Wed. Oct 20th, 2021

Medellin Colombia – About 30 years ago, Medellin was considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Drug cartels prevailed, murders and explosions were common, and only the fools walked through the streets at night.

Through a range of smart investments in poor communities, transportation infrastructure, schools, technology and public parks, the city has transformed itself into a model of urban planning and innovation, gaining international recognition for its entrepreneurship and modernity.

Now Medellin wants to reinvent itself — this time as Latin America’s first ‘eco-city’ with comprehensive initiatives in renewable energy, transportation, housing, water management and waste.

As governments and investors around the world raise funds for pandemic recovery efforts, cities like Medellin are taking the opportunity to simultaneously set a climate-friendly agenda for the coming years.

Colombia has recently started reopening most major events, even if Covid-19 cases continues to boost the country’s devastated economy. And Medellin Mayor Daniel Quintero said the revival of the COVID is accompanied by its climate goals.

“What is happening is causing major transformations within people and institutions in general,” Quintero told Reuters last year.

The government’s ambitious plans are to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent, electrify all public transport by 2030, expand bike lanes by 50 percent and double the number of public transport lines.

The Medellin Bicycle Path is one of its initiatives to help the city become Latin America’s first ‘eco-city’ [Genevieve Glatsky/Al Jazeera]

Medellin already has an advantage with the only metro system in Colombia, along with bike lanes, a fleet of electric buses and its network of ‘green corridors’ of urban greenery that lie across the streets.

The city opened a new electric charging station for its fleet of 69 electric buses in January – and plans to nearly double that in the next three years, and to build an electric light rail.

But some politicians and activists have said the administration is largely big on high promises and short on the political will to implement them.

Post-COVID ‘sustainability’ print

One strategy to achieve the city’s economic and climate goals is to produce parts locally for a carbon-free mass transit system, says Jaime Arenas Plata, director of Medellin’s Sustainable Energy Cluster part of the city’s’ public ‘cluster’ system of public transport. private partnerships aimed at promoting economic growth.

While 70 percent of the parts for the subway are manufactured locally, the city currently buys its electric buses from a Chinese company. But Arenas said the contract expires late next year and he hopes to find an agreement to manufacture many of the electric vehicles locally.

“We believe these sustainability issues are a boost to the economy in light of the recovery after COVID,” says Arenas.

Medellin boasts that it has the only metro system in Colombia [Genevieve Glatsky/Al Jazeera]

And sustainable tourism also plays a role in achieving these goals, said Rodrigo Atuesta, president of the Colombian Association of Responsible Tourism (ACOTUR), by drawing tourists to less urbanized areas threatened by the oil and mining industries.

This strategy was particularly successful in Costa Rica, which has long been considered the model for ecotourism. Before the pandemic, the country boasted of ecotourism as one of the most important industries, while maintaining strong conservation protections. Conversely, in the Brazilian Amazon, successful ecotourism hotspots have been threatened due to land grabs and illegal deforestation and construction.

‘We are very clear that sustainability does not just mean research on the use of plastics. It is not just a matter of carbon reduction, ”Atuesta said. “This is important, but sustainability also has to do with us as businesses that actively identify community projects and work together to integrate them into the value chain.”

Empty promises?

But the city’s budget is a bottleneck for many, including Santiago Londono Uribe, who previously served as city councilor and government secretary for the province of Antioquia. He points out that the budget for the Ministry of Environment has been reduced from about 79 million Colombian pesos ($ 20,645) in the past year – already a low of 10 years – to 57 million pesos ($ 14,896).

“It does not make sense, because part of the connection between a project and its execution is the budget,” he said. “You can talk about the beauty of the eco-city, but if you do not have a consistent and coherent budget commitment, it is very difficult to achieve it.”

Daniel Duque, a city councilor from the left-wing Green Alliance party, said he had voted in part against this year’s budget due to environmental cuts.

“[The mayor] ‘means a few things in his speeches that unfortunately can not be true in reality, because there is no political will, no budget and no suitable people responsible for many of these tasks,’ Duque said.

Statements by the Environment Secretary said that the budget has been cut due to the pandemic, and that they are expected to increase resources in 2022 and 2023, in addition to sharing resources with the Metropolitan area as environmental authority.

The administration ‘is expected to continue to turn Medellin into an eco-city’, the statement said, pointing to its efforts at reforestation, public transport and air quality.

Environmental activist Daniel Suarez Montoya has expressed concern over Medellin’s leaders [Genevieve Glatsky/Al Jazeera]

But Londono, Duque and environmental activist Daniel Suarez Montoya have all expressed concern over the recent changes in the city’s cabinet, which they say have replaced qualified officials with traditional politicians or political allies. Suarez sees this as a setback for the city’s environmental goals. The former transport secretary, for example, was committed to the ‘eco-city’, he said, while the current one is merely a ‘politician’.

The current Secretary of Transport did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publication.

Lack of local inclusion

Suarez also kept in mind the fact that many urban policies do not take into account the connection between Medellin and the surrounding area. The city falls in the Metropolitan Area of ​​the Aburra Valley, which includes nine other municipalities.

These municipalities are so interconnected, he said, that environmental policy must take into account the activities of the whole region.

While many of the municipalities in the region, for example, have taken measures to combat Medellin’s notoriously high air pollution, the municipality of Girardota, which houses the majority of polluting industries, has not done so. And when Medellin limited the building height to limit the population growth in the city, many developers moved to the southern municipalities, like Sabaneta, which caused too much growth, hampering the mobility, public space and safety of the small town.

“I really believe that it is of little use to a city like Medellin to think of such an important thing as the ‘eco-city’ without the other municipalities following the same path,” Suarez said. ‘Because it’s a half-effort that is ultimately transferred negatively to the other municipalities.

While Medellin has gained international recognition, Suarez said the obsession with his image on the world stage could be distracting – pointing out that the awarding of the prize for ‘the most innovative city of the year’ was decided by online voting.

“The city cares more about its image internationally than about making the changes internally,” he said. “I, as Medellíncense, as a person born here, working for the city, I think we have done a lot of damage to ourselves because we have the priority of preserving our image instead of working for it.”

Suarez pointed out that despite the goals of creating a fair and sustainable society, high inequalities and extreme poverty are still challenges for the city.

“These people who come to power care more about the image of the city internationally to gain this recognition,” he said. “But in the background, it does not cause a social transformation.”

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