Juan Villamizar used to run drugs for a gang in Medellín, but now works on constructing the city's innovative 'Metropolitan Greenbelt'. Yvonne Brandwijk

Medellín's leafy new urban perimeter tackles sprawl, landslides, and food insecurity at the same time.

MEDELLIN, Colombia—The border was right here, says Juan Villamizar as he firmly plants his shovel into the soil.

This was a border that no one saw, but everyone knew was there. Villamizar shows a scar on his hand—a reminder of a blow he received from a machete when he crossed this border without permission, entering the territory of a rival gang. He was lucky; countless others from his neighborhood didn’t come back from such excursions at all.

Villamizar lives in La Sierra, a neighborhood in Comuna 8, high up on one of the mountain slopes overlooking Medellín’s center in the valley below. For a long time, this was one of the city’s most violent areas, where gangs linked to urban guerrilla and paramilitary groups fought for control. After 12 years running drugs for a gang, Villamizar recently traded his pistol for a spade and a set of overalls.

Together with more than 5,000 local residents, he is working on Medellín’s latest mega-project: El Cinturon Verde Metropolitano (the "Metropolitan Greenbelt"), an enormous urban park lining the upper reaches of the hillsides surrounding the city. “Five years ago, it was a war zone over here,” says Villamizar, who is 25. “We felt forgotten—the only option was crime. Now, there are opportunities, and we are working on the future, together.”

If there’s anything Medellín has proven, it’s that it is a city capable of transforming itself and overcoming obstacles from the past. Twenty-five years ago, Medellín was the murder capital of the world, with  more than 300 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Today, the city is the recipient of numerous awards for its urban development, most recently the prestigious Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize.

Projects such as urban gondolas and outdoor escalators to connect poor neighborhoods on steep hills, as well as Latin America’s first metro, have made Medellín an inspiration to many cities around the world.

The Metropolitan Greenbelt is the city’s latest innovation. In typical Medellín fashion, the project aims to achieve many goals at once. The Greenbelt will hugely expand the city’s overall amount of parkland, recreation opportunities, and even places to grow food. It is putting scores of people like Villamizar to work. And it will also create a sort of urban growth boundary to stop the encroachment of squatter settlements creeping ever further up the hillsides. At the same time, the city will upgrade ramshackle homes, and introduce public services and transit options in the remote informal settlements high up at the urban edge.

The Greenbelt project is upgrading informal settlements while creating an urban growth boundary. (Yvonne Brandwijk)

These latter aims of containing urban sprawl are the most contentious. Rural Colombians have been resettling in Medellín for decades, whether to escape violence or to seek new economic opportunities. Between 1951 and 1973 the city’s population tripled, and it has almost tripled again to reach its current population of roughly 2.4 million. As in other major Latin American cities, much of this growth occurred with no controls, often on steep hillsides vulnerable to landslides.

“One of the major problems cities like ours have in the urbanization process, is with people who decide to occupy, invade, or construct on land that is not suitable for settlement due to unstable land conditions,” says Jorge Perez, director of urban planning under the former mayor Aníbal Gavíria, who initiated the Metropolitan Greenbelt project in 2012. An estimated 180,000 Medellín families live in zones at risk of landslides, according to environmental researchers at the University of Antioquia.

Medellín’s leaders still want the city to grow. But they would like it to grow more dense in the places that are already built up, rather than continuing to sprawl up the hillsides. And the Greenbelt is a major tool to make this happen. “The city is now becoming organized in order to be able to grow,” Perez says. “Organized and sustainable. And vertically, rather than horizontally.”

A vast area

The Metropolitan Greenbelt is massive in scope. It’s expected to extend for 74 kilometers (46 miles) along the mountain ridges. Construction of housing, recreation and parks facilities began three years ago and is expected to take until at least 2030. All of the action is at or above an altitude of 1,800 meters (5,900 feet).

We recently went out to see for ourselves how this ambitious project is progressing. The initial work is happening in the city’s eastern districts, including Villamizar’s neighborhood of La Sierra. It’s a 20-minute drive up from the center to get here—eventually, it will be possible to ride up by gondola (known here as MetroCable). As we drove higher, the streets became narrower and steeper. The air also became noticeably cleaner, the sun a little bit brighter.

Along the ridge, large neon letters spell out “Jardin Circunvalar.” This is the first section of the Greenbelt, and still very much a construction zone. The sound of bulldozers drown out the peaceful crowing of cockerels and the muffled sounds of the city below.

Joaquin Foronda Zapata, a social worker in the La Sierra neighborhood, carries bags full of resumes from people who want to work on Greenbelt construction. (Yvonne Brandwijk)

“It’s just like a jungle,” says Maria Mercedes Penagos, 67, pointing to the refuse and mud on the patio of her small roadside shop. She believes the short-term pains of construction will bring gains to her business later. In fact, coffee sales are already up as visitors come up from the city below, curious about the park and encouraged by the drop in violence. Penagos used to keep the shutters to her shop closed even during the day but now they are always open. “It used to be 24 hours of night here,” she says, “but now I even dare go out in the evening.”

A short walk away is the neighborhood’s biggest draw: El Camino de la Vida, a 12-kilometer (7-mile) walking trail along the mountain slope offering spectacular views of the valley. Giant redwoods have been planted along both sides of the path—36,000 of them, according to a billboard. Together with a new irrigation system and some terracing, the trees will reduce the risk of landslides.

Eduardo Lodoño says this path used to be known to locals as the Camino de la Muerte—the “path of death”—because gangs would hang the bodies of their enemies from the trees here. Lodoño is an agricultural engineer with Empresa de Desarollo Urbano, or EDU, the public agency overseeing development of the Greenbelt plan. “We wanted to free this place from the terror and give it back to the population,” he says, “and to transform it into a place where people can meet, play sport and enjoy recreational activities together.”

On the exact spot where urban guerrillas once kept their headquarters, there is now an open-air gym—something the locals said they wanted. Lodoño adds that the spot will be watched over by security cameras. A lot might have changed, but Comuna 8 is not yet entirely safe—as we find out later, when Lodoño warns us about three young men who have been following us from a higher mountain.

The walking trail and an adjoining cycle path are making a significant contribution to goals local authorities have set regarding public space. In 2014, Medellín had a meager 4 square meters of public space per resident. By 2030, with help from the Greenbelt, that measure will shoot up to more than 15 square meters per person.

The Greenbelt will dramatically increase Medellín’s amount of public space per person. (Yvonne Brandwijk)

The Greenbelt will also help tackle food security. A recent study by the local Archdiocese Food Bank revealed that more than half of Medellín’s children go to bed hungry. Together with the local residents, Lodoño has turned some of the erosion-fighting terraced areas into plots where neighbors can plant kitchen gardens. According to Blanca Serna, one of the gardeners, it was the best idea of the whole project.

Like many of her neighbors, Serna, a mother of seven, is originally from the countryside. As a young girl, she learned from her grandparents how to grow vegetables. Now, she also has learned from a five-month agro-ecology course at her local community center how to sow and grow crops at altitude. Blanca and her family live from what they grow in the garden. In the future, she hopes she can start a market to sell food she grows and use the proceeds to buy foodstuffs she can’t grow, such as rice and sugar.

“This allows us to kill two birds with one stone,” Lodoño says. “Removing the problem of hunger, while reducing the risk of natural disasters through the creation of terraces.”

‘Now they feel included’

Not only is El Camino de la Vida a beautiful walking route, but it also marks the new boundary of the city of Medellín. It is not permitted to build on the rough mountain landscapes above the trail. The question is whether future migrants to Medellín, seeking shelter, will observe this new rule. Lodoño thinks they will.

“If a community realizes that its land is not just for building on, but that it is also for increasing the quality of life and creating opportunities—for example to grow food—then it will prevent building from taking place,” he says. “But then it has to be a place they want to protect; one that gives them a living, makes them happy and offers them a future.”

Blanca Serna’s family live on food they grow in one of the Greenbelt’s gardens. (Yvonne Brandwijk)

A frequent criticism of this plan is that if the city is putting an end to informally settling the hillsides, then it needs to invest more in affordable housing within the city. City leaders are aware of this problem but haven’t yet found any large-scale solutions.

In addition, some residents of the hillside neighborhoods are worried about the plans to upgrade the existing settlements. In particular, the message that houses built in dangerous locations are to be pulled down or modified is creating unease. “They want to put us in flats,” says one local resident, who wants to remain anonymous. “Where will I start my shop then?”

Such fears are not unfounded. Everyone in Medellín knows Nuevo Occidente, a bunch of uninspiring tower blocks where the old invisible borders run right through the buildings; here, gangs don’t claim particular streets, but whole storeys.

Lodoño promises there are no flats in the plans, and that if people do need to be relocated they will stay within the same neighborhood. He says the vast majority of the houses will be upgraded, not torn down. For example, when a group of engineers from the university came to inspect Blanca Serna’s house, they concluded her “ranchito” could be rebuilt with an extra bedroom and running water. Perhaps most important of all, for the first time in Serna’s life, she’ll get an official deed saying she owns the house.

The Jardin Circunvalar has brought the government back in to neighborhoods that were for a long time neglected. The higher reaches of Comuna 8 were not even accessible by bus or car owing to the steepness of the slopes. The two cable cars that soon will be operational should change this. Within a few minutes, the residents will be able to get down into the city, where they can use the tram or metro. Measures such as this mean the people here now, for the first time, feel part of the city. “Once they were the leftovers of the society,” Lodoño says. “Now they feel included.”

Terraced gardens not only provide a place for locals to grow food but also help prevent landslides on the steep slopes. (Yvonne Brandwijk)

One strength of the Medellín model is public participation. The Jardin Circunvalar is a prime example of what leaders here call “social urbanism.” Citizens are not just asked to contribute ideas about the Greenbelt, but also to take an active role in its realization. All of the workers are local—30 percent are women—and they all have been given training in basic construction skills. Lodoño says this is an essential part of the project.

“Colleagues who are now working together previously lived in neighborhoods that were involved in conflicts,” he says. “It is possible that one worker’s brother could have shot the brother of his colleague.” This has not yet resulted in conflict. “They are more likely to forgive than seek revenge,” Lodoño says. “These people have plumbed the absolute depths together. Everyone wants a new start—with respect, peace and quiet, and collegiality.”

For Juan Villamizar, the construction job earns him less income than he made as a drug runner. But living in peace is worth it, he says, as is helping to build a new future for his part of the city. “I can spend years working on the Jardin Circunvalar,” he says. “And then when it’s finished here, I have the qualities to work somewhere else in construction.”

This story originally appeared on Citiscope. Reporting for this article was supported by the ‘Innovation in Development Reporting Grant’ program of the European Journalism Centre, which is financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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