Seeing Medellín Through the Eyes of a Copenhagener

At this point, it’s cliché to say Medellín, Colombia, is a prime example of what urban planning can achieve. But seeing the city through the eyes of a bike evangelist from one of the most perfectly designed cities in the world, you’ll appreciate that success on a whole new level.

That’s what Mikael Colville-Andersen does in the first episode of his new documentary series “The Life-Sized City.” The CEO of the Copenhagenize Design Co. and one of the world’s leading consultants on bicycle infrastructure, Colville-Andersen travels from his hometown of Copenhagen to Colombia’s second city to explain how this urban center went from being the murder capital of the world to a symbol of hope for Latin America.

In Colville-Andersen’s eyes, real-life Medellín doesn’t match its caricatures, neither a haven for drug lords nor the model of urbanist perfection. He showcases the life-changing urban projects like the cable-car or the public escalators that have made life easier for the poor communities in the hills, as well as the still very real car dependency in the city. This, of course, is not unintentional. In this first season of a show that highlights examples of cities improving toward a human scale, he conspicuously avoids traveling to Danish cities, instead favoring urban centers that are far from perfect, but with a lot of lessons, conflicts and, above all, promise.

CityLab spoke to Colville-Andersen via email about the Medellín and the TV series—which premieres September 10 on TVO in Canada, and soon after in other countries.

You filmed episodes about Medellín, Toronto, Paris, Bangkok, Tokyo, and Tel Aviv. How and why did you choose these cities in particular?

We wanted to present cities with a varied typology. If we filmed cities that were close to fulfilling the criteria of a life-sized city, we would spend years circling around Scandinavia and perhaps The Netherlands. Not exciting television. In the first season, Tokyo is our most life-sized city, but we have a rough selection method for the others, trying to spread the concept out globally. A famous city, Paris; a chaotic city, Bangkok; a North American city, Toronto; a surprising city, Medellín; a divided city, Tel Aviv. These typologies are not carved in stone, but they help us present a list of cities that offer the viewer a bit of everything.

The desire for a life-sized city is universal among urban citizens. It exists in the most interesting and unusual places. We want our cities to improve, and citizens are taking matters into their own hands. Both through bottom-up influencing of policymakers and policymakers inspiring citizens.

What struck you about Medellín?

Through my work, I knew the narrative of the city’s development over the past 10 years or so. I had heard about their crazy, visionary projects. What struck me most was seeing them. Realizing they were real, in operation, and successful. There is always a lot of hype about such cities, so cutting through it to see the real deal is important—and Medellin, man, it’s the real deal. From murder capital of the world, thanks to the Pablo Escobar legacy, to urbanist darling. All real. All true. All amazing. And the people making it happen are so inspiring on so many levels.

Why do you think Medellín has been successful in getting rid of its own crime-driven city stereotype to become what it is now?

Compared with the other cities in Season 1, Medellín is unique in that the transformation was top-down. Former Mayor Sergio Fajardo and his team were instrumental in starting the ball rolling, and the citizens, ever since, have picked up the ball and ran. It was never about architecture or transport. It was, from the very beginning, about social change and social urbanism. It was about dignity for the citizens. The solutions put into place are amazing, but they are a response to the needs of the citizens and not just urban bling. When you design for recognition, you might make nice, shiny things that hopefully are functional. When you design for social change and dignity, you make beautiful, useful things that will improve lives and last for generations.

What were your favorite spots in Medellín?

The epicenter of urban change is the area around the botanical gardens. A no-man’s land for ages, it is now the symbol of renewal.

Comuna 8 will not feature on TripAdvisor, and you can’t go there, as it is gang-controlled, but visiting this insanely life-sized neighborhood—a former slum with DIY houses along wonderfully narrow streets—was so inspiring. Meeting Hector, a local who was tired of seeing all his friends die in the drug wars, now teaches local kids hip-hop dance in order to give them other options for their lives. Powerful stuff.

Granizal is another area that is gang-controlled and it is a shantytown high up the mountain, far from the city center. Colombia has millions of internally displaced migrants who settle illegally, and this is one of the newest extensions to the wild urban landscape. Not recognized by the city, Granizal is an amazing community that insists on existing at the edge of the city.

Ride the cable cars! The MetroCable system is brilliant and the Metro that it connects to is fantastic. Go on a graffiti tour in Comuna 13 and see the outdoor escalators that help citizens get down the mountain to connect to public transport while you’re at it. Finally, there is El Reguero flea market in downtown. What a wild place.

What do you think about Latin American cities and urbanism? Any challenges ahead? Are they failing or succeeding?

There are darlings like Curitiba, Bogota, and, to some extent Rio de Janeiro and Santiago, Chile. Bogota’s reputation is pretty well-established and the other cities have many interesting projects over the past couple of decades. Bus Rapid Transit is one of the main things that comes to mind in the region, and that is an inspiration for many other cities. But it’s a massive continent and baby steps are the norm, as opposed to full-on urban transformation like in Medellín. On a global scale, Latin American cities are more aware of the need for change, but their politics often cause them to stagnate or stumble.

Finally, you got a Medellin-grid tattoo on your right shoulder, can you talk a bit more about that?

I had already begun my urban map tattoo with Paris and Montreal. Before we started shooting, I realized that it would be cool to add bits and pieces of the cities I visited. If a segment really touches me on a personal level, I will get that part of the city inked into my map. You’ll have to see the other episodes to see what other urban fragments I ended up adding.

This interview has been edited. This post originally appeared in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.