Tragedy can break us, or it can spark a fire of determination, resilience, and growth. This statement is as true for the Colombian city of Medellín as it is for the person who made it happen. Chief Resilience Officer Santiago Uribe Rocha tells us how meeting Nelson Mandela influenced his work in conflict resolution and how this led to the transformation of Columbia’s second city from one of the world’s most dangerous to one of its most admired.
In his own words, Santiago was raised in Colombia in “very challenging circumstances”. His mother nevertheless taught him that anything can be achieved through hard work. He took this to heart. Seemingly equipped with an insatiable thirst for learning, Santiago now holds two master’s degrees and is working towards a PhD on urban systems. His bachelors in anthropology, however, took 21 years to complete due to a scholarship that took him to South Africa. His involvement in the peace process was the start of an incredible journey of transformation.
The Menace in Medellín
Peace is important. It is number 16 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The idea, Santiago explains, is that:
“We won’t have peace if there is no prosperity for everyone. And we won’t have prosperity if there is no peace for everyone.”
Medellín was once regarded as the most dangerous city in the world, in part because of cartels using violence to assert their hold.
Santiago explains: “In 1991, the President appointed a Minister for Peace for Medellín. Imagine how bad the situation was, that your President had to appoint a minister specifically for a city that was collapsing due to violence.”
They quickly realised that violence and the illegal drug trade were not the root of the problems: inequality and socio-spatial segregation were.
Realising this, the authorities set up round tables in each of the metropolis’ neighbourhoods. The objective of this process, now called “alternative futures”, was to establish a united vision for the city with the people who faced division in the past. Coincidentally, Santiago adds, it “was exactly the same principle applied in South Africa” via Nelson Mandela’s LPCs: local peace committees.
Our CityChanger was the bridge between the two nations. He pounced on the opportunity to connect the people in charge of both sets of peace negotiations “to start talking about it, to learn from each other’s experiences”. Santiago led a delegation where Colombian President César Augusto Gaviria Trujillo visited South African President de Klerk: although modest about his “indiscreet” support for the process, this was significant. These discussions, held informally, would underpin Santiago’s own approach to violence management in Medellín.
Back in Colombia, an earthquake prompted Santiago to head to the city of Armenia to help design a recovery programme. What he saw and heard there was heart-breaking.
“People were telling me, in front of the houses that were rubble, ‘We can explain what happened, but you cannot understand what we feel right now’.”
He heard the same words a few years later from people who lost everything to a devastating flood. It affected most of Colombia’s 1,126 municipalities. That led Santiago to think about what a resilient urban system really is.
“I understood that basically the city is not what you see, but what we construct culturally and as social entities. Everything that is behind all those values is exactly what we miss when we focus just on the infrastructure.”
“Cities and nations are not maps or boundaries and roads, but people.”
Resilient Cities Network
Having returned to Medellín after 16 years, the unthinkable happened. A 28-floor building collapsed. Among the apartments was Santiago’s home. Gone. Now he too knew that feeling.
“I was in a wealthy neighbourhood,” he reflects. “I thought to myself, ‘If this happens to us, imagine in those areas where inequality has brought so many differences in terms of the quality of life’. How difficult it is to sort out an event like this!”
Through this chain of circumstances, and thanks to his expertise in conflict management, Santiago was nominated as the city’s Chief Resilience Officer. He was only the second to be appointed globally.
This was part of the Rockefeller Foundation‘s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which created a network of cooperation and shared learning. Of almost 400 cities that applied, Medellín “was the only one that approached resilience from a social perspective”. While others focussed on structural integrity – infrastructure providing security from landslides, tsunamis, and the like – “in our case, it was how the city was able to learn and recover from urban violence. That’s how we understood our capacity to become a resilient city,” Santiago explains.
“Resilience is about learning how much and how you can apply the lessons learned from your past, to design and plan for your future.”
When Violence Provides the Answer
Tackling violence featured heavily in the city’s resilience strategy, and Medellín dropped out of the ‘top 50 most violent cities’ charts in the 2000s. That’s an astonishing turnaround. How did they manage it?
Our CityChanger initiated a familiar methodology: talking through the main issues with stakeholders of all levels to establish a consensus for what the future city should be.
“We need to really achieve peace by talking at every single level,” especially to the everyday citizens. “The essence of peace is people, is on the ground.”
It was from this that PUIs, Integrated Urban Plans (in Spanish, Proyectos Urbanos Integrales) implemented a House of Justice in every community to curb youth violence. Education and job creation were also a focus of the resilience strategy. This was aimed at levelling equity and generating opportunities for the diverse population. The now famed “two aerial cable-car lines connecting high-density hilly neighbourhoods”, writes UCL’s Development Planning Unit, sought to “integrate large marginalised areas, marked by years of severe poverty and violence, into the urban fabric”.
Medellín is now a much safer place. However, through the 100 Resilient Cities network, Santiago still teams up with other municipalities dealing with familiar problems. In this way, they exchange knowledge on conflict resolution and violence prevention.
Porto Alegre in South Brazil, for example, replicated Medellín’s idea by constructing six Houses for Youth Violence Prevention. Our CityChanger emphasises how ideas “can really inspire others to take them forward, and to be adapted and modified to form a new idea that could be the solution for one of the challenges in your own city”.
Change: An Abstract Notion
Santiago admits there’s still work to be done. Planning to take a year off to focus on his passion for cycling, he will soon appoint a successor. Allowing the ‘next generation’ to take plans forwards is in keeping with his push to empower the population.
Medellín’s resilience champion offers us a warning about change, too. “It requires not only an effort by the municipalities, but it has to also be an effort by the citizens to claim back the power of participation and community organisation.”
But success can be difficult to pinpoint. In a digital age where communication is lightning fast and the internet has normalised instant gratification, our expectations for immediate signs of value have become normalised.
In no small way, Santiago argues that this obsession (in a city context) is counterproductive. What we measure today is merely evidence that an action is taking place.
“That’s becoming a sort of blackhole. To show that you’re doing a lot is becoming your main effort and means we’re losing the perspective of the action.”
We must be clear, Santiago suggests, that true impact takes time to filter through.
Impact Takes Time
Medellín, for example, has been tackling malnutrition. Aside from having fewer hungry children today, the real benefits won’t be seen for decades to come. When the kids on the programme become adults, we will understand how “they were able to properly develop a better brain and to study and be part of a superior education programme and to become professionals”. Which, it’s worth noting, is an opportunity their parents likely did not have.
Another example: “If you’re designing a metro line that you expect 100,000 people to ride every day, and you see that 98,000 ride it every day, you’re doing it well. You see your action is taking place. But the impact of how that metro line changed people’s lives, you can only see that a few years down the line.” It’s about more than getting from A to B. Easier access to education, work, and health services can improve equity, social mobility, and quality of life.
“We need metro lines. We need hospitals. We need schools. But we need them not to be good and beautiful and very well designed with good architecture and to be proud of them; we need them because we want the quality of life to be better for every single citizen.”
Advice: Get Things Done!
Having said that, immediate action is important.
Medellín’s resilience strategy took more than two years to create. But at the end of the process, in Santiago’s own words, “it doesn’t mean anything. The ideas are locked in a book and that becomes a frustration.”
He has learnt from this experience: “As you’re planning, start to implement some of those ideas. Quickly. Immediately! So that people see the planning process as a living entity.” Kickstart the change.
“City changes take place on daily basis. Don’t wait to see them in the future.”
An Officer and a Gentleman
If another city were to appoint a Resilience Officer, what skills should they look for?
“Have good ears. Being able to hear all the ideas is a key element if you are in a job like this.”
One of the main challenges today, Santiago outlines, is that city planning can be a very egocentric domain. City administrators and holders of office often push their own agendas. They pursue their own ideas rather than what citizens want, advise, and need. In other words, they form cities through the lens of an ‘egosystem’ rather than an ecosystem of people; they pursue exposure and recognition, not what’s best for the city.
A true leader, our CityChanger believes, “wants to be in power to give power away”.
“I learned that from President Mandela. He understood that immediately when he was in power, there is a way to be the right leader. When you have power, it is important not to keep it but to give the power away and to give the power to key elements that are able to bring more and more people together and amplify that power.”
Building Resilience in a Nutshell
We need city officials to put power back into the hands of the people. Citizens need to reconnect with it and use it. Medellín’s Chief Resilience Officer understands how social and cultural constructs are as – if not more – important than the physical form of our urban centres. Even the most problematic circumstances and injustices can be overcome if we talk and listen to each other.
Modesty may deny him a place in the history books alongside the likes of President Mandela, but there’s no denying that the name Santiago Uribe Rocha will forever be irrevocably linked to the accession of peace.
This is just a fraction of this remarkable tale of transformation. Learn more about Medellín with our Life-Sized City video featuring Santiago himself.