A Colombian soldier stands guard in a slum in Buenaventura. Reuters/Pat Markey

Fifty years of conflict spurred chaotic urbanization in Colombia, but peace offers hope for a new future in the country’s urban centers.

This story was first published in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

Marina Rodriguez’s cinderblock house sits in a dense, crowded slum on the southwest outskirts of Bogotá. She built it herself, brick by brick, slowly replacing recycled plastic and wood over 20 years to build the permanent structure she lives in today. Since her kids have grown and left her, Marina says she sleeps alone in the house with God.

“If it hadn’t been for Him, I wouldn’t have been able to put up even half a wall,” Rodriguez said to Simon Hosie, a Colombian architect working in her neighborhood to build a community center and library called Casa de Valores. Hosie has worked with Marina and her neighbors in Ciudad Bolívar, one of the largest slums in Bogotá, to foster community participation in his project and find ways to improve life for the millions of people living in the city’s slums.

Rodriguez is part of a wave of Colombians who have been forced onto the outskirts of Colombia’s major cities, a large majority of them fleeing rural violence from the country’s 50-year-long civil war. A total 7.5 million people have been displaced inside the country, most of them to cities, where they have had no choice but to construct informal settlements on the periphery, illegally tapping into the city’s power lines and squatting on land.

Marina’s situation has improved somewhat: Her home, like those of many of her neighbors, has been legally recognized by the city, and she’s been given access to power, gas and water. But Colombia’s slums continue to be an urban planning (and human) disaster, lacking basic infrastructure and public space. Despite improvements, these neighborhoods continue to be riddled with violence.  

But all that could start to look different very soon: On Monday, Colombia’s government signed a long-awaited peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The deal is likely to be approved by referendum votes on October 2, ending the insecurity and violence that have destabilized the country’s urbanization process for decades, and potentially paving a new way forward for the country’s rural and urban people alike.

A chaotic urbanization

The Colombian conflict started around 1964, a fight between the government, paramilitaries, and revolutionary marxist guerrilla forces, the largest of which were the FARC. Almost every group involved has had ties to Colombia’s notorious drug-trafficking trade, which only increased violence and instability, particularly in rural areas where different groups fought for control of land.

The focus of violence in rural areas created a singular effect: In the space of just two generations, Colombia went from being 70 percent rural to 70 percent urban, packing population into unprepared cities in an incredibly fast and chaotic process—further destabilized by the constant violence.

According to a 2009 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross: “People are initially displaced to the nearest urban centers and subsequently—though not in all cases—families continue on to medium-sized or large cities,” mainly because of the greater security provided by increased distance from the original place of violence and the anonymity of a large city. The Brookings Institution reports that Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia, houses the largest number of displaced people in the country—more than 350,000 people have ended up there.

“We’ve ended up [in Colombia] with megacities that never had a chance to plan their elements of mobility, connectivity, public space, infrastructure, services,” says Hosie, who is in the middle of several architectural and urban planning projects throughout the country. “So currently, cities find themselves trying to solve basic problems of how to bring services to a huge number of neighborhoods that developed this way. And that obviously restricts the ability to focus on creating a city with good quality of life.”

Hosie calls the development of Colombia’s slums “dis-urbanism,” or the opposite of the progress and development associated with urbanism. But he clarifies that this process is neither the fault nor the responsibility of the people living in these places, but that of city leaders, who can take advantage of peace to create a new normal for cities.

Displaced from her countryside home because of guerrilla activity, Angie Chitiva, 8, stands in front of her home on the outskirts of Bogota. (AP Photo/Tomas Munita)

“For the poorest people, the best city”

One of the most crucial steps to progress is perhaps the most obvious: creating a city with good quality of life on the peripheries as well as in the center. That requires building infrastructure and increasing access to services in the poorest slums, which will take a huge monetary investment by city government—a potential challenge when it’s so tempting to spend that money on modernization and beautification projects in the parts of the city that have already developed as tourist attractions.

“How do we achieve what we want? By offering innovative connections, mobility options, parks, cultural events, and generally enriching these communities,” says Hosie. He contends that it’s crucial to respect the slums and the people who live in them as important parts of the city, instead of seeing them as blights on an otherwise great place to live. Hosie has tried to do that in his own work, which includes Casa de Valores in Ciudad Bolívar, a community library in the pueblo of Guanacas, and an art school in Buenaventura, a port city that was devastated by the conflict. All of his projects have begun with months or years of research into communities and their needs, a process he feels is integral to the development of poor neighborhoods.

The architecture professor Clemencia Escallon, of the Universidad de los Andes, has some similar ideas regarding investments in neighborhoods. “It is not necessary [as some have suggested] to rip people from their homes. They can stay, but the place has to be totally transformed,” she says. “This will certainly cost a lot of money. But what costs more? Having people marginalized and in the hands of mafias, or fixing this?”

Escallon contends that many city governments want to take the easy way out, building entirely new neighborhoods in different parts of the periphery and expecting that people from the slums will just move. But she says that this doesn’t solve the essential problem at hand. “This shouldn’t be about those far-away poor people over there. We need to give them options that are actually sites of development, not poverty traps in the periphery,” she says. “I always tell my students: for the poorest people, the best city.”

Colombia has reason to be optimistic that these steps are possible. Medellin, one of its largest cities, has been an example of success heralded the world over: Once known as the murder capital of the world (and the birthplace of Pablo Escobar), the city has become drastically safer and more livable for its inhabitants, as well as being a rising tourist destination. This is largely due to the implementation of “social urbanism,” a strategy closely in line with the suggestions of Hosie and Escallon. As it developed a new governance model starting in the 1990s, the city reserved the best public projects for the poorest areas, and always sought community input—even from criminals and drug dealers, when necessary. Medellin’s success could be difficult to duplicate, but it shows part of what’s possible for the cities in the region.

A new urban-rural relationship

The second major reconfiguration is perhaps less obvious, but no less important: urban experts and Colombian political leaders all appear to agree that it’s necessary to rethink the country’s urban-rural relationship. Over the past half-century, the country’s rural spots have been largely viewed as areas of violence, while urban centers have been considered areas of development and modernization.

“The dynamic has to change in terms of the urban-rural relationship. Rural life is not a viable option for anybody in Colombia,” says Escallon. “With the end of the conflict, we surely won’t have to worry about displacement anymore. But if there are no options or alternatives for people in the countryside, they’re going to keep coming into the city.”

A continued influx of people will almost certainly lead to a growth of informal settlements on the periphery, since the poor have few or no viable housing options in the city itself. Stemming that tide is crucial to being able to rebuild the peripheries with a cohesive urban plan.

But after so many years of disinvestment and violence, it’s no easy task to make rural life an attractive (or even livable) choice. Rural areas lack resources even more than slums do, going without real education systems, health-care access, and basic necessities like drinking water and electricity. “We have to generate conditions in the countryside such that people will want to return there, and at the same time, people already living there won’t have to migrate to cities to access basic services”, says Carlos Eduardo Correa, the former mayor of Montería in Colombia and a staunch advocate of the peace deal. “We need to enact public policies that reform rural places, the way the peace agreement calls for.”

Rural rejuvenation is, in fact, a key part of the peace deal, one that acknowledges all that was taken away from displaced farmers over the past 50 years. Colombia used to have a core rural identity that began unraveling with sudden urbanization and continued violence in the countryside, but it hasn’t lost its value for everyone.

“Colombia denies its rural identity. The state has now totally abandoned the countryside,” says Omar Cordero, a resident of a small pueblo in the department of Cauca. His parents were yucca and maize farmers who were displaced from their lands by violence in the ‘70s. “If for 50 years we haven’t looked at rural areas positively because of the conflict, now that it’s ended, we can recognize that rural people are important here. And not just because they produce food, but because they have their own culture—the culture of Colombia.”

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