Urban innovation in Cali and Bogotá

By Jorge Bela

Colombia has undergone a remarkable transformation in the past fifteen years. The armed conflict that arose in the mid-twentieth century, aggravated by organized crime and drug trafficking, generated a massive wave of displaced people seeking refuge in the cities. This flow was in addition to the regular flow of immigrants from rural to urban areas that took place in Latin America as a whole during the same period. Colombian cities were unable to assimilate such rapid growth, and suffered a significant deterioration in living conditions. This was particularly so in medium-sized cities, such as Cali, which had relatively high living standards before the conflict erupted. Bogotá, as the capital and most populated city in Colombia, attracted the largest number of displaced people, giving rise to large slums in the south. Both cities became the target of attacks from armed groups, and became isolated under the fear of constant threat.

During the last fifteen years, the situation has changed substantially. Armed conflicts have been relegated to remote areas, and the cartels that controlled most of the drug trafficking have been dismantled. Lower levels of violence and sustained economic growth have made of Colombia an appealing destination for foreign investment. Following many decades of isolation and pessimism, Colombia now lives in an atmosphere of optimism and has become much more open to the world. Challenges in the urban area are still significant, including high levels of violence, a social inequality among the highest in the hemisphere, and considerable lack of infrastructure.

Still, both Cali and Bogotá have managed to put into place innovative urban solutions, either created locally or adapted from other cities in the region and elsewhere. Perhaps the best known example is Transmilenio, the bus-based mass transit system in Bogota. Originally created in Curitiba, Transmilenio was adapted locally to a much larger scale, and has been so successful that other large cities in Latin America and Asia have used it as a model. The success of urban initiatives in Cali and Bogotá, such as the reclaiming of public spaces and the comprehensive upgrading of informal settlements, were not only the consequence of a general improvement in Colombia's situation. Instead, they were an integral part of that process: improvements in the urban setting allowed for improvements to take place and be consolidated elsewhere in Colombian society.

Much of Cali and Bogota’s success can be credited to effective leadership. Political leaders have been able to forge alliances between the public and private sectors, and have been able to involve into the process an emerging generation of architects and urban planners. In addition, the citizens of both cities have largely accepted the new leadership, as it started to become clear that the worst years were being left behind. In Bogota this process has been somewhat hindered by corruption and other leadership problems, while Cali continues to plow ahead.

In this blog we will try to identify the most significant initiatives in the urban development processes being undertaken in Bogota and Cali. I hope it will become an open dialogue amidst those interested (in the progress and evolution) of these two cities, as well as those in the URB.IM community at large.

And now a few words about myself. Since 2010 I have been working as a freelance writer and journalist in Bogotá. Prior to that I worked at El Pais, Spain’s leading newspaper, and Analistas Financieros Internacionales. I also worked as a researcher at the European Latin American Research Institute and as project manager at the University at Albany, State University of New York. I have a M.A. in Latin American Studies from the University of Florida and completed the coursework for a PhD in comparative politics at the University at Albany.

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