Colombia's Medellin boosts its 'eco-city' aims during coronavirus recovery

An employee of the construction company Amarilo, wearing a face mask, measures the body temperature of another employee, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Bogota, Colombia May 19, 2020. Picture taken May 19, 2020.

Medillin is planning to revive its economy, and cut carbon emissions by 20%, following COVID-19 Image: REUTERS/Luisa Gonzalez

Anastasia Moloney
Latin America and Caribbean Correspondent, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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  • Medellin is playing to cut its carbon emissions whilst reviving its economy after COVID-19.
  • It plans to expand bike lanes by almost 50% within three years and more than double the number of interconnected public transport lines by 2030.
  • The mayor described the city as having deep resilience and a history of reinventing itself.

As Colombia's second city of Medellin prepares to revive its economy after the coronavirus pandemic, it simultaneously aims to cut carbon emissions by 20% by 2030 - and it is focusing on transport.

City officials say they will expand bike lanes by almost 50% within three years, to 145 kilometres, and more than double the number of interconnected public transport lines, including overland trains, trams and cable car lines, to 26 by 2030.

As well, the city is working to provide 50,000 electric bikes that residents can rent cheaply - and it aims to electrify all public transport by the end of the decade.

"Medellin has a history of reinventing itself, of having deep resilience," Mayor Daniel Quintero told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

"I'm really convinced that in 10 years time, it's going to be very unusual for someone to buy a diesel car," he said.

Medellin is one of dozens of cities around the world aiming to use a post-lockdown economic restart to simultaneously bootstrap environmental measures.

From using stimulus funds to install electric vehicle charging stations to reserving space once limited for cars to pedestrians and cycling, the cities hope to save cash and build resilience by fighting the climate and virus crises together.

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"What's been happening is triggering huge transformations within people and institutions in general," Quintero said.

Residents stand outside their home in the La Honda neighourhood of Medellin, Colombia, February 7, 2018.
Residents outside their home in the La Honda neighourhood of Medellin. Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Anastasia Moloney

'Drug pandemic'

In Medellin, officials are drawing on their experience of battling a past "pandemic" of rampant drug violence to confront new challenges, Quintero said.

"We've had to lift ourselves up after the worst pandemic that was the violence of the 1980s and 1990s, when more than 100,000 young people lost their lives during the drug war," said the mayor, who started his four-year term in January.

But because of what Medellin has already lived through, he said he is "100% convinced" residents in the city of 2.5 million people will step up to dealing with the coronavirus - and climate change - challenge.

"This crisis, and what's been happening, has been an urgent call for change once again," the 40-year-old said.

COVID-19 has exposed stark gaps between rich and poor in a city where half of residents work in the informal sector earning daily cash in hand, many as street vendors and cleaners.

"Today the virus is hitting low-income sectors, precisely those that were hard hit by the violence of the 80's and 90's. And it's for this reason we understand this as an urgent call for a new transformation," Quintero said.

The transformation he envisions involves Medellin becoming an "eco-city" that is better connected, greener and more tech-smart, Quintero said.

It's an approach that builds on previous decades of experience that have earned the mountain-flanked city awards and a reputation as an urban innovation pioneer.

Consecutive mayors have focused on urban renewal to improve gang-ridden slums, which now feature new schools, public libraries, open-air gyms and landscaped parks.

The city also has built a much-copied cable car transport system that ferries residents up and down hillsides, connecting slum dwellers with the rest of the city.

Cable cars pass above the town of Medellin March 1, 2013.
The goverenment is planning to double the number of interconnected public transport lines by 2030. Image: REUTERS / Albeiro Lopera

Medellin's post-COVID transformation will focus on education as a key pillar to drive change, with the aim of preparing students for jobs with a digital and tech focus, backed by "historic" levels of investment in schools, Quintero said.

"It's with education that we can transform," he said, adding that teaching should instill a sense of individual and collective responsibility among young people to protect the planet.

"We're talking about a transformation in the curriculum that connects boys, girls and youth to the new realities of the world... with the big climate and environmental challenges that the world has today," Quintero said.

Cleaner air

As part of Medellin's push to become an "eco-city", officials have focused on promoting cleaner energy to help cut emissions and pollution.

Nestled in the middle of a deep valley, Medellin has struggled to slash air pollution. Even with few cars on the road during the ongoing virus lockdown, the city has suffered toxic levels of pollution, Quintero said.

Authorities now understand that pollution is also being driven by illegal burning of forests - another urgent challenge that needs to be addressed, he said.

Medellin has set an ambitious aim to electrify all public transport by 2030, with Quintero saying he wants the city to be the first in Latin America to achieve that goal.

To hit its target, the city plans to make a broad range of changes, including increasing its fleet of electric buses to 130 by 2023, up from 65 today.

Overall, the country aims to cut its carbon emissions by 20% between 2015 and 2030, officials say.

Quintero said governments have a crucial role to play in promoting the transport changes they want to see as clean energy costs fall.

"The toughest mission is ... to create a change of culture, and we have to go a little faster than the market is going," said the mayor.

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