Guest Article: Slum Tourism and City Branding in Medellin

Informal settlements in Medellin. Photo: Jaime Hernandez-Garcia, 2011.

Informal settlements in Medellin. Photo: Jaime Hernandez-Garcia, 2011.

by Jaime Hernandez-Garcia*

Since the 1990s the second biggest city of Colombia, Medellin, is undertaking programmes and projects in informal settlements, to try integrate them both physically and socially to the urban fabric. Public space upgrade and community services such as schools and libraries designed by prestigious architects have enriched the atmosphere and to some extent the quality of life, in these impoverished areas. To the point that the barrios of Medellin are commonly visited not only by Colombians but also by international visitors who want to see first-hand the projects and how the settlements and the city have changed.

Medellin, perhaps without noticing or anticipating, has found a role for informal settlements in branding the city, and promoting the tourism to those areas.

Informal settlements

Informal settlements are a consistent part of Latin American cities. Bogota for example, more than 50% has grown from informal patterns, with unplanned developments in public and private invaded land or in illegal subdivisions of rural land which later on is added to the city. These settlements are to a large extent what residents have made up of them, by means of self build and self help practices.

Informal settlements in Bogotá. Photo: Jaime Hernandez-Garcia, 2005.

Informal settlements in Bogotá. Photo: Jaime Hernandez-Garcia, 2005.

Informal settlements are much more than streets and houses; they have to be with social, economic and cultural characteristics, and politics and governance as well. For some, urban informality “emerges under a paradigm of liberalization”, and can not be understood outside the context of globalization as an alternative way of thinking and performing, “… urban informality not only as a political economy but also as a way of life” (Alsayyad, 2004: 26-27). If informal settlements are majority in cities in Latin America, display a particular architecture and urban space, and exhibit especial social and cultural characteristics; why are they marginalised and to some extent “invisible” for some policies? For example, for tourism strategies and city branding projects?

The Transformation of Medellin

In the 1980s and 1990s Medellin had the highest rate of murders in Colombia and one of the highest in the world; and that violence was especially associated within formal settlements. Today, the rate of crime has dropped dramatically ( ; the city is the most competitive of Colombia for business and tourism (

One of the major shifts was to focus in poor areas, traditionally overlooked and marginalised. In this sense the implementation in 2004 of an aerial cable car (metro cable) as a public transportation system connected to the main line of the metro and to reach hillside barrios was truly a revolution. “It has attracted widespread attention from city authorities throughout Latin America, as well as Europe and Asia” (Brand and Davila, 2011: 648). Brand and Davila (2011: 658) questions the effects in terms of mobility because it caters for less than 10% of daily trips in the barrios, but they confirm the huge benefits in terms of symbolic value: “These high visible infrastructures and the aesthetic experience they afford to both residents and visitors create a feeling of inclusion and integration into the modern city, help develop local pride and promote individual self-esteem”.

The metro cable. Photos: Jaime Hernandez-Garcia, 2011

The metro cable. Photos: Jaime Hernandez-Garcia, 2011

Libraries, schools, nurseries, public spaces and the recent mechanical stairs—barrio-de-medellin-estrena-escaleras-mecan.aspx  built in the barrios followed the same idea, strong impact landmarks designed by famous architects, providing a high symbolic value to the residents, which at the same attract attention of visitors.

A nursery recently built in one of the barrios. Photos: Jaime Hernandez-Garcia, 2012

A nursery recently built in one of the barrios. Photos: Jaime Hernandez-Garcia, 2012

But the transformation of Medellin is not only due to infrastructures, it has been “the result of a political maturation process along with a civil society engagement” (Perez-Ayala, 2012: 20). Sergio Fajardo´s (City Mayor between 2004 and 2008) team started the process, but it had gained continuity with the following municipal administrations, which it may be part of the answer for the success.

Medellin has been engaged with several social, economic and urban projects in the last years which have resulted in a transformation that now is seen as an example in the country and in the continent. Medellin in less than a decade has changed the face, from an insecure and violent city to a place of hope and interest. This has been called “social urbanism”.

Social Urbanism, a role of informal settlements in city branding?

Social urbanism is becoming a brand of Medellin. One of the first interventions of social urbanism, and the most well known and visited so far is the one developed in the North West hillside informal settlements: the “comuna nororiental”; one of the poorest barrios and with the highest crime rates of the city at that moment. The cable car was under construction, and the stations and the space underneath the aerial lines as the main subjects for providing public space, and connections to educational, cultural and recreational facilities.

A nursery recently built in one of the barrios. Photos: Jaime Hernandez-Garcia, 2012

A nursery recently built in one of the barrios. Photos: Jaime Hernandez-Garcia, 2012

The project focused in bringing infrastructure and urban facilities of great impact to the barrio to motivate social transformation. An example of this is the library “España”,, which has become an icon in the barrio and in the city, and “it has become the main reference point of the community promoting at the same time the education and the culture” (Echeverry and Orsini, 2010: 142); apart from attracting many visitors.

The library “España” from a distance Photos: Jaime Hernandez-Garcia, 2011.

The library “España” from a distance Photos: Jaime Hernandez-Garcia, 2011.

Social urbanism has not been going without criticism. Concerns about the costs of administration and maintenance of the infrastructures have been raised, and the architecture has been also questioned arguing ostentation, lack of originality and to be out of the context. But the main question is about if social urbanism is actually aiming to transform reality and reduce inequalities or it is just interested in building an image (Brand and Davila, 2011: 657) and pacify the comunas.


Despite criticisms social urbanism has made an important contribution to improve the quality of life of people in informal settlements of Medellin. And perhaps without anticipating it has helped to build an image of Medellin more authentic and highly distinguishable from other cities in Colombia and in Latin America. It has been also bringing tourism to the barrios, something that 10 years ago was unthinkable. Medellin has been constructing a model of urban and social development that is observed in other contexts and trying to be replicated in there. If city branding has to be with improving a place`s image against bad reputation and discrimination (Kalandides, 2011), with the creation of perceived value (Kavaratzis and Ashworth, 2005), and with increasing competitiveness by bringing tourism and investment within achieving community development and reinforcing local identity (Kavaratzis 2004); social urbanism and informal settlements are contributing for Medellin`s branding.


*Jaime Hernandez-Garcia is an architect at the Pontifica Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá.


  • Alsayyad, N. (2004) “Urban Informailty as a ‘New’ Way of Life”. In A. Roy and N. AlSayyad. (eds) Urban informality: transnational perspectives from the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia. Lexington Books, New York.
  • Brand, P and Davila, J. (2011) “Mobility Innovation at the Urban Margins, Medellin`s Metrocables”. City, Vol. 15, No 6, pp 647-661.
  • Echeverry, A and Orsini, F (2010) “Informalidad y Urbanismo Social en Medellin”. In M. Hermelin, A. Echeverry and J. Giraldo (eds) Medellin: Medio Ambiente, Urbanismo y Sociedad. Universidad EAFIT, Medellin, pp 130-152.
  • Kalandides, A. (2011) “City Marketing for Bogota: A Case Study in Integrated Place Branding”. Journal of Place Management and Development. Vol 4, No 3, pp 28-39.
  • Kavaratzis, M. (2004) “From City Marketing to City Branding: Towards a Theoretical Framework for Developing City Brands”. Place Branding, 1, pp 58-73.
  • Kavaratzis, M. and Ashworth, G. (2005) “City Branding: An Effective Assertion of Identity or a Transitory Marketing Trick?” Tijdschrift voor Economishe en Sociale Geografie, 96, pp 506-514.
  • Perez-Ayala, L. (2012) “Medellin, Modelo de Desarrollo Social Integral y Ciudad Laboratorio”. In Alcaldia de Medellin (ed). Laboratorio de Medellín, Catalogo de Diez Practicas Vivas. Mesa Editores, Medellin, pp 18-29.
This entry was posted in research and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Guest Article: Slum Tourism and City Branding in Medellin

  1. Martin Dolan says:

    Hi Jaime. Great article. I lived for 3 years in medellin and it inspired me to return to England to study a masters in Development. I studied architecture at undergraduate level and now hope to move on to Urban planning in violent or conflict areas. My dissertation is going to be about using architecture to heal communnities. For an independent study I am taking Medellin as a case study. Your article will be helpful for research. Can you tell me about some difficulties in researching about Medellin. Did you manage to talk to anyone involved in the planning and redsign of some of these projects?

  2. Pingback: Barrios, Cable Cars, and Slum Tourism in Medellin | Colombia Fantasia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s