhood that initially were welcoming state intervention, but they reached

a point where the state was no longer considering their needs and rights and

then they stepped up for themselves. The question is whether this will happen in

La Independencia 1 as well. Is it just a matter of time or do people lack certain

skills to use their political citizenship?

Martin & Martin (forthcoming 2015) note that in the 60’s Medellin had a very

active process of community action. One of their claims was access to public

utilities in which they were quite successful. However, in Medellin this process of

community action was brutally disturbed by the violent intervention of the

FARC-guerrillas in these neighborhoods and many community councils were

infiltrated by guerrillas and paramilitaries and have corrupted their influence.

Adriana Restrepo, whom I interviewed, is an informal community leader. She

was asked by members of the community to take on the leadership, but she

insisted on being independent. She did not want to become an official member of

the community council. However, she plays an important role in representing the

neighborhood to the outside world and she regularly gets invited by the

municipality or the mayor himself to attend public gatherings. She has been

involved in the whole process of developing the escalator for six years. She gives

the following explanation for the lack of visibility of official community councils:

“Before the members of the community council weren’t that bad, but things have

changed. To be a good leader, you have to educate yourself. You have to know

about construction, you have to be able to deal with companies like Terminales.

Page 96: Stairway to dignity


[…]I am being invited to congresses, I have to present myself in an auditorium

full of educated people.”88 The point of needing certain skills as a community

leader seems valid, since circumstances have changed. However, questions can

also be raised to what extend Adriana can be considered a legitimate

representative of the neighborhood of La Independencia 1. The mayor seems to

actively use her as ambassador for the project of electric escalator in various

(international) gatherings.

The Plan de Desarollo (Development Plan) for Comuna 13 points out that it is

considered a problem that many people are insufficiently aware of their rights

and obligations (2009, p. 20). But does this mean that people do not feel included

in the neighborhood or do not feel connected to the city? Not according to a survey

done by the municipality early 2014. Table 5.1 points out that the percentage of

people in Las Independencias that do feel included in the community is almost

80% and even higher than in two other neighborhoods that have been

investigated. Also, as table 5.2 indicates, around a third of the inhabitants of Las

Independencias not just consider their neighborhood, but the whole city as their

‘territory’. This is supported by my surveys in which the vast majority of the

respondents indicate that they also travel by metro to the city center.

Sense of inclusion

Figure 5.1, source: municipality of Medellin, January 2014

So on the one hand we have a population that has been ignored for years and

finally receives attention from municipal and state institutions and is very happy

with this. On the other hand there is a state with a social debt. “After the year

2002, when the state intervened in the armed conflict in this area, and saw in

88 Interview EEM_Adriana_2014.05.12

Se sienten incluidos y/o acogidos en la Comuna 13

N % N % N % N %

No 91 29,4% 85 27,0% 59 20,1% 235 23,5%

Si 218 70,6% 230 73,0% 234 79,9% 682 68,2%

Sin dato 0 0,0% 0 0,0% 0 0,0% 83 8,3%

Total 309 100% 315 100% 293 100% 1000 100%

20 de Julio Belencito Las Independencias Total

Page 97: Stairway to dignity


what poor conditions the majority of the population was living and realized what

a social debt it had to this part of the city, the city administration gave itself the

task to invest in an ongoing process to improve social conditions.” (Plan de

Desarollo Comuna 13, 2009, p. 13). The municipality did its best and as part of

repaying its social debt, presented the gift of an electric escalator.

What do you consider your territory?

Table 5.2, source: municipality of Medellin, January 2014

Both parties seem happy for now, but the questions remains if this will stay

this way if nothing fundamentally changes in the economic conditions of the

populations. Will there be a time when the inhabitants around the escalator will

claim their right to the city and will use their newly acquired public spaces to

express these rights? Will they be able to use these spaces as they see fit? Up

until now behavior around the escalator has been guided by rules established by

Terminales and controlled by its surveillance team. However, the political nature

of public space is reflected in the idea of public space as an arena of democratic

rights, such as Henry Lefebvre’s politically and spatially grounded ‘right to the

city’. The assumptions about safety, and expectations about behavior pose

limitations to the execution of these rights. Therefore social life in public space

suffers from a tension between the values of liberty of democratic rights on the

one hand and control of ‘descent’ behavior on the other (Di Masso, 2012, p. 124-

125). “The right to the city is not merely a right of access to what the property

speculators and state planners define, but an active right to make the city

Para usted cuál es su territorio

N % N % N % N %

El barrio 73 24,3% 82 25,2% 67 22,8% 222 22,2%

El sector 60 20,0% 73 22,5% 51 17,3% 184 18,4%

La ciudad 119 39,7% 109 33,5% 96 32,7% 324 32,4%

La comuna 39 13,0% 52 16,0% 72 24,5% 163 16,3%

Otra 9 3,0% 9 2,8% 8 2,7% 26 2,6%

Sin dato 0 0,0% 0 0,0% 0 0,0% 81 8,1%

Total 300 100% 325 100% 294 100% 1000 100%

20 de Julio Belencito Las Independencias Total

Page 98: Stairway to dignity


different, to shape it more in accord with our heart's desire, and to re-make

ourselves thereby in a different image” (Harvey, 2003, p. 941).

5.4 Concluding remarks

In this chapter I have focused on different aspects of public space. The first

one is its influence on security. Clean and attractive public spaces where people

interact create an environment that is literally less attractive for criminals and

therefore create a greater sense of security. My data confirm these assumptions

made by Jane Jacobs and further investigated in research on the broken

window’s theory. A low profile police presence seems to add to this sense of

security and not enhance it as Hinkle and Weisburd (2008) have stated. With the

construction of the electric escalator public space has been reconquered on

criminal gangs that had turned it into their ‘territory’ or ‘turf’ in which their own

rules applied. The gangs have been driven out, creating a waterbed effect; they do

not disappear completely, but move to other neighborhoods. The situation,

however, remains very volatile. The escalator itself has in a way been

territorialized by Terminales, which set up its own set of behavioral rules.

New public spaces and buildings have created room for encounter en casual

contacts. Now that people feel more safe, they go out for leisurely walks or

engage in communal activities like painting facades. In the process they

transform public space, making it a place they identify with (Low, 2009;

Ouweneel, forthcoming 2015; Di Masso, 2012; Scannell and Gifford, 2010). With

these encounters trust is coming back to the neighborhood, which is a key

element in creating social capital and cohesion in a neighborhood (Putnam, 1995,

2000; Jacobs, 1961). Although inhabitants still have a strong focus on family ties,

casual encounters with neighbors and outside visitors also strengthen the weaker

ties (Putnam, 2000). The fact that family and strangers from outside the

neighborhood visit, makes them feel proud. Like any other neighborhood, La

Independencia 1 still has its minor disputes between neighbors and there is a

form of segregation between different racial groups. However, slowly, but steadily

they are moving upward, trying to escape from the negativity of gang violence,

Page 99: Stairway to dignity


distrust and stigmatization, although the negative image is still very persistent

in the press. That is why they do their utmost to convince visitors of the opposite.

Although people are interacting more now, they have not yet developed a real

sense of citizenship in which they are claiming public space to express and claim

their rights (Di Masso, 2012; Harvey, 2003; Dagnino, 2006). They do feel

connected to the neighborhood and to the city as a whole and enjoy and

appreciate the attention the institutions are paying them, after years of neglect.

However, they seem to behave rather passively as a child that has just received

an immense gift and is not allowed to complain. An informal community leader

and the official Development Plan for Comuna 13 confirm that citizens lack the

skills to actively speak up for themselves. Time will tell if this is just a matter of

skills that need developing or if the time is not yet ripe. If the neighborhood

around the escalator follows a similar pattern of development as favela Santa

Marta in Rio de Janeiro, then the situation might change in a couple of years. If

they start feeling that municipal investments focus more on attracting tourists

than improving the lives of residents, and if outsiders are driving up real estate

prices, than the people might feel that their rights are no longer respected and

rise to the occasion.

Page 100: Stairway to dignity


Page 101: Stairway to dignity


6. Governance: mayors, planners and the public

On governance there are many definitions, but generally they include three

actors: the government, the private sector and civil society. Another important

aspect is that it emphasizes the process in which different parties with different

priorities interact. The UN defines governance as:

Urban governance is the sum of the many ways individuals and

institutions, public and private, plan and manage the common affairs

of the city. It is a continuing process through which conflicting or

diverse interests may be accommodated and cooperative action can be

taken. It includes formal institutions as well as informal arrangements

and the social capital of citizens.89

The next step is to define what ‘good’ governance is, which is always a normative

debate. Again the UN define good governance by the following characteristics:

sustainability, subsidiarity, equity, efficiency, transparency and accountability,

civic engagement and citizenship, and security90. A much simpler definition of

good governance is used by Brand and Dávila (2012, p.85). They describe good

governance as “good government, based on the efficient and transparent actions

of local government institutions in close collaboration with other social actors”. I

will use these definitions of good governance as a reference to analyze how

mayors, planners and the public have interacted in Medellin.

In this chapter I will take a step back from the micro-cosmos of the electric

escalator and look from a broader perspective at the processes surrounding the

urban transformation of Medellin, starting in 2004 when Sergio Fajardo took

office as mayor. This can more or less be seen as the birth of social urbanism. In

the first paragraph I will focus on the mayor and his team of professionals. My

starting point is the main objective of social urbanism as formulated by mayor

Fajardo: fighting inequity and violence. I will briefly describe the problem and

sketch the strategies developed under social urbanism to tackle this problem and

the way this transformation process was organized.

89 UN-Habitat,, visited on 2014.11.07 90 UN-Habitat,, visited on 2014.11.07

Page 102: Stairway to dignity


Looking back there is also criticism, problems that could not be solved and

lessons learned. I identify three different kinds of problems: first there is the

discrepancy between physical interventions and social interventions. Eye-

catching architecture or innovative transportation solutions divert the attention

from the more fundamental problems. The new administration that has been

governing since 2012 has misinterpreted this international appraisal as a signal

that they are finished and are not continuing in the same direction that was set

out in 2004. This touches upon the second problem, that of continuity of policy

and holding on to knowledge that has been accumulated over the years. Thirdly, I

will go into problems that are bigger than the city of Medellin, but have a strong

impact on the success or failure of its urban interventions. I describe three such

factors: the continuing influx of illegal settlers, the informal economy and the

lack of government control in the city, and finally the Colombian economic model

that does not contribute to a more equal distribution of wealth.

In the second paragraph I will discuss the role of ‘social actors’ or ‘civil society’

as the definition of good governance states. I define them mainly as the citizens

connected to the urban transformation process. When it comes to participation of

citizens in urban development, Brazil is renowned for its City Statute. But also

Colombia has a far reaching legal framework. These laws are founded in the

concept of ‘right to the city’. I will take a closer look at how participation

processes are organized in Medellin. For EDU participation is a key element in

their development practice, but the people living around the escalator have not

really been involved. One of the problems seems to be that inhabitants lack the

capacity to claim their citizenship. On the other end, social urbanism is still very

much a top-down strategy where designers are in the lead. I will end with the

challenges Medellin is facing in bringing these two worlds together to create a

more equitable city.

6.1 Fighting inequality

As stated in the introduction of this thesis, Colombia is a country with one of

the highest levels of inequality in the world with a Gini-coefficient of 0,54 in

Page 103: Stairway to dignity


201391. This is remarkable, since Colombian economy has been growing over the

last ten years. However, growth alone is not enough to reduce poverty if the issue

of a more equal distribution of wealth is not addressed. This seems difficult in

Colombia. “Colombian society is not very hostile to inequity. It does not care

about the bad distribution of income” (González Borrero, 2012, p. 274).

In Medellin the situation is extreme. “Medellin is contributing 8% to the

national GNP and with a GNP per capita of US$ 3,794 Medellin is the richest

city in Colombia” (IDB and municipality of Medellin, 2011, p. 32). But large parts

of the population do not share in this wealth. For example in 2004 more than

38% of its inhabitants suffered from chronic malnutrition (Cañas et al., 2008, p.

25). Of all Colombian cities Medellin is leading the ranks of inequality with a

Gini-coefficient of 0,506 in 2013.92 This number has dropped slightly since 2008,

but has remained relatively stable over the last three years. It is also noteworthy

that the Gini-coefficient only measures income disparities and does not consider

the distribution of wealth derived from other sources than labor. So reality is

even harsher than this number indicates.

There are other indicators as well. Poverty is also measured by looking at

income and spending and comparing this to an average Colombian level.

According to this measurement poverty has decreased in Medellin over the last

years from 25% in 2008 to 16,1% in 2013.93 A third way of measuring poverty is

how people perceive it themselves. According to this type of measurement 18% of

the population of Medellin sees itself as poor. Compared to 2006 this percentage

has fallen significantly from 33%, but over the last three years it has risen again

from the lowest point of 12% in 2012. Looking at the spread of poverty over the

city it is not surprising that the northwest, in which Comuna 13 is located, has

the highest perception of poverty with 29% in 2013, rising from 24% in 2012.94 So

although poverty has diminished when looking over a longer period of time,

91 (visited on 2014.10.21). Medellin Cómo Vamos is a private inter-institutional alliance evaluating the changes in the quality of life in Medellin. Source of data: DANE 92 (visited on 2014.10.21). Medellin Cómo Vamos is a private inter-institutional alliance evaluating the changes in the quality of life in Medellin. Source of data: DANE 93 (visited on 2014.10.21). Medellin Cómo Vamos is a private inter-institutional alliance evaluating the changes in the quality of life in Medellin. Source of data: DANE 94 (visited on 2014.10.21). Medellin Cómo Vamos is a private inter-institutional alliance evaluating the changes in the quality of life in Medellin. Source of data: DANE

Page 104: Stairway to dignity


inequity is still very high in Medellin and especially in the last three years the

downward trend seems to be going up again.

When Sergio Fajardo took the mayor’s office in 2004 he wanted to solve the

two major problems in the city. The first was to reduce the inequality in the city

which over the years had created a ‘social debt’ between the rich and the poor.

The second one was the eradicate the violence that was at the root of society. His

tactics consisted of a combination of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ infrastructure. He created

new and architecturally eye-catching public buildings, like libraries and schools,

public spaces in the poorest areas and he focused on education to create better

opportunities for the poor to bridge the social gap. Medellin, la más educada

(Medellin, the most educated) became his leading motto. Investing the biggest

parts of the municipal budget in the poorest areas in a combination of physical

and social interventions became known as social urbanism. These priorities are

remarkable in a country that does not seem to have a big problem with inequity.

But then, Fajardo, like his successor Salazar, did not come from traditional

politics, but ran as independent candidate. There is an interesting parallel here

with Bogotá where also independent mayors Mockus and Peñalosa in the 90’s

made some radical changes.

When talking about governance it is interesting to look at how these

independent mayors worked. It is clear from the beginning that they organized

things differently, creating partnerships between academics, public and private

institutions and civil society. In his team Fajardo appointed the best people,

regardless of background or political affiliation, to solve the problems of the city.

The public urban development company, EDU, became a well-managed, efficient

organization. Alejandro Echeverri was head of EDU under Fajardo and


As the EDU assumed for a period of years, as an interim task, the sole

technical leadership in this exclusive group of projects and territories,

some of the keys to success, without doubt, were the political

leadership and inter-institutional coordination. The teamwork

conducted with the city’s Direction of Planning, and the detailed and

rigorous monitoring that was done for all the internal processes of

Page 105: Stairway to dignity


administration and execution by the Private Secretary, allowed, in only

a few years, for the conclusion of a wide group of high complex projects

(Echeverri and Orsini, 2012, p. 142-143).

The mayor and his team approached the problems in the city in a rational and

analytical way, using the PUI as a structure for focusing on the most problematic

neighborhoods. “Integral urban projects and punctual interventions sought to

improve public spaces and housing, and to generate a new image of the city

through providing new symbolic references” (Castro and Echeverri, 2011, p.103).

César Hernández, manager of all the PUI between 2004 and 2011 gives an

impression of how they approached this task:

We realized these projects with a concept which is both political and

technical. […] We made a study of the entire city. How is it structured?

How does a person living in this part and working in another part

travel from here to there? What are the geo-spatial characteristics of

the area? What are the areas of intervention based on social topics,

violence etc. From there we formulated the projects. Then we entered

into a phase of development with the community. […] Listening,

listening, listening. Then we, as technicians, locked ourselves up and

came out with a Master Plan which combined everything: public space,

public buildings, mobility, environment etc.95

The complementary measures of social urbanism formed part of the ‘Medellin

model of good governance and social development’, which is a “conventional, but

well executed formula of good urban governance practice” (Brand and Dávila,

2013, p. 47). Three aspects of this model, according to the authors, deserve

special attention. First there is the capacity for project management as explained

above by Echeverri and Orsini, which greatly enhances efficiency. Secondly, the

financial independence is a significant factor, because all the project were

financed by the municipality through major contributions of the very profitable

public utilities company EPM (see also chapter 3). Therefore the city was not

dependent on loans or international aid. Brand and Dávila stress that this is a

clear example of the benefits of having public companies and not privatizing

95 Interview César Hernández, former manager of PUI (2004-2011), 2014.06.06

Page 106: Stairway to dignity


them. Luis Fernando Gonzalez ironically comments: “Being mayor of Medellin is

‘easy’, because you don’t have a deficit.”96 Thirdly, the authors mention the

“functional coordination and spatial coherence” of the projects, which goes beyond

a local intervention, but looks for synergies in improving a complete area (Brand

and Dávila, 2013, p. 52).

In general there is much acclaim for the interventions done under the

umbrella of social urbanism, because they focused on parts of the city that had

been forgotten or neglected over decades and the population finally felt

recognized. Or as Peter Brand put it: “People – especially in the beginning – did

feel part of the city and it changed people’s perception of what before was a very

stigmatized part of the city.”97 This is considered the biggest success of this

policy. But there is also criticism which is connected to the fact that the urban

interventions do not seem to contribute in creating more equality. I divided these

critical remarks into three categories. First there is the criticism on the

‘extravagance’ of the interventions, focusing too much on the outside appearance

and neglecting social change leading to more equity. Secondly, there is critique on

the lack of continuity due to a change in administration, which also poses the

question of evaluation and standardization of interventions and avoiding

knowledge being lost. Thirdly, there are external factors – the growth of the

(illegal) city, the informality and lack of government control, and the Colombian

economic model - that seem to make it almost impossible to fundamentally

change the inequity in the city. I will discuss all of these points.

First, I will address the criticism of extravagance and the question whether

social urbanism has contributed to the goals Fajardo set himself: more equity and

less violence. Creating eye-catching landmarks as a means to initiate urban

transformation is not new. The transformation of waterfront neighborhoods in

Barcelona in the run-up to the Olympic Games in 1992 is an example of this.

Former head of EDU, Echeverri, studied in Barcelona himself and became

inspired by this approach. Sklair (2005, p. 493) states that “the context for most

of these cities is the attempt to recover from deindustrialization”. He argues that

96 Interview Luis Fernando Gonzalez, historian and architect, and professor at the Department of Housing, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28 97 Interview Peter Brand, director of Department of Geography, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28

Page 107: Stairway to dignity


these iconic architectural works are mainly aimed at gentrification processes and

making the cities more attractive for foreign visitors and investors. “The struggle

for market share and foreign investment in a globalizing world is being fought

more and more intensively between major cities and city regions” (Gilbert, 2014,

p.1). The quality of urban space has become a prerequisite for this economic

development, which is a major change to how it use to was when the urban

environment was a result of economic growth (Sklair, 2005, p. 498).

Joining in this global competition between cities might have been a driving

force for Medellin as well, one in which they seem to succeed, because the city

attracts more and more foreign visitors. However, Fajardo’s initial thought

behind these iconic architectural landmarks was that people in poor

neighborhoods deserve the same kind of quality in public space as people in rich

neighborhoods. Its intention was to make a statement towards the poor

population indicating that they are equal. There is much debate about the

extravagant architecture of some of the new public buildings, like the biblioteca

España in Santo Domingo (figure 6.1). Architect Gloria Molina states: “It is good

that it’s there and it’s been built with ‘quality architecture’, but it is more a

Figure 6.1: biblioteca España in Santo Domingo

Page 108: Stairway to dignity


symbolic object and doesn’t reflect what’s inside. Where is the program?

Education is not the physical structure. If we don’t work on education, on the

content, then it will soon prove a failure.” Apart from that she thinks that the

people in the neighborhood do not understand the building. “It’s like a gift. You

have a gold watch on your arm, but you don’t know what to do with it.”98 Peter

Brand thinks similarly about the library and public spaces in Santo Domingo:

“They are great for architectural magazines, but it doesn’t signify much for the

people who actually live there.”99 Many library parks have been built in Medellin

and the biblioteca España is definitely one of the most extravagant ones. In was a

gift from the Spanish king and designed by a Spanish architect. In other

locations the architecture of the library parks is less extravagant and the

buildings much better fit into their environment. They were mostly built by

Colombian architects. But what remains in the criticism is the lack of content.

Gerardo Perez, who works in Comuna 13 at a foundation called Casa de las

Figure 6.2: colegio de calidad in Comuna 13

Estrategias. (House of Strategies) comments on the new schools: “The colegios de

calidad are nothing more than new facades. Behind them is still the same

98 Interview Gloria Molina, architect and professor at the Universidad de Antioquia, 2014.04.15 99 Interview Peter Brand, director of Department of Geography, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28

Page 109: Stairway to dignity


educational system.”100 (See figure 6.2). The electric escalator received similar

critique. Peter Brand called it a “gimmick”101 and civil engineer Iván Sarmiento

states: “Often changes in accessibility create a feeling of transformation […]

There is an enthusiasm, but after that, if you really want to materialize on the

economic situation of the families, you need to invest for a much longer period of

time. You can’t say ‘I did the escalator, ciao, I am leaving’, because these people

need work, education and many things more.”102

This kind of criticism points at an imbalance between physical urban

interventions and the social interventions. This is being recognized, given this

evaluative quote on the urban interventions in Medellin: “It is also necessary to

articulate even more the physical actions with socio-economic, cultural and

educational development programs that transcend the temporality of the

interventions and lead to the building of local-level capacity and permit the

sustainability of the communities” (Echeverri and Orsini, 2012, p. 153).

Given the statistical data presented at the beginning of this chapter, it is true

that Fajardo and his successors did not achieve more equality. On the second

target of diminishing the violence, the outcome is more positive. Over the last

years the homicide rate in Medellin has dropped and this year it is with 28,5

homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants the lowest in 25 years and for the first

time it is even lower than the national homicide rate (Posada, 2014). However, it

is very difficult to establish a direct causal relation between urban intervention

and the drop in homicides as I already indicated in chapter 5. Alejandro

Echeverri, director of EDU under Fajardo, partly agrees with the criticism of not

achieving more equity, but states: “You cannot pretend to change a situation in

four or five years that has developed over sixty or eighty years. Besides, our

ambitions were much smaller and connected to a shorter period of time. We were

going to change and improve the daily lives of people, generating a public

structure that supports the local economies that were emerging. This is still a

100 Interview Gerardo Perez, Casa de las Estrategias, 2014.05.08 101 Interview Peter Brand, director of Department of Geography, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28 102 Interview Iván Sarmiento, civil engineer and professor at the Faculty of Mining, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.05.08

Page 110: Stairway to dignity


very fragile process, but it could initiate a much bigger transformation


The second point of criticism is the lack of continuity, which is embedded in

the electoral system. Mayors in Colombia always serve just a four year term and

cannot be re-elected. The era of independent mayors Fajardo and Salazar lasted

therefore from 2004 until the end of 2011. Then Anibal Gaviria took over office.

He came from a traditional liberal political background. There is broad criticism

that the new administration does not seem to recognize the fragility of the

process that has been deployed. Alejandro Echeverri states: “The reality is that

politicians have changed the agenda; they think they are finished.”104 Equal

remarks come from César Hernández, who together with Echeverri worked under

Fajardo. He also thinks that the current government is not continuing with the

process as it was intended, focusing on creating better connections in Comuna 13,

stimulating economic development and increasing state presence through public


Concerning the electric escalator, a project he was closely involved in, he

accuses the current administration of only putting in the necessary maintenance,

but nothing more. The fact that projects like the electric escalator have received

so much international attention has not had a positive effect. “Unfortunately this

project has won Medellin some international prizes, but these are not going to

change the lives of the people there. […] In 2015 there are new elections. It is

fundamental that the new administration takes on this project again. If not, and

we continue like we are doing now, within eight years we will see the same thing:

poor people, but an operating escalator.”105 Maintenance will continue, because of

its worldwide fame and attraction to foreign visitors.

With the administration of Gaviria traditional politics have returned.

Historian Luis Fernando Gonzalez explains that the sense of urgency has

evaporated: “He [Gaviria] invented the deputy-mayors, that didn’t exist before,

who are supposed to be the link with all the departments within the

103 Interview Alejandro Echeverri, director Urbam Eafit, 2014.05.06 104 Interview Alejandro Echeverri, director Urbam Eafit, 2014.05.06 105 Interview César Hernández, former manager of PUI (2004-2011), 2014.06.06

Page 111: Stairway to dignity


municipality, thereby creating more and more bureaucracy.”106 In Gilbert’s

analysis of governance in Bogotá similar developments are described. After the

independent mayors Mockus and Peñalosa, candidates from more traditional

political parties have been elected again. This lead to councilors of the same

political background again naming officials in bureaucracy, which resulted in

control agencies not performing their tasks of defending public interest and

supervising public contracts. The habit of appointing friend in important

positions returned (Gilbert, 2014, p. 8-9).

Many people I spoke to also state that projects are not being continued,

because Gaviria wants to put his own mark on the city. In Comuna 13 there are

still projects going on, focusing on social development, for example courses for

primary care givers. Gaviria has just renamed his focus. He no longer speaks of

social urbanism but of “pedagogic urbanism”.107 But more in general, it looks like

Gaviria is investing above all in big infrastructural projects that benefit the

whole city, like creating parks along the Medellin river. He seems to be taking

attention away from the poor areas of the city. Peter Brand also feels that the

social content of social urbanism has been lost.

It is a kind of perversion that these interventions in the poor areas of

the city are being perceived as prize winning. […] This is also

sustained because there is a very strong sense of regional identity in

Antioquia and Medellin. As long as the paisa can feel and demonstrate

that the best things and the brightest and most intelligent people come

from Medellin. That plays a big role and wouldn’t exist in for example


During the WUF the current mayor has had all the opportunities in the world

to present Medellin as a model city, but there is also a risk in that, which

Echeverri articulated as: “The theming of the city bears the risk of doing it for the

other, for the visitor, and not for the people that inhabit the city” (Echeverri,

106 Interview Luis Fernando Gonzalez, historian and architect, and professor at the Department of Housing, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28 107 The current director of EDU, María Ángel Bernal, during a public gathering around the escalator, mentioned

this term as being used by mayor Anibal Gaviria. 108 Interview Peter Brand, director of Department of Geography, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28

Page 112: Stairway to dignity


2014). More in general, many professionals I spoke to in some way referred to the

danger of thinking too much in models, because they are just abstractions of

reality and tend to simplify the heterogeneity that lies underneath. It seems that

on the one hand there is this urge to systemize the approach of urban

interventions, putting it in a ‘model’ and making it possible to duplicate it, and on

the other hand there is the fear of oversimplification.

The reality is that administrations change every four years. Continuity seems

to be one of the problems in the process of urban transformation, because mayors

also tend to replace large parts of their staff. In any case this happened when

Fajardo exchanged his post as mayor for that of governor. Many people left with

him. And under the current administration of Gaviria none of the key figures of

the previous era is still in place. This makes it all the more relevant to somehow

conserve this knowledge. “The city has not kept consistent records of the process

in a single place, and different departments of the city tell different accounts of

the same process that all came to be called ‘the transformation of Medellin’”

(Samper, 2010, p. 91). Echeverri and Orsini (2012, p.153-154) state: “[…]it is

timely to begin proposing processes of systematization, monitoring and

evaluation of interventions.” They add that when replicating these urban

interventions one should not forget the methodologies that already proved their

relevance and an integral model should not be reduced to simply building a piece

of infrastructure. On the other hand the territory should not be broadened too

much either, “as it is fundamental that the integrity and the articulation of the

projects in a contoured territory are guaranteed”. What different administrations

do with this accumulated knowledge is of course their responsibility. “That is

part of democracy”, Echeverri states, adding, “I think the current administration

is projecting a bigger picture, but I am an optimist. These things never develop in

a straight line.”109

The third point of criticism I will address, is not really a criticism, it is more a

recognition that there are other, bigger developments that influence the success

of urban interventions. Some professionals express serious doubts if the step by

step transformation of Medellin that has been launched, can ever succeed in this

109 Interview Alejandro Echeverri, director Urbam Eafit, 2014.05.06

Page 113: Stairway to dignity


way, given the context in which Medellin is operating. There are three external

factors that have a negative impact on the urban transformation: the continuing

influx of illegal settlers, the informality and the lack of government control, and

the economic system in Colombia .

Medellin is still growing due to a continuing influx of illegal settlers.

Historian and architect Luis Fernando Gonzalez explains that Medellin still

attracts many people from the countryside because the city offers social

programs. Many of them are desplazados, who are on the run from the violence

that still persists in some rural areas in Colombia, but there is also the problem

of auto-victimization – people trying to pose as victims of the violent conflict to be

able to use the amenities that were established for this group. Legalization of all

these new inhabitants would be political “hara-kiri”, according to Gonzalez, and

would attract even more people.110 Iván Sarmiento speaks of one of the

“hypocrisies” of our society. “After we establish that the poor live on a hill we go

and build something revolutionary that creates attention, but we don’t ask

ourselves the question: ‘Why are these people living there up on the hill?’ […]The

fundamental problems are not resolved.”111 In terms of Edward Soja (2010) one

could state that the spatial injustice in the city remains.

The second external factor is the huge impact of informality in the city. Large

parts of the economy are still informal, which means that people do not pay taxes

and build up pensions. Large parts of the city are still controlled by gangs who

also control the economy. Peter Brand says that every soda and every arepa that

comes into a neighborhood is being controlled by gangs that live off vacunas.112

That makes it difficult for the state to intervene. Iván Sarmiento tells me about

plans to better organize local bus transport and introduce a kind of chip card,

which makes it more difficult to extort bus drivers, because they do not carry any

cash. However, he himself doubts that this will eradicate the system of vacunas


110 Interview Luis Fernando Gonzalez, historian and architect, and professor at the Department of Housing, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28 111 Interview Iván Sarmiento, civil engineer and professor at the Faculty of Mining, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.05.08 112 Interview Peter Brand, director of Department of Geography, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28

Page 114: Stairway to dignity


Gerardo Perez, who works on cultural projects in Comuna 13, also expresses

his doubts. He things the problem will just disperse. “The gangs are definitely not

going to cut back on their income.” He adds that the state does not protect the

rights of citizens, so other (criminal) organizations step in to fill that void.

Although they ask for vacunas and deal drugs, they also protect the

neighborhood. Nobody even dares to commit a robbery or assault, because they

are watched by gang members and know they would be killed.113 In essence it

comes down to the question of power in the city. Luis Fernando Gonzalez states:

“The problem is that Medellin does not have any real governance. Normally the

monopoly on violence is in the hand of the state. Not here. […] We access an area

by metro cable, but who really controls the territory?”114

The third factor that cannot be controlled by the city of Medellin is the

economic model that the national government upholds. “Colombian development

has been based on mining and finance. Apart from being unsustainable, this

process has concentrated wealth” (González Borrero, 2012, p. 275). The author

continues by stating that there should be more focus on local food production in

fulfilling basic consumption needs of the cities, and on stimulating internal

markets. Finally he points to the need of more equal distribution, because

without it poor people will not profit sufficiently from economic growth (González

Borrero, 2012, p. 275). Luis Fernando Gonzalez mentions the same factors that

on a national level cause the problems and concludes: “If you are in a country

with an economy like that, you cannot think that a city can change that. The

municipal government cannot solve this problem, because migration increases

every day. The capacity to intervene is shrinking.”115 This is corroborated by Alan

Gilbert in his research on Bogotá (2006, p. 399), stating that “the mayor has few

tools with which to stimulate growth in the city.” Finally Peter Brand states:

“The real test for this so-called transformation of Medellin will be when the

inevitable economic downfall comes.”116

113 Interview Gerard Perez, Casa de las Estrategias, 2014.05.08 114 Interview Luis Fernando Gonzalez, historian and architect, and professor at the Department of Housing, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28 115 Interview Luis Fernando Gonzalez, historian and architect, and professor at the Department of Housing, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28 116 Interview Peter Brand, director of Department of Geography, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28

Page 115: Stairway to dignity


6.2 Participating public

In the first paragraph I have talked about the mayor and planners and how

they are conducting urban interventions. I discussed the problems and criticism

they encounter in attaining their ultimate goal of creating a more equitable city.

But in the definition of good governance there is a third party crucial, which are

the ‘social actors’ or ‘civil society’. This comes basically down to the citizens,

whether or not organized in community councils and other civic organizations.

The Latin American country that has been leading in citizen’s participation is

Brazil, which in 2002 adopted a City Statute. In this paragraph I will briefly

touch upon this model and then go into the citizen’s participation in Medellin.

How is it organized and how do inhabitants and professionals perceive it? I will

argue that there is still a gap between citizens and professionals.

The development of the City Statute in Brazil was closely connected to Henri

Lefebvre’s concept of ‘right to the city’, which legal researcher Edésio Fernandes

(2007, p. 208) interprets as “ the right of all city dwellers to fully enjoy urban life

with all of its services and advantages – the right to habitation – as well as

taking direct part in the management of cities – the right to participation.” What

is crucial in this is that the social function of space is becoming more important

than the ownership (habitation) and that the process of developing urban plans is

democratized (participation). Colombia also as various laws that contain these

rights. One of the most important is Law 388/1997 on the Ordenamiento del

Territorio (land-use planning), which is based on three principles: the social and

ecological function of property (1), the prevalence of public over private interests

(2), and the equal distribution of costs and benefits (3). Article 4 of the law goes

into the democratic participation in urban development, which stipulates that

“the municipal, district and metropolitan administrations have to take into

account social, economic and urban interest through participation of citizens and

their organizations”.117 So both habitation and participation are, at least on a

legal level, also warranted in Colombia.

One of the tools for democratization of urban development is participatory

budgeting, a process in which citizens have the possibility to decide how to spend

117 (visited on 2014.10.24)

Page 116: Stairway to dignity


a small part of the municipal budget. Brazil has gained worldwide fame with its

participatory budgeting trajectory in the southern town of Porto Alegre. Novy

and Leubolt (2005, p. 2029-2030) state that the main accomplishment of

participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre has been that people not only make

suggestions, but also rank them according to themes and choose representatives

to further negotiate with the municipal government. Therefore it strengthens

skills for democratic decision making. Another positive element was that the

majority of the participants was from lower social classes, and especially women

were well represented.

Also Medellin has had some experience with participatory budgeting. In the

period 2004-2011 residents in Santo Domingo, where the first metro cable was

just inaugurated, could decide on how 5-10% of the municipal capital investment

in the area could be spend. “Initially it was seen as a risky political commitment,

today it is widely seen as an excellent management strategy. […] Participatory

budgets have helped strengthen social and local community organizations”

(Coupé et al., 2013, p.66). Remarkable in this research is that in the beginning

citizens spent the money on tangible works and later on they invested more in

social advancement programs. According to Samper (2010, p. 102) the biggest

accomplishment of participatory budgeting in Medellin was that leaders of the

neighborhood had to interact with each other, which forced them to turn outside

and think in terms of community. 118 This coincides with the experiences in Porto

Alegre. However, it seems that participatory budgeting has not become a

mainstream tool in urban development in Medellin.

Medellin’s public Urban Development Company, EDU, considers participation

a crucial part of its work. This is underlined by the extensive documents they

have on this subject. Martha Perez, one of the sociologists of EDU, gave me a

pedagogic manual for social interventions and a practical guideline, with which

they work. In the manual it states that “the emphasis is on the construction of

citizenship” and that consultation should take place “under the assumption of

civic values and equality in rights and duties of everyone” (Montoya Pabón, 2012,

p.23). On the first page of the guidelines the basic problem of citizen’s 118 ‘Leaders’ refers to official representatives from the the Juntas de Acción Comunal as well as informal community leaders.

Page 117: Stairway to dignity


participation is outlined, stating that “the principle problem which you will

encounter in the domain of participation is the weakness of the social tissue,

which manifests itself primarily through apathy in the communities, their low

belief in their own capabilities and that of their leaders and social rivalries and

conflicts” (PUI, no date, p. 1). So on the one hand there is this focus on citizenship

and on the other hand there is the observation that many people still lack the

skills to express their citizenship, and therefore it is difficult to organize

participation in which planners and municipal representative communicate at

equal level with people from the community. This coincides with my observation

in La Independencia 1, which I described in chapter 5. Inhabitants do not

articulate themselves as citizens, but more as passive consumers, and they do not

seem to have a problem with this.

When we take a closer look at how participation is organized, especially

around the escalator, the instrument that is used regularly in every PUI, is that

of the Talleres de Imaginarios (Imagery Workshops). EDU refers to this strategy

as ‘socialization’. According to Maria Isabel Ospina, the technical manager of the

project of the escalator, the main question that is asked in these workshops is:

“what do you want to improve in your neighborhood that would make you feel

happier?”.119 They use all kinds of creative tools like painting and making

collages to dig into people’s imagination and let them dream about a better

future. These workshops are organized at the level of every PUI, so not for every

individual project. Outcomes of these Talleres de Imaginarios were, according to

Ospina, things like “we want kindergartens” or “we want better hospitals” or “we

want improvements in housing or infrastructure”. Priorities differed in every

PUI.120 Samper (2010, p. 135) says the following about these workshops:

“Recurrent cycles of participation create a satisfactory illusion of participation

and empowerment”, which results in participants of Talleres de Imaginarios

being positive about them, even if their impact on the final design is just


In my interviews with inhabitants around the escalator I asked them if there

was any kind of participation or if they had attended any communal meetings 119 Interview Maria Isabel Ospina, former technical manager EDU, 2014.04.01 120 Interview Maria Isabel Ospina, former technical manager EDU, 2014.04.01

Page 118: Stairway to dignity


regarding the urban interventions. None of them said they knew anything about

it or attended such a meeting. They only remembered a meeting to inform the

people directly affected by the construction of the escalator, because their houses

had to be demolished. One possible explanations could be that on the level of

Comuna 13 as a whole, there are too many social differences and people do not

want to interact with each other. Former PUI-manager César Hernández states:

We try to connect the planned city with the unplanned city that is

divided by a social rupture that has its roots in the 60’s, when this

neighborhood still had fincas with middleclass people living next to

new people with low incomes and sometimes criminal records. This

situation remains until today. When we organized a workshop and

people from a neighborhood called El Socorro were invited, the people

from San Javier refused to come. They did not want to be associated

with these people.121

In the project of the escalators they first organized a community meeting in

2009, which according to Martha Perez, sociologist on the project of the escalator,

many people attended. They were all very happy, but there was also a lot of

emotion, especially among the people that were directly affected. In these

meetings EDU presented the plan, the design, the studies that they conducted

and how they were going to help the people that had to leave their houses, tells

Perez122. So the plan for the escalator did not evolve from the community, nor

was it up for discussion. This is also what rapper Jeihhco dislikes about this

project. “The community was not consulted on this. They were told. But there is a

law in Colombia that says that people have to be consulted before.”123

It is interesting to compare this project to the first major urban intervention

in Medellin: the construction of the metro cable in Santo Domingo. Peter Brand

says that the municipality actually had to negotiate its presence in the area with

the criminal gangs. They invested a lot of time building trust with the community

on which at a later stage mayor Fajardo heavily relied. He adds: “Under Fajardo

there wasn’t much serious participation. Urban projects were pretty much

121 Interview César Hernández, former manager of PUI (2004-2011), 2014.06.06 122 Interview with Martha Perez, sociologist at EDU, 2014.05.17 123 Interview with Jeison Alexánder Castaño alias Jeihcco, rap artist and initiator of Casa Kolacho, 2014.06.03

Page 119: Stairway to dignity


defined. They would get people involved in the details, like jobs created by

working on the project, but not in terms of what are we going to do here.”124

However, Brand is very positive concerning the way Fajardo put together a team

of young graduates and experienced people to work with the inhabitants. They

were really able to make contact with the people, says Brand. But this effect is

going to rub off, he thinks. “It is those kinds of things that have been really

shaken now [under the new administration]. And people feel that more than

anything. They are left with some cold works in public architecture.”125

Although participation in urban development is implemented by law in

Colombia and is a top priority at the municipal organizations in Medellin, in

reality there is still a wide gap between asking what peoples’ needs are and

consulting them on which colors to use to “a balanced cooperation or partnership

between public and private interests” (Caldeira and Holston, 2005, p. 407) as it is

formulated in Brazil’s City Statute. Historian Luis Fernando Gonzalez states:

“The decision-making capacity of our communities is still very low. This so-called

participation of civil society in these decisions is more a form of containment. It

doesn’t leave room for real democracy where citizens are no longer objects of

intervention, but become subjects of intervention. This doesn’t exist. The rest is

pure, pure discourse, but not reality.”126

The question remains what causes this situation in the case of Medellin. Is it

the lack of skills or a low sense of urgency on the part of the inhabitants, or is

the municipality not really willing to put themselves at the same level as its

citizens? According to Caldeira and Holston (2005, p. 407) the society imagined

by the model of the City Statute is “modern, democratic and plural, although still

profoundly unequal. The new plans consider that citizens lack resources, are

poor, and have their rights disrespected, but not that they are ignorant, illiterate,

backward, and incompetent, incapable of making good decisions.” Gonzalez has

had his own experience when he attended a meeting to participate in an urban

development project. Not as a professional, but as a citizen. “They [municipality

124 Interview Peter Brand, director of Department of Geography, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28 125 Interview Peter Brand, director of Department of Geography, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28 126 Interview Luis Fernando Gonzalez, historian and architect, and professor at the Department of Housing, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28

Page 120: Stairway to dignity


representatives] treat the inhabitants of the neighborhood in a paternalistic

way.[…] They look down on them and assume that they are all ignorant and can’t

read or write.”127 Of course it would be too simplistic to assume that this personal

experience is true for every municipal employee. The ones that I spoke to seemed

to be very involved in the communities and very dedicated. But the gap between

communication and real partnership in urban development remains.

So does the inequality in the city. In her exploration of the concept of

citizenship Dagnino states that citizenship has become an important weapon in

fighting social and economic exclusion and inequality, but also in “the widening

of dominant conceptions of politics itself” (Dagnino, 2006, p. 16). In other words,

participation should not only be about expressing ones wishes within a given

system, but also about being able to change the system itself. It is the question if

a more democratic system of participation would actually diminish inequality.

Research has shown unfortunately that “the growth of democracy has hardly

resolved the problems of poverty and inequality” (Gilbert, 2006, p. 401).

Gonzalez, however, is more positive and sees a real challenge for Medellin

to change the model of the city into a consensual model, an inclusive

model that doesn’t exist yet. We use words that suggest inclusion and

participation, but we should really move from participation to a model

of decision-making, in which the people themselves define what the

model of the city should be. Then we could really have a city that

could be beneficiary to its inhabitants and not to capital.128

The question is whether this will ever be accomplished. Reality shows that in

all major cities in Latin America and even in the world, the big infrastructural

decisions are not made by the people themselves, but are influenced by

commercial interests and city administrations trying to compete in the world

rankings of attractive cities (Novy and Leubolt, 2005; Rolnik, 2013)

127 Interview Luis Fernando Gonzalez, historian and architect, and professor at the Department of Housing, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28 128 Interview Luis Fernando Gonzalez, historian and architect, and professor at the Department of Housing, Universidad Nacional, Medellin, 2014.04.28

Page 121: Stairway to dignity


6.3 Concluding remarks

When looking at the definitions of good governance presented at the

beginning of this chapter, Medellin is in fact performing quite well. Under

Fajardo an efficient government organization has been set up, where people were

hired on the basis of their abilities rather than their political affiliation, and

public organizations like EDU on a daily basis operate quite independently from

the municipal government apparatus. The city of Medellin has always chosen to

keep their public services, like public utilities and the metro, in public hands,

which is quite remarkable in a country that on a national level abides to the neo-

liberal doctrine of privatization. These organizations are quite efficient and

transparent in their performances and the public utilities company EPM

furthermore contributes a large part of the budget that is available for urban

development, which makes Medellin independent from external financial sources.

The choices made under Fajardo – to invest the largest amount of the municipal

budgets in the poorest areas of the city to settle the social debt – can also be seen

as breach with neo-liberal policy, although partly the interventions with iconic

architecture might also be motivated by the wish to compete with other global

cities in attracting foreign visitors and investors. However, the system remains

volatile, because mayors change every four year and with them also the

bureaucracy changes. There is a lack of continuity, because knowledge is lost and

every mayor wants to make his own mark.

Although social urbanism did not succeed in making the city more equitable,

it did receive general acclaim because it focused its attention on the poorest areas

and its inhabitants and making them feel recognized and part of the city. But

there was also criticism on the discrepancy between form and content, for

example. There are also external factor which prevent the urban transformation

to reach its goals. The city is still confronted with a rise in illegal settlers, and

large parts of the economy and territory are still not under government control.

Furthermore, the neo-liberal national economic policy is not aimed and

sustainable growth with a more equal distribution of wealth.

Again, going back to the definition of good governance, the main criticism

focuses on the scarce participation, which does not contribute to equality and

Page 122: Stairway to dignity


citizenship. Although participation is regulated by law in Colombia and also a

major point of attention in all the PUI’s, in practice social urbanism mainly is a

top-down design strategy, and participation is restricted to consultation on parts

of the program. One explanation is that citizens lack skills. Participatory

budgeting could be a good instrument to teach these democratic decision-making

skills, but although there have been some positive experiences, it does not seem

to be implemented broadly in Medellin.

There is a call for a radical change to a more inclusive model. But it also

raises the question what such a model would mean for the role of planners in the

city. One thing is pretty sure: there would be no library parks, no metro cable en

certainly no electric escalator. Maybe instead there would be more childcare and

better healthcare, but would this have had the same impact on the dignity and

sense of pride of a huge population that has been ignored for decades? Personally,

I think not. The creative and analytical skills of professionals have, in my

opinion, largely contributed to connect the poor areas to the city. Even though it

has not made the city more equitable. But Medellin is not finished yet. Far from

it. Now is the time to investigate new models where inhabitants take their role as

active citizens and together with professionals further develop Medellin to the

next level.

Instead of participating in a model defined by the state, citizens, professionals

and local government should enter into a dialogue, creating a new model for the

city. This means that planners have to take a step back, which might be good,

because there is always the threat of “over-determination in visual forms and

social function” as Sennett calls it. “What’s missing in modern urbanism is a

sense of time – not time looking backwards nostalgically, but forward looking

time, the city understood as process, its imagery changing through use, an urban

imagination image formed by anticipation, friendly to surprise” (Sennett, 2005,

p.1). The urban planners under Fajardo have made their mark, now let the

inhabitants decide how these places should develop further, because “cities have

the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when,

they are created by everybody” (Jacobs, 1961, p. 238).

Page 123: Stairway to dignity


7. Conclusions

Medellin has gained worldwide fame with its strategy of social urbanism and

innovative interventions like the outdoor escalator in Comuna 13. The attention

for this piece of transport infrastructure justifies further research into its effects.

With my research on the escalator I want to contribute to three relevant

academic debates in urban research. First, there is the debate on mobility and

the relation between transport infrastructure and social mobility. The main

question being whether access to transport infrastructure leads to social mobility.

The more recent academic contributors to this debate agree that this connection

cannot be established that easily and that other factors, such as personal

circumstances, should be included. Second, there is the debate on public space

and its impact on place identification, security, neighborhood attachment, social

cohesion and citizenship. People shape the places they live in, but the places also

shape us and – at least partly – influence the way we behave. And thirdly, there

is the debate on good urban governance and what its main characteristics are. All

these debates are highly relevant in urban research aimed at finding answers to

the imminent question of how we can make our cities more equitable and

sustainable. The main question of my research was what the socio-economic

impact is of the increased mobility infrastructure in the form of this outdoor

electric escalator. I will try to answer this question connecting my data to these

three academic debates.

My findings on the economic impact are very much in line with other findings

in the current debate on mobility, which connects physical mobility to social

mobility. The mere presence of transport infrastructure is not enough to increase

access to opportunities the city has to offer and creating social mobility and

thereby economic progress. The economic effect on individual households,

therefore is negligent, except for one group: the members of the surveillance team

of the escalator. They have definitely profited from upward social mobility, both

in income and status. Ironically, this is due to the escalator as a work-providing

project and not in its capacity as transport infrastructure.

Page 124: Stairway to dignity


However, the electric escalator has had a huge effect on the neighborhood. It

has literally opened the window to the world. State institutions have gained

access to the neighborhood, bringing with them subsidies for housing renovations

and an array of social projects. Visitors from other parts of Medellin and

countries around the world suddenly come and visit the neighborhood to take a

ride on the escalator. This has contributed hugely to the inhabitant’s sense of

pride and dignity. They feel part of the city and are being seen and recognized for

the first time. This is something inconceivable for a population that has been

ignored for several decades. Slowly, but steadily this negative spiral of gang

violence, fear, distrust and negative stigmatization is being turned around. Now

that other people are entering, the inhabitants are eager to show the world that

there is more to Comuna 13 than meets the eye.

On an economic level the escalator and state subsidies for improvements in

the neighborhood did contribute to a rise in real estate prices and higher rents

and tax levels. Economic activity in the neighborhood has not improved, however.

It is difficult to start a business in an area with a limited consumer market.

Considering the impacts of comparable projects in Rio de Janeiro (tramway Santa

Marta favela) and Hong Kong (outdoor escalator) it would, however, be

interesting to monitor these economic changes on neighborhood level closely for

the next years.

Concerning the second academic debate, the creation of public spaces has

contributed to people spending more time on the streets. This has led to more

casual interactions. People are using the escalator for various purposes, one of

them being just to take a stroll through the neighborhood. They are slowly

identifying with these newly created urban spaces. These interactions on the

streets and during communal activities, such as painting facades, are essential in

creating a new sense of trust. In a neighborhood where people were forced to stay

in their houses because of the violence and did not trust anybody, this is a vital

change, one that makes the social tissue stronger and enhances social capital.

Gang violence in the area has diminished, although it is difficult to establish

a causal relationship with the escalator. The area has been territorialized by

gang members for a long time, during which they imposed their rules of conduct

Page 125: Stairway to dignity


to others. Now they have dispersed into other neighborhoods; clean and open

public spaces literally provide less space to hide for them. The cleanliness seems

to have an impact on the quality of life and the sense of security on the

inhabitants, which is line with other research on aspects of Wilson and Kelling’s

broken windows theory. An increased, but very low profile police presence, in

combination with the surveillance team at the escalator, seems to add to this

sense of security. However, despite all these positive developments the security

situation is still very volatile and according to professionals and journalists, the

situation can change again in an instant.

There is criticism on the current administration of not continuing with the

interventions in the poor neighborhoods. The Master Plan of Comuna 13 has not

been implemented completely. The fact that many of the interventions have

gained international praise and won some prestigious awards, has created a kind

of inertia on the side of the city administration. They seem to forget that these

are not solitary infrastructural interventions, but fit into a complete strategy of

physical and social interventions. The typical paisa-culture is often referred to as

being responsible for this behavior: being the best, the most innovative etcetera is

according to some considered more important that actually solving the problems

in the city.

The urban interventions done under the umbrella of social urbanism have not

(yet) succeeded in making the city more equitable. External factors like

Colombian national economic policy, the limited four year mayoral term and

simultaneously occurring changes in the bureaucracy, and the situation in

Medellin, where the administration is coping with an ongoing influx of illegal

settlers, a lack of state control and a huge informal economy all contribute to a

sustaining high level of inequality. But part of the criticism is directed at the

urban policy itself. There is criticism on the discrepancy between high profile

architecture and lack of social content under social urbanism. The focus was

more on the physical interventions in the beginning, but these turned out to be

very important in connecting the peripheries to the city, both physically and

symbolically through high class architecture. Of course there is much more

needed in terms of employment and education to really uplift the neighborhood in

Page 126: Stairway to dignity


the long run, but maybe one can say that such a ludicrous, out of the way,

innovative ‘gift’ like the electric escalator was exactly the incentive needed to

begin settling this social debt en give people their dignity. This would probably

not have been possible without a relatively top-down planning strategy.

This also connects to professional criticism on the lack of participation, which

is a vital part of good governance. Although participation is considered very

important and is embedded in Colombian law, in practice it is limited to

consultation on minor issues. Simply put, it is like buying a car together and the

inhabitants can decide on the color. A big problem seems to be the lack of skills

on the side of the population, needed to claim their citizenship and participate in

democratic decision making. This is also something I witnessed in the

neighborhood around the escalator. First of all, none of the people I spoke to ever

attended one of the Talleres de Imaginarios which were organized in Comuna 13.

Secondly, with regard to the escalator people are very ‘grateful’, they consider the

escalator ‘a gift’, but this attitude also makes them very docile. They do not use

public space to claim their citizenship. A tool which in Porto Alegre (Brazil) has

turned out to be very useful in attaining these skills, is the process of

participatory budgeting, which has only been used on a very limited scale in

Medellin. It would be interesting to conduct further research into the level of civic

engagement of inhabitants in the neighborhood around the escalator to see how

the official representatives of the Junta de Acción Comunal interact with

inhabitants and which informal leaders and NGO’s are active in the area. This

could shed some light on their apparent passive attitude at the moment.

Concluding, my data have shown that the urban intervention of the electric

escalator and its accompanying public spaces have had a huge effect on the

surrounding neighborhood, although the impact is geographically limited to an

area of around 200 meters around the escalator. The escalator has proven to be a

stairway to dignity, albeit not to economic prosperity. This intervention would

not have been possible without a relatively strong top-down strategy. However,

the challenge for the future would be to work towards a more inclusive model.

One where inhabitants learn to act as citizens and actively claiming their right to

the city through participation. Not participation in the sense of consultation

Page 127: Stairway to dignity


within a given system, but being able to change the system as well. Harvey

(2003, p.941) is still highly relevant, stating: “The right to the city is not merely a

right of access to what the property speculators and state planners define, but an

active right to make the city different, to shape it more in accord with our heart's

desire, and to re-make ourselves thereby in a different image”. This means an

evolution of the current urban development model, where planners take a step

back and together with its citizens take Medellin to the next level.

Policy recommendations

On the basis of the conclusions of my research I would make the following

policy recommendations:

- Invest in development of entrepreneurial skills of people living next to the

escalator, focusing on business ideas that aim at a bigger consumer market

than just the neighborhood. Where necessary adjust the rules and

regulations to make it easier to start a business from home. A possibility

would be to create some more bottom-up infrastructure for tourists.

- Invest in development of democratic decision making skills. For adults, but

also as part of the curriculum at school.

- Deploy the process of participatory budgeting to further develop the

neighborhood. Let the people decide what they think is most important

now to further strengthen the neighborhood.

Page 128: Stairway to dignity


Page 129: Stairway to dignity



Bateman, M., Duran Ortíz, J.P. and Maclean, K. (2011), A post-Washington

consensus approach to local economic development in Latin America? An

example from Medellin, Colombia, Overseas Development Institute

Background Note, April 2011,, (p. 1-6)

Bergman, M, Maksim, H. and Ohnmacht, T (2009), Mobilities and inequality:

Making connections, in M. Bergman, H. Maksim, and T. Ohnmacht, (editors),

Mobilities and inequality, Farnham: Ashgate, (p. 7-26)

Brand, P. and Dávila, J..D. (2011), Mobility innovations at the urban margins,

City, Vol. 15, No. 6, (p. 647-661)

Brand, P. and Dávila, J. D. (2012), La gobernanza del transporte público urbano:

Indagaciones alrededor de los Metrocables de Medellín, Bitacora 21, Vol. 2, (p.


Brand, P., Coupé, F. and Dávila, J..D., Medellin: Institutional Context and

Urban Paradigm Change (2013), in J.D. Dávila,. (editor) Urban Mobility &

Poverty , Development Planning Unit, UCL & Faculty of Architecture,

Universidad Nacional de Colombia (Medellin), (p. 55-67)

Caldeira, T.P.R. (2013), São Paolo: the city and its protests, Open Democracy

(, 2013.07.11)

Caldeira, T.P.R. and Holston, J. (2005), State and Urban Space in Brazil: From

Modernist Planning to Democratic Interventions, in Ong, A. and Collier, S.J.

(editors) Global Anthropology: Technology, Governmentality, Ethics, London

Blackwell, (p. 393-416)

Cañas, P.E.A., Gallo, H. and Jiménez Zuluaga, B.I. (2008), Dinámicas de Guerra

y Construcción de Paz: estudio interdisciplinario del conflicto armado en la

Comuna 13 en Medellin, Universidad de Antioquia, Universidad de Medellin,

Corporación Region, Instituto Popular de Capacitación, Medellin

Castro, L. and Echeverri, A. (2011), Bogotá and Medellin: Architecture and

Politics, Architectural Design, Vol. 81 (3), (p. 96-103)

Chappell, A.T, Monk-Turner, E. and Payne, B.K. (2011), Broken Windows or

Window Breakers: The Influence of Physical and Social Disorder on Quality of

Page 130: Stairway to dignity


Life, Justice Quarterly, Vol. 28(3), (p. 522-540)

Church, A., Frost, M., Sullivan, K., (2000), Transport and social Exclusion in

London. Transport Policy , Vol. 7 (3), (p. 195–205).

Coupé, F. (2013), The Metrocables: Risk, Poverty and Inclusion, in J.D. Dávila

(editor), Urban Mobility & Poverty, Development Planning Unit, UCL &

Faculty of Architecture, Universidad Nacional de Colombia (Medellin), (p. 68-


Coupé, F, Brand, P. and Dávila, J. (2013), Medellin: Institutional Context and

Urban Paradigm Change, in Dávila, J. (editor) Urban Mobility & Poverty,

Development Planning Unit, UCL & Faculty of Architecture, Universidad

Nacional de Colombia (Medellin), (p. 55-67)

Dagnino, E. (2006), Meanings of Citizenship in Latin America, Canadian Journal

of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Vol. 31(62), (p. 15-51)

Di Masso, A. (2012), Grounding Citizenship: Toward a Political Psychology of

Public Space, Political Psychology, Vol. 33 (1), (p. 123-143)

Echeverri, A. (2014), Ciudad Espectáculo, El Colombiano, 2014.04.28,


Echeverri, A. and Orsini, F. (2012), Informality and Social Urbanism in Medellin,

in Hermelin, M. Echeverri Restrepo, A. and Giraldo Ramírez, J. (editors),

Medellin Environment Urbanism Society, Urbam Eafit, Medellin

Fernandes, E. (2007), Constructing the ‘Right to the City’ in Brazil, Social &

Legal Studies, Vol. 16, (p. 201-219)

Fukuyama, F. and Colby, S. (2011), Half a Miracle, Foreign Policy, 2011.04.25,


Gilbert, A. (2014), Urban governance in the South: how did Bogotá lose its shine?,

Urban Studies, Vol. 1(20), (p. 1-20)

Gilbert, A. (2006), Good Urban Governance: Evidence from a Model City?,

Bulletin of Latin American Research, Vol. 25 (3), (p. 392-419)

González Borrero, J.I. (2012), Cities and the Poverty Trap, in Hermelin, M.

Echeverri Restrepo, A. and Giraldo Ramírez, J. (editors), Medellin

Environment Urbanism Society, Urbam Eafit, Medellin

Harvey, D. (2003), The Right to the City, International Journal of Urban and

Page 131: Stairway to dignity


Regional Research, Vol. 27 (4), (p. 931-941)

Hinkle, J.C. and Weisburd, D. (2008), The irony of broken windows policing: a

micro–place study of the relationship between disorder, focused police

crackdowns and fear of crime, Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 36, (p. 503 –


IDB and Alcaldía de Medellin (2011), Medellin: transformación de una ciudad,


Instituto Popular de Capacitación (2005), Informe sobre el estado actual de los

derechos humanos en la Comuna 13 de la ciudad de Medellin, Medellin

Jacobs, J. (1961), The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Vintage Books,

New York

Jaffe, R., Klaufus, C. and Colombijn, F. (2012), Mobilities and Mobilizations of

the Urban Poor, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol.

36(4), (p. 643-654)

Kaufmannn, V., Bergmann, M.M. and Joye, D. (2004), Motility: Mobility as

Capital, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 28(4), (p.


Kenyon, K., Lyons, G., Rafferty, J., (2003), Transport and social exclusion:

Investigating the possibility of promoting social exclusion through virtual

mobility, Journal of Transport Geography , Vol. 10, (p. 207–219)

Klaufus, C.J. (2012), Urban Residence: Housing and Social Transformation in

Globalizing Ecuador, Berghahn Books, New York, Oxford

Loaiza Bran, J.F. (2012), Por escaleras de la 13 se paseó rumor de extorsión, El

Colombiano, 2012.01.26, Medellin

Low, S.M. (2000), On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture, Austin

Texas University Press

Low, S.M. (2009), Towards an anthropological theory of space and place,

Semiotica, Vol. 2009 (175), (p. 21-37)

Lucas, K.. (2012), Transport and Social Exclusion: Where are we now?, Transport

Policy, Vol. 20 (p. 105-113)

Martin, G. and Martin, M. (forthcoming 2015), Proximity, Crime, Politics and

Design: Medellin’s Popular Neighbourhoods and the Experience of Belonging,

Page 132: Stairway to dignity


in Klaufus, C.J. (editor), Housing & Belonging in Latin America, Berghahn

Books, New York, Oxford

Menezes, P. (forthcoming 2015), ‘Favela modelo’: A Study on Housing, Belonging

and Civic Engagement in a ‘Pacified’ Favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in

Klaufus, C.J. (editor), Housing & Belonging in Latin America, Berghahn

Books, New York, Oxford

Miciukiewicz, K. and Vigar, G. (2012), Mobility and Social Cohesion in the

Splintered City: Challenging Techno-centric Transport Research and Policy-

making Practices, Urban Studies, Vol. 49(9) (p. 1941-1957)

Minton Beddoes, Z. (2012), For Richer, for Poorer, The Economist, Special report:

The world economy, 2012.10.13

Montoya Pabón, N.D. (2012), Manual Cívico y Pedagógico para la Intervención

Social en los Procesos de la Planeación y la Renovación Urbana, EDU,


Municipio de Medellin (2009), Plan de Desarollo Local, Comuna 13, San Javier,


Novy, A. and Leubolt, B. (2005), Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre: Social

Innovation and the Dialectical Relationship of State and Civil Society, Urban

Studies, Vol. 42(11), (p. 2023-2036)

Ouweneel, A. (forthcoming 2015), One Block at a Time: Performing the

Neighborhood, in Klaufus, C.J. (editor), Housing & Belonging in Latin

America, Berghahn Books, New York, Oxford

Portes, A. and Landolt, P. (2000), Social Capital: Promise and Pitfalls of its Role

in Development, Journal of Latin America Studies, Vol. 32, (p. 529-547)

Putnam, R.D. (1995), Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, Journal

of Democracy, Vol. 6(1), (p. 65-78)

Putnam, R.D. (2000), Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American

Community, Simon & Schuster, New York

Rodriquez Osorio, C.M. and Arbeláez Sierra, L.F. (2012), The Publicity of Public

Space, in Hermelin, M. Echeverri Restrepo, A. and Giraldo Ramírez, J.

(editors), Medellin Environment Urbanism Society, Urbam Eafit, Medellin

Posada, Jorge Iván (2014), Medellín tiene hoy la tasa mas baja de homicidios en

Page 133: Stairway to dignity


25 años, El Colombiano, 2014.03.13, Medellin

PUI, Guia Práctica de Intervención Social, Medellin

Rolnik, R. (2013), Ten years of the City Statute in Brazil: from the struggle for

urban reform to the World Cup cities, International Journal of Urban

Sustainable Development, Vol. 5(1), (p. 54-64)

Rozema, R. (2008), Urban DDR-processes: paramilitaries and criminal networks

in Medellín, Colombia, Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 40, (p. 432-


Salazar, A..J. (2002), No nacimos pa’semilla – La cultura de las bandas juveniles

en Medellin, Editorial Planeta Colombiana, Bogotá

Samper, J.J. (2010), The politics of peace process in cities in conflict: The

Medellin case as best practice, Master thesis, Massachusetts Institute of

Technology, Boston

Scannell, L. and Gifford, R. (2010), Defining place attachment: A tripartite

organizing framework, Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol. 30, (p. 1-


Sklair, L. (2005), The Transnational Capitalist Class and Contemporary

Architecture in Globalizing Cities, International Journal of Urban and

Regional Research, Vol. 29(3), (p. 485-500)

Sennett, Richard (2006), The Open City, essay for conference Urban Age Berlin

Sheller, M. and Urry, J. (2006), The new mobilities paradigm, Environment and

Planning, Vol. 38, (p. 207-226)

Slob, A, Bolt, G. and Van Kempen, R. (2008), Na de sloop: waterbedeffecten van

gebiedsgericht stedelijk beleid, NICIS Instituut, Den Haag

Soja, E.W. (2010), Seeking Spacial Justice, University of Minnesota Press

United Nations (2012), World Urbanization Prospect: the 2011 Revision, UN,

New York

UN Habitat (2013), Streets as Public Spaces and Drivers of Urban Prosperity,

UN Habitat, Nairobi

UN Habitat (2014), Urban Equity in Development: Cities for Life, WUF 7

Concept Paper, Medellin

Urry, J. (2002), Mobility and Proximity, Sociology, Vol. 36(2), (p. 255-274)

Page 134: Stairway to dignity


World Bank (2013), Shifting Gears to Accelerate Shared Prosperity in Latin

America and the Caribbean, Washington

World Economic Forum (2014), Global Risk 2014, Ninth Edition, Geneva

Zacharias, J. (2013), The Central-Mid-levels Escalator as Urban Regenerator in

Hong Kong, Journal of Urban Design, Vol. 18(4), (p. 583-593)

Page 135: Stairway to dignity


Appendix I : Results of counts & observations

The working hours of the electric escalator are between 6 AM and 10 PM on

weekdays and Saturdays and between 8 AM and 7 PM on Sundays and holidays.

I did my observations and counts during 8 hours divided over two weekday

mornings, one Saturday and one Sunday afternoon. I did not do any observations

after dark, because I was not completely sure if it would be safe. Apart from

counting all the travelers, I made distinctions between men and women and

between age groups. I had to assign people to an age group on the basis of my

perception of their age.

I took different positions when doing the counts. Mostly I observed from a bench

between tramo 3 and 4 of between 4 and 5. On Sunday afternoon I took position

between tramo 1 and 2. There was no position from where I could oversee the

whole escalator. I could have an overview of a maximum of 4 tramos.

I counted 890 users in 8 hours. If I extrapolate this to the whole week, which

consists of 123 hours of operating time, and then divide it by 7 (number of days

per week) my count would come to 1,780 users on a daily basis. However, I

counted every movement, even if people/children would go up and immediately go

down again. In the official counts, they only counted people leaving the elevator

and not count them again if the used it again within a couple of minutes. If

correcting for this, my count would be lower. However, I did not include the


Gender Total Up Down

Direction U D U D U D U D U D U D U D U D U D U D

Date: 21-4-2-14 (Mo)

6:15 AM - 7:15 AM 1 3 0 2 2 2 1 4 3 3 3 7 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 35 12 23

7:15 AM - 8:15 AM 3 4 4 5 2 3 4 2 5 6 6 6 5 1 3 3 3 1 0 0 66 35 31

8:15 AM - 9:15 AM 5 2 1 1 1 3 3 4 5 5 13 7 4 1 2 2 1 1 3 0 64 38 26

Date: 23-4-14 (Wed)

8:55 AM - 10:00 AM 7 3 5 4 3 4 5 5 7 10 7 7 1 5 4 5 1 1 0 0 84 40 44

10:00 AM - 11:05 AM 4 1 7 4 4 2 6 4 9 5 8 9 3 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 72 44 28

Date: 27-4-14 (Sun)

3:15 PM - 4:15 PM 5 3 4 5 7 6 4 15 5 5 6 7 1 0 4 2 0 0 0 0 79 36 43

4:15 PM - 5:15 PM 29 35 28 37 9 16 9 17 25 27 17 40 10 15 14 40 3 2 3 11 387 147 240

Date: 3-5-14 (Sa)

3 PM - 4 PM 10 7 12 3 7 6 7 3 11 2 8 4 5 2 5 8 1 2 0 0 103 66 37

Total 64 58 61 61 35 42 39 54 70 63 68 87 31 28 35 60 9 7 6 12 890 418 472


0 - 12 yeas 13 - 19 years 20 - 39 years 40 - 59 years 60 + years


Page 136: Stairway to dignity


busiest hours of the day, which according to the surveillance team and other

inhabitants I spoke to, are the evening hours between 6 and 10 PM, when people

are returning from work or school. So all in all, I think it is reasonable to assume

that in the end my count more or less validates the official count of 2,000

passengers a day.

Page 137: Stairway to dignity


Appendix II: Survey questions & results

During week 18 and 19 I did 50 surveys, going door to door, approximately in

a 250 meter radius around the escalator. A couple of surveys I did on the street in

the vicinity of the escalator. For most questions I made categories for the

answers. However, I formulated the question as an open question. Only if people

did not understand the question, I gave an example. This mostly happened for

the question on ‘purpose of travel’ which people often misunderstood for

‘destination’. For the purpose of this thesis, I translated the questions into


Survey on the use of the electric escalator

Sex: M/F

Age: 12-19 20-39 40-59 60+

How many times a week do you use the escalator (return counts as one)?

1-3 4-7 8-10 11-14 >14

Where do you live?

0 in the part above the escalator

0 on the side left of the escalator

0 on the side right of the escalator

How many meters is your house approximately located from the escalator? ………

What is the main purpose of your travels?

0 work 0 education 0 shopping 0 visits to family or friends 0 other

What other modes of transport do you use?

0 (motor)bike 0 colectivo 0 bus 0 taxi 0 metro

How many years have you been living in Comuna 13? …………

Page 138: Stairway to dignity


Before the escalator was there, what did you do?

0 I went on foot, but less frequently than now

0 I went on foot and went out as frequently as I do now

What do you think about the escalator?


The survey numbers that are marked, are the ones I also interviewed. From two

people I interviewed I did not take a survey.

Main results of surveys

Sex Age Weekly use

Where do they

live? Distance









59 60+










14 above




r. m C 13

1 M 1 1 1 150 30

2 F 1 1 1 10 40

3 F 1

4 M 1 22

5 F 1 1 1 250 30

6 M 1 1 1 230 10

7 F 1 1 1 220 29

8 F 1 1 1 210 15

9 F 1 1 1 200 22

10 F 1 1 1 150 7

11 F 1 1 1 50 27

12 F 1 1 1 50 10

13 M 1 1 1 50 24

14 M 1 1 1 250 64

15 F 1 1 1 40 <1

16 M 1 1 1 40 18

17 M 1 1 1 100 25

18 F 1 1 1 80 1,5

19 F 1 1 40 55

20 M 1 1 1 10 22

21 F 1 1 1 20 13

22 F 1 ! 1 20 33

23 F 1 1 1 140 23

24 M 1 1 1 200 34

25 F 1 1 1 200 34

Page 139: Stairway to dignity


26 F 1 1 1 150 30

27 M 1 1 1 130 30

28 F 1 1 1 150 <1

29 F 1 1 1 120 28

30 F 1 1 1 50 35

31 F 1 1 1 2 35

32 F 1 1 1 160 19

33 M 1 1 1 250 35

34 M 1 1 1 100 27

35 F 1 1 1 120 16

36 F 1 1 1 100 27

37 F 1 1 1 150 26

38 F 1 1 1 50 23

39 F 1 1 1 50 12

40 F 1 1 1 100 30

41 F 1 1 1 100 16

42 F 1 1 1 100 33

43 F 1 1 1 50 14

44 F 1 1 1 150 35

45 M 1 1 1 10 20

46 F 1 1 1 150 34

47 F 1 1 1 100 22

48 F 1 1 1 150 7

49 F 1 1 1 160 33

50 F 1 1 1 150 32

2 19 18 10 12 3 6 11 15 28 11 9

People use the escalator for the following purposes:

Shopping 29

Work 19

Leisure 15

Visiting friend or family 14

Education 12

Health center 12

Church 1

Page 140: Stairway to dignity


Many people use other means of transportation as well:

66 people use a bus or a colectivo

38 people use a combination of the colectivo and the connecting metro

1 uses a motorcycle

1 used a taxi

When asked what they did before the escalator was there 25 people indicated

to go on foot and did not go out more or less the same as now. 18 people indicated

they went on foot, but less frequently than they do now.

When asked what they thought about the escalator, only three people

expressed a negative opinion stating that the escalator is too expensive and only

benefits a small amount of people. All the others were very positive, even the

ones that did not directly benefit themselves.

Page 141: Stairway to dignity


Appendix III: List of inhabitants interviewed

Name Age Family situation

Claudia 47 Claudia lives with her husband, five daughters,

varying in age between 18 and 30, and two

grandchildren (another one being on the way). She has

infrequent domestic jobs. Her husband has work, but

her daughters are all unemployed.

Soreida 27 Soreida lives with her two small children, next to her

sister (Johana) and mother. At the moment she does

not work, because she wants to take care of the


Johana 25 Johana has two small children and a third one on the

way. She lives with her mother. The father died and

their brother got killed in gang violence. They used to

live there with their grandparents and some nieces and

nephews (13 people in total), but the grandparents died

and the nieces and nephews moved out.

Lidia 54 She lives with her husband and for children, ranging in

age from 13 to 26. Her sister (50) lives in the apartment

upstairs. She does not work. Her husband has a job in


David 67 He is divorced and now lives with his young girlfriend

and their son of 10 years old. He is a pensioner and

used to work as an electrician.

José 50 He is divorced and has three children. One is still a

minor and two of them are grown up, one of which has

two children of his own. They live with their mother,

also in Comuna 13. He works independently, mostly in


Nelson 52 He lives with his wife, brother in law and two grown-up

Page 142: Stairway to dignity


sons of 23 and 25. He delivers gas canisters in Comuna

13 and together with his wife runs a small shop at the

top of the escalator where they sell, sodas, ice cream

and candies. They also have 2 computers with internet

access. His son runs the internet part of the shop. Both

sons have other jobs as well.

Luz 55 She lives with her husband, her 30-year old son and 16-

year old daughter and two dogs. She has three other

sons that already left the house. Her husband has his

own little company in painting and renovations. She

works in the house.

Adriana 38 She is divorced and lives with three of her children of 4,

6 and 16 and is pregnant of another child. Her ex-

husband also lives in Comuna 13 with their other son

of 14, who is a professional football player. Adriana is

an informal community leader and her oldest daughter

Stefania is a kind of youth leader and does courses with

the police (she wants to be a police officer).

Miria 63 Miria has a husband who is just retired. He worked in

security. She has two daughter – who live elsewhere in

the neighborhood – and a son of 21 who still lives at

home. She also had another son who was killed at the

age of 17

Alicia 75 She lives with her husband, a son and grandson. Her

daughter lives upstairs with her husband in their own

apartment. She works at home. Her husband worked in

construction, but is now retired.

Maria Elvia 57 She is a widow. She has four children, three daughter

and one son, ranging in age from 29 to 36. One

daughter still lives with her, together with her baby.

She used to take care of other people’s children, but

then she got ill and lost one kidney. She has no

Page 143: Stairway to dignity


pension. Her son used to take care of her, but now that

he is married himself, it is more difficult for him.

Leida 29 She lives with her partner (not married) and her child.

The family of her partner (three people) live in a

separate part of the house. Her partner works as a

baker in Laureles. She studies family pedagogics and

works with families in the neighborhood.

Cecilia 65 She is a widow and lives with one of her sons (38). She

has to more sons, aged 42 and 43, that live elsewhere.

One of them works for the police. She is retired, but

used to do domestic work.

Chota 23 Member of surveillance team in focus group

Andres 21 Member of surveillance team in focus group

Leidy 28 Member of surveillance team in focus group

Mayi 24 Member of surveillance team in focus group

Ada 36 Member of surveillance team in focus group

Jorge 23 Member of surveillance team that assisted me with


The semi-structured interviews with inhabitants touched upon the following

topics (sometimes other topics popped up during the conversation):

- Family situation, including levels of education and employment

- Impact of the escalator on their lives and major benefits

- Change in income situation

- Situation before and after (contact with neighbors, spending more time on

the streets etc.)

- Change in situation of violence and experienced sense of security

- Image of the neighborhood

- State presence in the neighborhood (police, state institutions, subsidies)

- Experience of outside visitors entering the neighborhood

Page 144: Stairway to dignity


Appendix IV: Lyrics of rap Six boys, in age varying from 9 to 13 years, spend each Sunday afternoon at

Casa Kolacho to do a rap workshop. Casa Kolacho is an initiative of rap artist

Jeihhco and some other artists in the neighborhood to give young children an

alternative to gang life and learn them to be a DJ, rap artist or make graffiti art.

This afternoon the workshop was conducted by Jeison, who made them write

a rap lyric about their neighborhood and the electric escalator. All of the boys live

in the neighborhood around the escalator.

I made a video tape of them performing the rap they wrote. These are the

lyrics in Spanish with English translation:

Habían siempre muertos

Siempre en las aceras

Las calles eran feas

Y ya no hay muertos

Siempre en las escaleras

There were always dead people

Always on the sidewalks

The streets were ugly

And now there are no more dead people

Ever on the escalator

Y aqui es el barrio donde las escaleras han cambiado

Muchos muertos han caido, han fusilado

Y yo les conto a los sicarios que han dejado la Comuna 13

And here is the neighborhood where the escalators have made a change

Many have been murdered, were shot

And I tell it to the hitmen that have left Comuna 13

Las calles eran feas

Habián siempre muertos

Page 145: Stairway to dignity


Siempre en las aceras

Y ya no hay muertos

Siempre en las escaleras

The streets were ugly

There were always dead people

Always on the sidewalks

And now there are no more dead people

Ever on the escalator

Las calles han cambiado

El dolor me ha dejado embalado

De los pensamientos que tengo en la mente inteligente

Y no [...] como unos ausentes

Ensillados, atropados, jubilados, porque nada crece, qué crece?

The streets have changed

The pain has screwed me up

From the thoughts that pass through my intelligent mind

And not […] like the ones that are absent

Stuck in a chair, locked up, senior citizens, because nothing flourishes, what


Yo no sé

El dolor me está acabando

Y tambien aniquilando

Yo no sé qué voy a hacer

Yo no sé qué voy a hacer

I don’t know

The pain is killing me

And is also devastating

I don’t know what I am going to do

I don’t know what I am going to do

Page 146: Stairway to dignity


De nuevo cantandole al barrio

Narrando todo lo que ha pasado en este barrio

La violencia lo ha dejado muy difícil

Por eso es que hay que hacer la paz en este país

Again I sing to the neighborhood

Telling everything that has been happening in this neighborhood

The violence has made everything so difficult

That is why we have to make peace in this country

Es un super recuerdo

De los niños de la Comuna sonriendo

Todo era feo

Y ahora ha cambiado todo en mi pensamiento

De la gente que han matado

Y ahora sonriendo

It is a super memory

Of children smiling in the Comuna

Everything was ugly

And now everything has changed in my mind

From people that have been killed

To people that are smiling

Los amigos que eran criado

A Dios le doy las gracias

Y a todos los parceros que han matado

Ellos siempre están entre nosotros

Porque siempre los llevamos en nuestras corazones

The friends that have grown up

I thank God for them

And all the brothers that have been killed

They are still among us

Because we always carry them in our hearts

Page 147: Stairway to dignity


Appendix V: List of professionals interviewed

Name Current


Relevant former



Peter Brand Director of Department of

Geography, Universidad

Nacional Medellin

Luis Fernando


Historian and architect

Professor at the Department of

Housing, Universidad

Nacional Medellin



Director of Urbam Eafit Head of EDU (2004-2008)

César Hernández Director of Department of

Disaster Prevention

(DAPARD) at the Province of


General manager of all

PUI (2004-2011)

Gloria Molina Architect and professor at

Universidad de Antioquia

Jorge Gaviria Director of a foundation called

‘Razones Soñadas’ (Dream


Director of the Program for

Peace and Reconciliation

in Medellin (2004-2010)

Iván Sarmiento Civil engineer and professor at

the Faculty of Mining,

Universidad Nacional Medellin

Jeison Alexánder

Castaño alias


Rap artist and initiator of

Casa Kolacho

Martha Perez Sociologist at EDU

Page 148: Stairway to dignity


Informal conversations

Maria Isabel Ospina Currently unemployed

and living in the


Technical manager at


Gerard Martin Independent social

researcher and expert on


IDB Washington

Sebastián Restrepo Province of Antioquia Municipality of Medellin

Gerardo Perez Consultant at Casa de

las Estrategias (House of


Andres Borraez Master student of Peter

Brand at Universidad


Ralph Rozema Journalist NOS (Dutch



investigating violence in

Comuna 13

Adriaan Alsema Founder and editor-in-

chief of online newspaper

Colombia Reports

Page 149: Stairway to dignity



Medellin is a city with a violent past, especially in the 80’s and 90’s of the last

century. Its peripheries on the slopes of the hills have been occupied by illegal

settlers, fleeing the violence of the guerrillas in the countryside. The

administration for decades neglected these parts of the city, thereby providing

criminal gangs and the urban guerilla the perfect conditions to infiltrate and take

over these areas. The first change came in the 90’s when the city invested in

large scale public transport connecting the city center to the peripheries. When

independent mayor Sergio Fajardo took office in 2004 he turned this attention to

the poor areas, investing the biggest part of communal budgets there, in a

combination of hard and soft infrastructure, attempting to create a more

equitable and less violent city. This ‘social urbanism’ was his way of repaying the

social debt that accumulated over the years between the rich and the poor. These

combined urban interventions were organized in several PUI (Integrated Urban

Projects), one of them focusing on Comuna 13. As part of this Master Plan an

outdoor escalator was built in one of the neighborhoods in the area.

This innovative urban intervention received a lot of international attention

and won some prestigious prizes, which is quite understandable, given the fact

that the world is urbanizing rapidly and policy makers and academics are looking

for ways to make are cities more sustainable and equitable. But has this

intervention actually been effective? With this research I hope to answer the

question of the socio-economic impact of the escalator and contribute to three

relevant academic debates in urban development. First this is the debate on

mobility and the relation between physical and social mobility. Secondly, the

debate on public space and how it influences inhabitant’s sense of security, place

identification, neighborhood attachment, social cohesion and citizenship. Thirdly,

I looked at the process of developing the escalator in a broader context, entering

into the academic debate on good urban governance.

Since the escalator is a very local, small and low-tech intervention, I chose to

conduct my research on this very local level, zooming in on the micro-cosmos of

this particular neighborhood, using research methods that focus on actual

Page 150: Stairway to dignity


behavior and opinions of users, because it is their context I investigated. One of

the first things I discovered is that the impact of the escalator is geographically

very limited to an area of around 200 meters around the escalator. I combined my

research on location with interviews with professionals to answer the question

about good governance. This thesis is set up around three topics – mobility,

public space and urban governance -, the results of which I will summarize.

I first investigated the impact of the escalator on mobility and economic

benefits for individuals and the neighborhood as a whole. My research confirmed

other research on mobility that just adding a piece of transport infrastructure,

does not automatically lead to social mobility. To understand its impact on the

lives of people, one has to look at personal and circumstantial factors that

influence if and how a mode of transport is being used. The electric escalator is

an easily accessible means of transportation which for a limited group of people,

namely people that are disabled, proves to be an invaluable missing link to other

means of transportation in the city. On the whole it has increased physical

mobility somewhat, but for most people it primarily offers relaxation, compared

to climbing the 357 stairs that were there before. There is, however, one

exception to this conclusion and that is the fifteen boys and girls from the

neighborhood that are part of the surveillance team of the escalator. They were

hired by Terminales, the public company that operates the escalator. They

receive a proper income, work close to home, which enables them to combine

different tasks, and they have a representational role, which enhances their

social standing. Their social mobility has definitely increased, but it is because of

the escalator as a work-providing project and not because of its function as a

means of transportation.

On a neighborhood level the escalator did have some economic impact. The

escalator has provided access to the neighborhood for state institutions, offering

subsidies for housing improvements. It seems that these have been restricted to

houses visible from the escalator. Real estate prices of houses bordering the

escalator have risen, but there is no real indication of a real estate boom.

However, it has effected rents and taxes, which did have a negative impact for

some people. Unlike the area around the stations of the metro cable in Santo

Page 151: Stairway to dignity


Domingo, here there is no extra economic activity emerging. This might be

connected to a lack of entrepreneurial skills of the inhabitants, but also to a lack

of consumer markets, because people have easy access to other shops in the


The electric escalator is not only a piece of transport infrastructure, it also

consists of newly created public spaces, which create places for public, casual

encounters. This has had various positive effects. It has created more place

identification, which in turn led to an increase in the perceived sense of security.

There are more eyes on the street and gang members literally cannot hide in

these open spaces. Where in the past gangs have territorialized these

neighborhoods, now the inhabitants are slowly taking over these spaces and

making them their own. There is also more – low key – police presence in the

area, which according to the inhabitants, adds to a sense of security as well as

the clean public spaces, that seem to contribute to the quality of life. This is in

line with other research findings into effects of the broken window’s theory.

However, it is difficult to establish a causal relationship between the escalator

and the violence, and gang violence has not disappeared, but dispersed into other


The fact that people are using the public spaces, meeting each other, working

together on projects like painting facades, has created new trust among the

inhabitants. People are still primarily focused on their families, but more and

more weaker ties with neighbors are growing stronger. This is important for

strengthening social capital. The most important change, however, consists of

people from outside entering into the neighborhood. They fill the inhabitants

with a sense of pride and slowly contribute to lifting the negative stigma that

Comuna 13 is coping with.

One function that has not really developed yet, is that of public space as an

‘arena for citizenship’. The inhabitants are not actively claiming their rights in

public space and their right to the city. They seem to be a bit docile and in awe of

this incredible ‘gift’ they consider the electric escalator to be.

When looking at the question of good urban governance, Medellin is

performing quite well, especially during the era Fajardo/Salazar (2004-2011). It

Page 152: Stairway to dignity


has organized the execution of the urban plans in a separate public entity that

operates independently and where people are appointed on the basis of their

capabilities. It is an efficient and transparent organization which is financed

primarily by budgets from its independent public utilities company. Participation

– another key element in good governance – is legally embedded and locally

organized by EDU (Urban Development Company) in Talleres de Imaginarios

(Imagery Workshops). However professionals think that citizens are not involved

in a real inclusive model. They are only consulted on details and cannot shape

the model of the city. This can be blamed on the planners, but it can also be

attributed to the inhabitants that seem to lack the skills to fully participate in

democratic decision making.

When looking at the period of social urbanism, there is much acclaim for its

focus on the poor areas of the city. However, critics also point to the fact that

much was invested in eye-catching architecture, neglecting the content. There is

also criticism on the fact that the current government is turning away from social

urbanism and putting other priorities on the agenda. Traditional politics seems

to have returned, with more bureaucracy, thereby negatively influencing

transparency and efficiency.

The ultimate goal of social urbanism – creating a more equitable city – has

not been reached. A time span of eight years is not realistic to attain such a goal,

but there are other external factors, preventing urban interventions from being

successful. Professionals point to the fact that there is still an influx of illegal

settlers on the peripheries and that the city government does not have control

over the city and its economy, which is still largely informal. Lastly, Colombian

national economic policy does not contribute to a more equal society, something

that is hard to turn around for a local government, despite its good intentions.

Despite criticism on the policy of social urbanism and factors influencing its

success and continuity, I think it is safe to say that for the inhabitants of the

neighborhood around the escalator, this intervention did have a huge impact,

albeit in a very limited geographical area. It was this grand gesture by the urban

planners of that time, that opened their window to the world. Although it did not

turn out to be a stairway to economic prosperity, it certainly has been a stairway

Page 153: Stairway to dignity


to dignity. However, the situation in many ways is still very volatile. The

challenge for the future will be to further develop this neighborhood (and the city

as a whole) together with its citizens - investing in their skills - and truly making

it a city for everybody.

Page 154: Stairway to dignity



Medellín es una ciudad con un pasado violento, especialmente entre los años

1980-1990. Sus periferias, en las laderas de sus cerros, han sido ocupadas por

sectores de la población que ha acabado por esparcir la violencia de las guerrillas

hacia las áreas rurales. Durante décadas, la administración local descuidó estas

zonas de la ciudad, lo que proveyó de perfectas condiciones a bandas criminales y

guerrillas urbanas para que tomaran esas zonas. El primer cambio, sin embargo,

se produjo en los años 90 cuando la ciudad invirtió en transporte público para

conectar el centro de la ciudad con las periferias. En el 2004, cuando el alcalde

Sergio Fajardo tomó el poder, se puso también especial atención en áreas pobres,

dedicando gran parte de los presupuestos de las comunas a una combinación de

infraestructuras físicas e institucionales, que pretendían crear un ambiente más

equitativo y menos violento. El ‘urbanismo social’ fue un modo de reparar la

deuda social acumulada entre los ricos y los pobres a lo largo de los años. Estas

intervenciones urbanas se organizaron en los PUI (Proyecto Urbano Integral).

Una de ellas se dedicó a Comuna 13 en donde, como parte de este gran proyecto,

se construyeron unas escaleras eléctricas en uno de los barrios de la zona.

Este innovador plan de intervención recibió mucha atención internacional,

incluso ganando prestigiosos premios, lo cual resulta bastante comprensible,

teniendo en cuenta la rápida urbanización del mundo y la consecuente búsqueda

de alternativas para hacer ciudades más sostenibles por parte de responsables de

formulación de políticas públicas y académicos. Pero ¿ha sido dicha intervención

realmente efectiva? A través de esta investigación, espero poder dar respuesta al

impacto socioeconómico de las escaleras eléctricas en Comuna 13 y, con ello,

contribuir a tres relevantes debates académicos sobre desarrollo urbano. En

primer lugar, al debate en torno a movilidad, y la relación entre movilidad física y

movilidad social. En segundo lugar, al debate sobre el espacio público y su

influencia en la sensación de seguridad de sus habitantes y su identificación con

el lugar, así como otras cuestiones como su vínculo con el barrio, y su grado de

cohesión social. Por último, este estudio analiza el desarrollo del proyecto de la

Page 155: Stairway to dignity


escalera mecánica en un contexto más amplio, entrando así en el tercer debate

académico sobre la buena gobernanza.

Teniendo en cuenta que la escalera mecánica es un pequeño proyecto a nivel

local, y que utiliza un nivel bajo de tecnología, este estudio se llevó a cabo a nivel

local, desde una escala micro, con especial atención a la vida a nivel vecinal, y

usando métodos de investigación que se centran en conocer el comportamiento y

las opiniones de los usuarios, puesto que es el contexto que se pretende

investigar. A través de este método, una de las primeras conclusiones a las que

llegué es que el impacto de la escalera mecánica está geográficamente limitado a

unos 200 metros su alrededor. Combiné este tipo de método con entrevistas a

profesionales para dar respuesta a preguntas relacionadas con la buena

gobernanza. Esta tesis gira en torno a tres temas –movilidad, espacio público y

buena gobernanza-, el resultado de los cuales voy a resumir a continuación.

En primer lugar, investigué el impacto de la escalera en términos de

movilidad y beneficios económicos para los individuos, y el barrio en conjunto. Mi

estudio confirmó lo que otros estudios argumentan sobre movilidad, esto es que,

añadiendo una infraestructura de transporte no se produce un cambio automático

en la movilidad social. Para entender el impacto que tiene en la vida de las

personas, uno tiene que mirar a factores de tipo más personal y circunstancial

para ver si el uso del medio de transporte, y cómo este uso se lleva a cabo,

realmente influye. La escalera mecánica es un medio de transporte de fácil acceso

que, para un grupo limitado de personas, esto es discapacitados, resulta ser un

valiosísima pieza que faltaba para conectarlos con otros medios de transporte en

la ciudad. A nivel general, ha aumentado la movilidad física, pero para la

mayoría de los usuarios lo que principalmente ofrece es relajación, puesto que se

evitan las 357 escalones que habían antes. De todos modos, hay una excepción a

esta conclusión: los 15 chicos y chicas del barrio que forman parte del equipo que

vigila la escalera mecánica. Este grupo de jóvenes fue contratado por Terminales,

la empresa pública que gestiona las escaleras mecánicas. Estos chicos reciben un

salario adecuado, trabajan cerca de casa (lo que les permite combinarlo con otras

tareas) y, además, adquieren un rol representativo, que les permite mejorar su

posición social. Por lo tanto, la movilidad social de estos chicos realmente ha

Page 156: Stairway to dignity


mejorado, pero no tanto por la propia función de la escalera como medio de

transporte, sino por el trabajo que ésta les ha proveído.

A nivel de vecindario, la escalera mecánica ha tenido cierto impacto

económico. La escalera ha supuesto un acceso al barrio por parte de las

instituciones estatales que ofrecen subsidios para mejorar las viviendas. Los

datos apuntan a que este tipo de subsidio se ha limitado a las casas que son

visibles desde la escalera. Los precios de las casas que bordean la escalera han

subido, pero no hay un indicador real de que se haya producido un boom

inmobiliario. Aunque sí ha afectado a las rentas, así como a los impuestos,

teniendo un efecto negativo para sus habitantes. A diferencia del área que rodea

las estaciones de la escalera mecánica de Santo Domingo, aquí no ha emergido

ninguna actividad económica alternativa. Este hecho podría tener relación con la

falta de un espíritu empresarial de sus habitantes, pero también con la falta de

mercados de consumo, pues la gente tiene fácil acceso a las tiendas del


La escalera mecánica no es una mera infraestructura de transporte, sino que

también representa el desarrollo de un nuevo espacio público, puesto que ha dado

pie a la creación de encuentros públicos y casuales. Esto ha tenido varios efectos

positivos: ha creado una mayor identificación con el lugar, lo que a su vez ha

contribuido a aumentar la percepción de seguridad. Ahora hay muchos más ojos

en la calle y, en consecuencia, los miembros de las bandas ya no se pueden

esconder en estos espacios abiertos. En el pasado, las bandas habían

territorializado estos barrios, pero hoy en día, los habitantes están lentamente

empezando a tomar estos espacios, convirtiéndolos en suyos. Además, hay más

presencia policial - aunque de bajo perfil - que, de acuerdo con la opinión de los

habitantes, proporciona mayor seguridad y espacios más limpios, lo que

contribuye a mejorar la calidad de vida. Esto coincide con el resultado de otros

estudios que señalan los efectos de la ‘teoría de la ventana rota’. De todos modos,

resulta difícil establecer una relación de causalidad entre la escalera mecánica y

la violencia, pues la violencia no ha desaparecido, sino que se ha dispersado hacia

otros barrios.

Page 157: Stairway to dignity


El hecho de que la gente está utilizando espacios públicos, encontrándose con

gente, trabajando juntos en proyectos como pintar fachadas, ha creado una nueva

confianza entre los habitantes. Generalmente, la gente está centrada en sus

familias, pero cada vez más, los lazos débiles existentes con los vecinos se están

fortaleciendo. Esto es importante para fortalecer el capital social. De todas

maneras, el cambio más importante tiene que ver con la gente que viene de fuera

del barrio y entra en él. Estos llenan a los habitantes con un sentimiento de

orgullo que, lentamente, contribuye a erradicar el estigma negativo con el que se

asocia a Comuna 13.

Una función que todavía no se ha desarrollado del todo es la del espacio

público, como un espacio para la ciudadanía. Los habitantes no están

activamente reclamando sus derechos en el espacio público, ni tampoco su

derecho a la ciudad. Sino que más bien parecen mostrar una actitud dócil y en

deuda con el increíble ‘regalo', como así lo consideran, por la llegada de la

escalera mecánica.

En cuanto a la cuestión de la buena gobernanza, Medellín está funcionando

bastante bien, especialmente durante el periodo de Fajardo/Salazar (2004-2011).

La ejecución de proyectos urbanísticos se ha organizado desde una entidad

pública que opera de forma independiente y en la que las personas que trabajan

son escogidas en función de sus capacidades. Es una organización eficiente y

transparente, financiada principalmente por presupuestos de entidades públicas

independientes. En relación a la participación –como elemento fundamental de la

buena gobernanza-, ésta está legalmente integrada y localmente organizada por

EDU (Empresa de Desarrollo Urbano) a través de los llamados Talleres de

Imaginarios. Sin embargo, los profesionales opinan que los ciudadanos no

participan de un modelo real inclusivo, sino que sólo son consultados en pequeños

detalles, sin poder cambiar el modelo de ciudad. Esta responsabilidad se les

puede atribuir a los planificadores públicos, pero también a los ciudadanos, a los

que parece faltan aptitudes para participar completamente en procesos

democráticos de toma de decisiones.

El periodo de urbanismo social fue muy elogiado por el grado de atención que

las zonas pobres recibieron. Sin embargo, sectores críticos han apuntado que ha

Page 158: Stairway to dignity


habido mucha inversión en hacer unos diseños arquitectónicos atractivos, y no

tanto en su contenido. También se ha criticado que el gobierno actual está

dejando de lado el urbanismo social y dando preferencia a otras cuestiones en su

agenda política. Los políticos tradicionales parecen haber regresado, con más

burocracia y, por ende, influenciando de manera negativa a la transparencia y la


El objetivo final del urbanismo social - esto es, crear una sociedad más

equitativa - no ha sido alcanzado. En un periodo de ocho años no es realista

alcanzar dicho objetivo, pero hay otros factores externos que frenan el éxito de las

intervenciones urbanas. Los profesionales indican que aun hay un flujo

considerable de pobladores ilegales en las periferias, y que la Municipalidad no

tiene control sobre la ciudad ni su economía, que en gran parte sigue siendo

informal. Por último, la política económica de Colombia a nivel nacional no

contribuye a una sociedad más igualitaria, lo cual dificulta aún más la tarea de la

administración local, a pesar de sus buenas intenciones.

A pesar de las críticas a la política del urbanismo social y los factores que han

influenciado su éxito y su continuidad, desde mi punto de vista creo que para los

habitantes del barrio de los alrededores de la escalera mecánica, esta

intervención tuvo un gran impacto, aunque sólo fuese en un área geográfica muy

limitada. Este gran gesto de los planificadores urbanos del momento, abrió las

puertas al mundo. La escalera mecánica no resultó ser una escalera a la

prosperidad económica, pero sí ha sido una escalera hacia la dignidad. Aun así, la

situación es aún muy volátil en muchos aspectos. El reto de futuro es desarrollar

mucho más este barrio (y la ciudad en general), junto con sus habitantes -

invirtiendo en sus habilidades - y haciendo una ciudad verdaderamente para todo

el mundo.