Public Spaces, Private Neighborhoods

Today’s topic: The differences in Urban planning in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Medellín, Colombia. I swear, it’s actually quite interesting, so bear with me!

Today’s topic: The differences in Urban planning in São Paulo, Brazil, and Medellín, Colombia. I swear, it’s actually quite interesting, so bear with me!

I got the idea for this piece after listening to a particularly powerful episode of the 99% Invisible podcast called Post-Narco Urbanism (which I strongly suggest you check out).

In the episode, journalist Luis Gallo discusses the changing role of public spaces in Medellín throughout its recent history. Gallo grew up during the era where Pablo Escobar was at the height of his power and when the murder rate in Medellín, the cocaine and murder capital of the world at that time, was 400 out of 100,000, or 1 in 250 people.

The primary argument presented in the episode is that Medellín’s murder rate was vastly reduced from its peak in 1991 at least in part due to a progressive style of urban planning, called Social Urbanism. During the 1980’s several communities cropped up around the outskirts of the city, existing in a limbo where they were both residents of Medellín but also completely excluded from the heart of the city; a trip downtown from one of these “comunas” could take more than an hour.

Drug cartels “exploited the geographic fragmentation of the city” by recruiting “young people who felt disconnected” from the rest of Medellín while living in the comunas.

After the violence peaked in 1991, the municipal government of Medellín undertook drastic measures to combat the cartels, not through more policing, but through urban planning— this was the beginning of their experiment in Social Urbanism.

By creating a metro system and a set of cable cars and outdoor escalators to connect the comunas to the wider city, they aimed to reduce the overall rate of violence– today, the murder rate in Medellín has declined by 90%, and sociologists featured in the episode attribute a large portion of that change to the fostering of a more inclusive and interconnected city.

While listening to the episode, I was reminded a lot of paper I read for one of my classes titled: “Fortified Enclaves: The New Urban Segregation” by Teresa P. R. Caldeira.

The paper outlines the way in which Urban spaces in São Paulo, Brazil, have been redefined by private neighborhoods guarded by private security forces and surrounded by concrete walls topped with barbed wire. The supposed idea behind this style of development was, ostensibly, to decrease crime and fear in public spaces throughout the city. Caldeira argues that the new style of urban development in São Paulo is one that is designed to separate and exclude poor, vulnerable populations by designating them as threats, rather than victims, of urban violence.

“In a city of walls and enclaves such as São Paulo, public space undergoes a deep transformation. Felt as more dangerous, fractured by the new voids and enclaves, broken in its old alignments, privatized with chains closing streets, armed guards, guard dogs, guardhouses, walled parks, public space in São Paulo is increasingly abandoned to those who do not have a chance of living, working,and shopping in the new private, internalized, and fortified enclaves” (Caldeira 319).

She concludes that the modernist approach, or ” new urban form generated by the private enclaves,” has abandoned Social Urbanist ideas promoting connection and integration for members of São Paulo’s favelas, effectively creating private spaces out of areas that were once public.

“The devices which have been maintained are those that destroy modern public space and social life (socially dead streets transformed into highways, sculptural buildings separated by voids and disregarding street alignments, enclaves turned inside); the devices transformed or abandoned are those intended to create equality, transparency, and a new public sphere (glass fasades, uniformity of design, absence of material delimitations such as walls and fences)” (Caldeira 318).

Interestingly, both cities have technically achieved the reduction in crime that they were hoping to achieve (although Colombia Reports released an article on July 23rd that says the homicide rate in Medellín has spiked in 2018).

This is the data for Medellín’s homicide rate from 1975-2015:


And this is the data for the homicide rate in São Paulo from 1997-2017:

Brasil Homicide rate

To me, this brings up the question of whether an end goal is more important than the process through which it is achieved. I think you could argue that lowering the homicide rate is theoretically a good goal no matter what method you choose; however, I think it is equally important to both reach a goal and to reach it in a manageable and reproducible way.

I believe that it is of equal importance that we ask ourselves just what kind of social system exists where young people feel disconnected and abandoned by the state to the point that gangs and cartels become support systems. In Sao Paulo it seems that the driving force behind redeveloping the city was to further isolate and exclude the people that had already been marginalized, while in Medellín the goal was to reduce those divisions. In the simplest of analyses both had equal success in reducing homicide rates, but there are real and measurable psychological and social impacts that come from these two different attitudes, uniting or dividing.

Something I found particularly interesting in juxtaposing these two countries on a more macrosocial scale was the difference in factors such as happiness and mental illness.

Colombia was ranked in 2017 as “the second happiest country in the world” according to Gallup, despite surviving a consistent armed conflict and an uptick in gang and cartel violence. In the Post-Narco Urbanism episode above, Luis Gallo explained that the reclamation of public spaces and the reduction in fear and anxiety were visible throughout Medellín.

Brazil, on the other hand, is found to be a “world leader in anxiety and depression rates.” These kinds of disorders can be viewed through a public health lens as a testament to the stress of living in a society where, as Teresa Caldeira says in her paper, sidewalks, parks, and other public spaces have become “highly segregated” to the point that there is a literal spatial divide that between the rich and the poor (Caldeira 304).

I admit that I was too lazy to sift through the search results for these factors directly in Medellín and in Sao Paulo. However, I felt that, since Medellín is the third largest city in Colombia and Sau Paulo is the largest city in Brazil, the data collected in those surveys and studies likely represented their populations with relative accuracy

I am left wondering whether the different styles of urban development practiced in Medellín and São Paulo had different effects on feelings of safety, inclusion, and happiness in their respective populations.

Ultimately, on a moral basis, I think it is clear that development styles aiming to reduce socioeconomic divides and promote inclusion and legitimization of communities has real value. In this particular juxtaposition, there can be no question that the short-term and long-lasting effects of Social Urbanism in Medellín prove that creating cities designed to foster connection between their populations can have visible and tangible benefits.