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The city has been celebrated as an international model. Naturally, it's time for a backlash.

MEDELLíN, Colombia – It was perhaps inevitable that as the thousands of participants in UN-HABITAT’s World Urban Forum file out of this city of 2.4 million this weekend, some skeptics might feel their hype antennae quivering.

The turnaround narrative of this former murder capital, the most dangerous city in the world, is compelling. After drug lord Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, civic leaders dedicated themselves to conjuring a metropolis that was directly opposite to the years of fear and violence.

The best architecture and finest public spaces went into the poorest neighborhoods. In a process of community design and participatory budgeting, planners listened to what the residents needed. They learned that many workers making $15 a day were spending hours getting down from the steep hillside barrios to work. So in went the cable cars, that glide over the tin roofs of makeshift homes, and escalators to spare the grueling hikes up and down the slums reaching up from the valley.

Cable cars pass above Medellin. (Albeiro Lopera/Reuters)

A pristine park is under construction at the top of the eastern hillside, the summit of impossibly steep streets. An envisioned greenbelt is an attempt to prevent further illegal occupation, but residents of the adjacent neighborhood are given jobs working on anti-erosion measures, building the walkways and doing educational programming. 

It really has been an incredible transformation. A place people wouldn’t dream of visiting became a mecca for urban planners on a par with Portland, Oregon. Visitors come from all over to see what they might take back to their cities. Foundations like Rockefeller, Ford, and Kresge like Medellín because the interventions have been targeted and simple, but seem to leverage a lot of impact. The burgeoning cities of the developing world, with their staggering problems of unhealthy conditions and inequality, can overwhelm the even the most idealistic policymaker. In baseball terms, Medellín has played small ball.

The publicity flowed, from the New York Times to CNN, and as the World Urban Forum got underway here this week, more stories with headlines like "How Medellín Revived Itself" and "Latin America’s New Superstar."

Naturally, it’s time for a backlash.

A billboard with pictures of a lingerie model is seen in front of the Commune northwest of Medellin. (Albeiro Lopera/Reuters)

OK, that might be a bit strong. More like healthy skepticism, because the sense of an urban utopia, fighting its way out of such terrible conditions, can be a bit overpowering. What’s also at work is what might be called Medellín Envy. There are signs, for instance, that urban violence is still rampant, a fact one planner from Bogotá pointed out at this week's forum. At the same time, city officials say the murder rate has been reduced 92 percent, which seems a hard figure to quibble with. Bogotá, a city of 8 million, was doing innovative planning work years before Medellín, but has in recent years drifted out of the spotlight.

Interventions can be second-guessed as too little or too much, or even just a little other-worldly. The stretch of the cable car line from Santo Domingo and the Spain Library seems like an awful lot of infrastructure to get to a park for horseback riding and hiking trails. At the 20 Julio neighborhood near San Javier, festive music plays as one ascends on a series of shiny new escalators right out of a suburban shopping mall. In advance of the World Urban Forum, residents were encouraged – or maybe instructed, as one colleague mused -- to paint their homes in bright colors. The project cost $8 million.

A cynic might find the "Metro culture" -- where there is zero tolerance for fights or graffiti on the world-class system of trains, bus rapid transit and the cable cars, and there is a strict code for giving up seats to the elderly – as overweening, an attempt by planners to control behavior. But it seems to work. The metro is efficient and spotless.

One other factor that raises questions about the transferability of Medellín's innovations is something that doesn’t come up often: the powerhouse public utility company EPM, which provides millions in revenue for the municipality.

The people who showed me around this week were very proud of what has happened in Medellín. I’ve been on a lot of such tours, and that might be the problem. The challenges of cities are so dramatic, one is always on guard for being shown miracles. At the Jardin Circunvalar, I had the most devilish thought – that the perfect family walking their dog, and the grandfather who cheerfully said buenas tardes, might have been part of some elaborate stagecraft for our benefit. (I had a similar feeling when I was given a tour of a hutong in Beijing last year).

But of course they weren’t actors. They were real, just like the kids behind them, sashaying down the pristine tiled pathway winding through the trees, high above the city.

Top image: Jess Kraft / Shutterstock.com

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