When commentators speak about Medellín, Colombia they often point to the changes in the built environment as evidence of the miraculous transformation the city experienced in the last few decades. It went from the homicide capital of the world during the rein of Pablo Escobar to an awe inspiring city and winner of awards like Wall Street Journal’s Most Innovative City of 2012. The results of this transformation include various upgrades to the built environment with a focus on the underserved populations as well as the unification of the city with its citizens. These upgrades include new cable cars linking the metro to the hilltop communities, Parques Biblioteca (or Park Libraries), schools, public spaces, and bike lanes. The sum of these projects has resulted in the city’s inhabitants feeling not only like residents, but also like citizens, helping to improve residents’ relationship with the local government that suffered severely during the era of violence.
A few years ago I conducted a study of one of Medellín’s Parques Biblioteca, called Presbítero José Luis Arroyave – San Javier, located the city’s neighborhood 13 (locally known as comuna 13), and I am delighted to continuously find praise of the network of Parques Biblioteca in the media. Medellín’s five Parques Biblioteca, opening their doors in 2006 and 2007, and are a particular initiative that has made a big impact in the city’s most socially and physically vulnerable areas, resting on city’s hillsides. These multifunctional facilities deliver services to its citizen, such as traditional library services, sources for local information, literacy promotion, leisure and recreational offerings, cultural activities, and meeting spaces to foster community participation and entrepreneurship. The success of the Parques Biblioteca is due in large part to the fact that they provided tailor-made solutions that strengthened communities through educational and cultural services. In terms of urban planning, it is obvious that these Parques Biblioteca also fulfill a unique need for quality public spaces that generate community values and have the additional benefit of developing vitality in the city—both physically and virtually.
The Parques Biblioteca are a physical representation that reminds residents that its local government is focusing more on the social development of its citizens, rather than its previous main duties of managing the police and army to control violence associated with drug trafficking. Communities have noted changes brought by the Parques Biblioteca as improved vitality and public participation; increased law and order on the streets; and increased quality of life. These public spaces are the mixing bowls of the community: you can find people reading, chatting, exercising, playing various genres of music, and attending movies.
The innovative libraries helped community members create an identity and a sense of inclusion among disenfranchised residents, leaving behind the memory of the hostility that the drug cartels brought to the city for decades. Social investments like this one revitalize the community and dramatically improve the lives of the next generations thanks to a safer environment and a greater emphasis on education, and these investments will continue to be sources of feedback for the local government to better serve its communities in the future.
As we search for ways to create high quality public spaces, we must not fall into the trap of simplifying and replicating it in other places without analyzing the new context. Medellín’s Parques Biblioteca were and are successful because they solved the challenge of uniting the city and building trust with a solution that was uniquely local and responded to the needs of its citizens.