Design Away Crime: Medellín’s Doing It With Public Works

The former mayor of Medellín, Sergio Fajardo, talks about how public-works projects can fight crime and bring safety to blighted neighborhoods.

Sergio Fajardo


Can a crime-ridden city ever be transformed? And can design play a role in that transformation? Absolutely, on both counts–and a prime case study is the work of Medellín’s former mayor, Sergio Fajardo (pictured), and its former director of urban projects Alejandro Echeverri. They recently netted the the $100,000 Curry Stone Prize for Transformative Public Works.

Change Observer has a piece about how they pulled off such a coup:

The city’s
renewal wasn’t limited to a particular area, but encompassed many
neighborhoods, including some of the poorest. Moreover, in an unusual
strategic shift that would have shocked urban developers of Robert
Moses’s generation, the people living in these slums were consulted
about the plans. At the same time, the city allocated money to sweeping
social programs, such as education and micro-lending to small

Stunning architecture was also part of the project, including Sergio
Gomez’s Jardin Botánico-Orquideorama, an orchid garden housed in a
42,200-square-foot building with a canopy of wood-framed hexagons. And
in keeping with Fajardo’s oft quoted remark that, “our most beautiful
buildings must be in our poorest areas,” the Parque Biblioteca España,
a striking library designed by Giancarlo Mazzanti that resembles three
massive black boulders, was sited on a hilltop in a barrio once known
only for drug violence and death. An elevated gondola tramway connects
many poor and neglected neighborhoods to the rest of the city. Schools
and community centers were built, and expenditures on education
received a massive increase, totaling 40 percent of the city’s annual
$900 million budget.

A bit like Barack Obama, Fajardo is a standout example of an academic turned technocrat–before politics, he was a math professor, and he holds a ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, he’s running for president. 


In Medellín, Fajardo’s idea was that big public spaces in impoverished areas would draw people of incomes into places they normally avoid–thus igniting economic development in the surrounding area.

Farjardo isn’t the only Colombian mayor to have become an internationally acclaimed urban thinker: Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogota, has been lauded for creating one of the world’s best (and most cost-effective) public-bus systems. But both men don’t currently hold office–perhaps a testament to the prospects for effecting change in such a roiling political atmosphere.

For more on Farjado, check out Change Observer, or read these profiles in Newsweek and The New York Times. And here are the two works, mentioned above:


The Jardin Botánico-Orquideorama designed by Sergio
Gomez (image via):


Parque Biblioteca España, designed by Giancarlo Mazzanti:



About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.


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