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Medellín’s Integrated Urban Projects

A Planning Tool to Reduce Socio-Spatial Inequality

Luisa Sotomayor

May 2021, English

The second-largest city in Colombia, Medellín, has 2.5 million inhabitants, and the population of its metropolitan region totaled 3.9 million as of 2016. Medellín has an advanced level of connectivity and urban infrastructure, including the country’s only metro system and highest coverage of public utilities. The city also runs one of several successful municipal-owned utility companies, Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM). However, the city is also highly unequal and fragmented: Poverty is concentrated in the peripheral hillsides, where residents are exposed to environmental risks, such as landslides and floods, and a sizeable population lives in inadequate housing conditions with limited transportation infrastructure and few opportunities for education, employment, and social mobility. In the late 1980s, Medellín became a notorious hub of the global illicit drug economy, experiencing rising violence associated with both drug cartel wars and a national armed conflict. Together, that violence, urban inequality, and lack of opportunity led to both material and symbolic socio-spatial exclusions, resulting in the territorial stigmatization of residents in the hillsides. Following a series of national decentralization reforms and urban reform legislation in the late 1980s and 1990s, Medellín began experimenting with comprehensive planning to reduce the urban equity gap.

This case study examines Medellín’s experiments to improve social equity and human security via comprehensive planning instruments. In particular, it examines the Integrated Urban Project (Proyecto Urbano Integrado or PUI), a land-management tool implemented between 2004 and 2011 by the local government, intended to redistribute public investments to underserved neighborhoods. It shows the success of PUIs in enabling the integration of social policy, institutional capacity, and physical planning through complex interinstitutional coordination. It also argues that improved levels of service and access to infrastructure have reduced the locational disadvantage of peripheral neighborhoods where PUIs were implemented. Like other large-scale urban development operations, these projects are useful for encouraging participation while also enabling efficient implementation and flexibility to respond to local circumstances. Yet, PUIs require political leadership, significant coordination efforts, technical capacity, and large budgets dedicated to relatively small geographic areas, all of which limit the opportunities for policy sustainability and transferability to other contexts.


Inequality, Planning