Recently I came across Sergio Fajarda in an article in the alumni magazine of UW-Madison, which unfortunately I can't locate on line. From 2003-2007 Fajarda was the mayor of Medellin, Columbia, where he instituted a program of social transformation through city building. In the 1980s and 90s Medellin, the second largest city in Columbia, was known for drug trafficing and home to the eponymous cartel led by Pablo Escobar. At the height of the city's violence in 1991, there were 6,349 homicides, or 381 per 100k people.
In this excellent interview with Charlie Rose Fajarda describes his idea as an attempt to "change the skin of the city", a phrase which I love. His program was to decrease crime (largely through more policing) and immediately follow up with social interventions as a way of crystallizing (literally) the gains made in the reductions of violence. These interventions took the shape of increased transportation infrastructure and the building of "opportunity spaces" (park-libraries, schools, cultural centers) to better connect and bring additional services to the city's poor. In a 2007 feature in the New York Times Fajarda stated, "Our most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas."
And it worked. In 2006, the homicide rate was down to 29 per 100k residents, on par with Oakland today. Though obviously not all of these gains are attributable to Fajarda, what stikes me is how his program compares with that of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums. Both have similar worldviews, their overriding goal being to reduce social inequality and provide a better life for their city's poorest residents. But in sharp contrast to Dellums, who's tired tropes of bringing people together and making a model city have resulted in few actual policy proposals, Fajardo's plans have done exactly that.
Which leaves us with the words of Medellin mechanic Jamie Quizeno, speaking to NY Times reporter Simon Romero on the Biblioteca de Espana (image above) designed by Giancarlo Mazzanti, "It looks like an enormous cloud when it is illuminated at night. Such a beautiful thing, right here with us, who would have imagined that?"