This is precisely where the development story of Medellin becomes interesting, with recent investment in large-scale infrastructural projects that are aimed squarely at those who live and breathe on the unsung edge of town. It began with a revolutionary library program and the Metro transportation system, and carries on today with a newly constructed outdoor escalator in one of the poorest parts of town. Built at a cost of around US$6.7 million, the project consists of two parallel motorized escalators that carry people up and down the steep jagged slopes of Medellin’s Comuna 13. The significance of this investment lies in its intent to improve the day-to-day lives of neighborhood residents who are saddled with economic disadvantages and ongoing struggles against local gang violence. Think about it: you head down into the city, work a full day, then have to hike up the equivalent of a 28-story building just to get home, and home is a place that is still navigating its way out of being one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world. How about a free, 5-minute escalator ride instead? Wouldn’t that make your life just a little easier?
Neighborhood residents could certainly use the break, particularly in light of Comuna 13’s turbulent history. It’s a minor miracle that the whole place hasn’t gone up in smoke given the range of destructive elements that have spent the past few decades warring over its control: everyone from leftist guerrillas to organized militias to the mafia and common street gangs have set up shop in Comuna 13 at one time or another. Further, steep hills, narrow streets and lots of lookout spots have made this an easy place for the bad guys to maintain control of; add in their overwhelming firepower, and you can see why they exert significant influence over the area to this day. While installing an escalator doesn’t resolve this issue, it is consistent with efforts to address the full range of Medellin’s population. Like the libraries and Metro before it, this escalator is a striking visual icon that carries a deliberate message in its geographic placement, in addition to providing real functionality for local residents. It’s a powerful way for civic leaders to cultivate community pride among poorer residents, allowing them to participate in the city’s remarkable transformation.
This notion of participation is key to understanding the overall objective here, as it illustrates local government’s attempt to avoid the sort of social exclusion that has led to class warfare in other development scenarios around the globe. Take Brazil for example: despite a roaring economy that has soared up to place 6th among all nations in nominal GDP, it is still home to vast numbers of people living in extreme poverty, residents who are completely disconnected from their nation’s economic success. It is notable that officials from Rio de Janeiro plan to visit Comuna 13 and investigate the possibility of installing a similar system of escalators in the famed favelas of their own impoverished hillsides.
Time will tell how this all works out, but at the very least this latest project illustrates the ongoing commitment to an innovative public works agenda that has delivered an important sense of pride to residents around the country. That’s worth something, isn’t it?
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