The numbers speak for themselves: a conversation with the Mayor of Medellín

The first day of the Challenges of Government Conference featured a conversation with the mayor of the world’s most innovative city, Medellín, Colombia, moderated by the Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government, Professor Ngaire Woods.

Dean Ngaire Woods in conversation with Mayor Anibal Gaviria.

Dean Ngaire Woods in conversation with Mayor Anibal Gaviria.

In line with the theme of this year’s conference “Flourishing Cities”, BSG hosted the mayor of Medellín, Aníbal Gaviria, to offer his insights into the remarkable transformation of his city over the past two decades from “the city of death” to “the world’s most innovative city”.
The most important lesson we can draw from Medellín’s experience, according to Mayor Gaviria, is that continuity is crucial for the sustainability of public policies. Despite the fact that the city has been governed by four mayors from different political parties over the past quarter century, he attributes the city’s achievements to their collective efforts, which were largely based on unified objectives. The residents of Medellín have voted for the continuity of innovative policies, irrespective of the governors involved.
Asked what the major challenges he faced as a mayor, Mr Gaviria said violence and inequality constituted both challenges and metrics for success. He believes that greater equality and reducing the sense of injustice are the twin solutions to violence. Twenty years ago, Medellín was the world’s most violent city, with homicide rates twice as high as today’s highest global rates. Today, however, the city’s homicide rate is below the average rates in Colombia and Latin America. Moreover, the extreme poverty rate has reached 3 percent, down from 8 percent twenty years ago.
Gaviria pointed out that successive governments considered education as the most effective tool to counter inequality and violence. In most cases, young people are either the victims or perpetrators of violence. Thus, educating them would contribute to the reduction of violence by turning them away from crime, the mayor added.
He pointed out that the improvements in Medellin’s public transportation system are key to advancing equality, because of their role in integrating citizens from different socioeconomic backgrounds. People from all income levels use the underground, for instance, while the new Metrocable system connects the previously marginalised residents of mountains to the city centre. Continuing to develop the public transport system is the strategy of the current government to address the problem of inequality.
He added that the river-park project launched in mid-2014 aims at erasing barriers among citizens by providing a shared public space for recreation.
The Mayor also cited the example of the flower festival held in August every year, where 700,000 citizens gather to watch a flower parade. This parade, in his view, is a manifestation of equality among citizens.
He stressed the importance of building trust between citizens and their government for the advancement of citizenship. As mayor of Medellín, Gaviria adopts the approach of “pedagogical urbanism” (in Spanish: urbanismo pedagógico), which means involving citizens in public policy decision-making. One example of this approach is a project called Jornadas de Vida y Equidad (which can be translated as “Life and Equality Days”) – a series of one-day meetings between the mayor and some 2,000 citizens at a public place in various neighbourhoods, where they discuss infrastructure projects scheduled to be launched in these areas.

For more on Medellín, have a look at this interview with mayor Gaviria by McKinsey&Company.

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