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Managing city transition: 3 examples of promising models

Charles Landry, an international adviser on the future of cities, argued that cities are misaligned between design and operating system, typical of a 1.0 world and the current 3.0 technological, economic and cultural lifestyle dynamics. Under this tension and disconnection, cities need to transform and reinvent themselves, a process which could take several years. With this focus on “transitioning cities” Chroniques Urbaines™ selected three examples to open the discussion.

Medellín (Colombia): new infrastructure, better quality of life

Medellín has, until recent history, symbolized a city with a reputation associated to crime, drug cartels and social exclusion. Among the various initiatives to revert this reality, the city developed a massive transportation infrastructure (the Metro, Metroplus and MetroCable) to link the city and the poorest communities, a policy which targeted social inclusion and improvement of the quality of life.

Since the inauguration of the MetroCable in 2011, the city has put in place a strategic plan to re-define itself, and ever since it has become a reference on what Latin American cities can achieve.

For anyone who has visited Medellin the experience of going up by the Metrocable, and overseeing barrio Santo Domingo, is unique. It is even more impressive when considering the political effort, the community goodwill and the business risks needed for such intervention. Before the Metrocable, residents of Santo Domingo spent upwards of 2​ hours ½ hours commuting to work each way, and today now the travel only takes 20 minutes. Considering that the MetroCable transports 30,000 people daily.

The project created not only a transportation system, through an impoverished neighborhood of Medellin, but it included a vital cultural center by making the Parque Biblioteca España. Moreover, the municipality has set up an Innovation Program (2012-2021) to attract private, local, national and foreign investors.  

Medellin, as host city, served well the slogan “Cities for Life” during the World Urban Forum in 2014, promoting a development based on the principles of: transparency, participation, non-violence, innovation and resilience for a better quality of life.

Detroit (USA): from factories to farms

In 1950, the city of Detroit had a population of about 1,8 million and was considered a symbol of modern America. 1 out of 8 people worked in the automotive industry and the city was thriving. Nonetheless, the Detroit riots of 1967 due to the effects of racial tension and poor housing were a turning point in the city’s fortune. The loss of jobs due to the relocation of the US auto industry shrank the tax base, and finally the subprime crisis had a tolled on the city. In 2005, only 700,000 inhabitants were left, 40% of whom live below the poverty line.

Regardless of this decline, Detroit has managed to bounce back and develop a new face. Among other initiatives, due to its urban agriculture projects, Detroit is seen as a model for a renaissance of social and agricultural entrepreneurship of urban farm networks. As example, the city set up the first real local and organic supply circuit on a large city scale. These agricultural practices have been supported by the Detroit Future City Strategic Plan, which encourages green and blue frames and which legalized urban agriculture.

Even with the ongoing challenges of a major city, Detroit has become a symbol of resurgence. The city has succeeded in its transition by overcoming food insecurity, providing training and employment for its inhabitants and strengthening social cohesion.

Songdo (South Korea): testing a new urban model

In terms of “transition cities”, Songdo is an interesting example. 13 years ago, there was nothing there, and today Songdo is a city of 200,000 people where all buildings are LEED-certified and smart technologies spread out in the entire city.

It all begun in 2001 when the administration of the city of Incheon, near Seoul decided to build a driving zone for innovation which seemed a crazy, pharaonic project. An alliance between the public and the private sector, whose estimated cost was 40 billion US dollars.

The city was designed by architects and engineers specialized in new technologies. The public services were designed to be sober in resources, practical to use and pleasant to live for all users. The city developed 40% of green spaces and it is equipped with « intelligent » traffic lights on major arteries that vary according to real-time traffic. Many other innovative technologies (telemedicine in each apartment, underground waste collection system, etc.) are already being deployed in the city.

In contrast to the initial objectives, investment and technology deployed, the South Korean authorities have not yet succeeded in attracting as many companies as they hoped. Rather than an international economic zone, the city has developed into a middle-class suburb of Seoul (at least for the moment). This makes some people question whether it was worth the level of investment.

Although for some, Songdo is not the success envisioned. For others, the experience serves as a model for China, India, Africa and the Middle East which need to create new cities. In India, it is estimated that 700 million people will leave the countryside in the coming years, and existing cities like Delhi or Mumbai don’t have the infrastructure and capacity to host them. Thus, the creating of Songdo-type cities could become a model to enhance and replicate.

Medellín, Detroit and Songdo are pioneer models of urban transition underway and probably on the road to success. Old and outdated urban models, which have become obsolete for our current lifestyle and needs must be reinvented, and new policies promoting sustainability and digital technologies are now particularly necessary to support the change in model for these cities. It is in this sense that cities must develop and implement different and more sustainable urban models to offer opportunities and a good quality of life to its residents.

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Picture credit: WSP

Green SoluceManaging city transition: 3 examples of promising models
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