Is Medellín Really an Ecocity (Ecociudad)? An Analysis of The City's Endeavour - Medellin Advisors

Is Medellín Really an Ecocity (Ecociudad)? An Analysis of The City’s Endeavour

Ecociudad

Medellin, in the literal sense, is one of the greenest cities on planet Earth. Few urban jungles boast such an equally verdant canopy. In 2023, the city was officially positioned as one of the world’s “treed cities” by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Arbor Day Foundation.

Yet, Medellin is the third most densely populated city on Earth, and is no stranger to the challenges that are common throughout the continent, such as uncontrolled urban sprawling, waste management, economic disparity, air quality, etc.

The City of Eternal Spring is however no stranger to overcoming its hardships through innovation and has for several years rebranded itself as an “Ecocity” (Ecociudad). What is an ecocity though, and does Medellin really earn membership within this club? We’ll find out in the article below.

Cerro

What is an Ecocity?

According to Ecocity Builders, an ecocity is a “human settlement modelled on the self-sustaining structure and function of natural ecosystems.”

In simple terms, an ecocity is a city designed to function like a natural ecosystem, with the goal of being able to sustain itself and adapt to changes in its environment.

The Ecocity Builders developed a framework used to assess a city’s progress towards this idealised urban state. It includes various factors such as:

  • Sustainable transportation (bike infrastructure, public transport, etc)
  • Renewable energy
  • Green spaces
  • Waste management
  • Water conservation
  • Sustainable building
  • Community engagement
  • Biodiversity conservation
ecocity framework
The Ecocity Framework & Standards as laid out by Ecocity Builders.

The concept of an ecocity is still novel to most minds, despite tracing as far back as 1975 with the Berkeley-based non-profit Urban Ecology. We are living in uncertain times with environmental changes unfolding before our eyes. Furthermore, the UN predicts that 68% of humans will be living in urban environments by 2050. An ecocity promotes sustainable living, preserves natural resources, and mitigates environmental degradation, ensuring a healthier and more resilient future for both people and the planet. 

Yet, there are only a few forward-thinking cities that have already earned themselves membership within this exclusive club.

ecocity image medellin
What does an ecocity look like in your head?

The World's ECOCITIES

There are but a few eco-cities scattered throughout the globe:

1. Copenhagen, Denmark – Copenhagen is renowned for its commitment to sustainability with initiatives focused on renewable energy, cycling infrastructure that is among the world’s best, and plenty of green spaces (at least 80% of Copenhageners reside within 300m of a green area).

2. Portland, Oregan, USA – Portland is often referred to as the USA’s greenest city with an extensively developed public transportation system, and bike-friendly streets. Portland is also a city that prioritises access to locally sourced food and products.

3. Singapore – Perhaps nowhere are the green strategies implementations of an urban environment as optic as they are in Singapore. Its landscapes are scattered with vertical gardens and extensive greenery that appear to swallow up the urban development of the city. Singapore is also praised for its carbon emissions and mitigation of water consumption.

Singapore is an ecocity
Singapore is known as the "garden city" for its ubiquity of parks and green spaces.

4. Curitiba, Brazil – recognised for its innovative urban planning including an extensive and robust rapid bus transit system. Residents also have access to ample green spaces and waste management is deemed to be exemplary for the region.

Other recognised “Ecocities” include Reykjavik (Iceland), Freiburg (Germany), Vancouver (Canada), and Stockholm (Sweden).

But it begs the question, does Medellin have a seat in this club?

Background of Medellin

A simple Google search quickly reveals Medellin and its obsession with this notion of becoming an “Ecocity”, a vision that contrasts sharply with its past. Just three decades ago, the city bore the ominous label of being one of the world’s most dangerous places. However, through sustained efforts and innovative approaches, Medellin has successfully shed its old image and now garners the right kind of attention, for its remarkable transformation.

medellin is an ecocity

Today, Medellin boasts heat-beating green corridors and is celebrated for its social progress, best exemplified by the tourist-friendly Comuna 13.

Medellin is firmly situated within the tropics and is the world’s second most biodiverse country in the world. Whilst they’re on a roll of shattering the image of their past, it makes sense for them to endeavour to become an ecological city. They’ve got the natural resources for it. 

Furthermore, the city is internationally recognised for the deployment of innovative strategies to overcome inextricable issues. In 2013, Medellin was officially recognised as the “World’s Most Innovative City” by the Urban Land Institute and Wall Street Journal.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are quite there yet. Medellin, as part of Colombia, and part of South America, has its share of regional problems. Pollution, waste management and unplanned urban sprawling are all stubborn challenges that the city must smartly resolve before fully joining the world’s exclusive list of “ecocities”.

Ecociudad/ecocity medellin
Is Medellin an ecocity yet?

So, What Does Medellin Get Right?

In the face of all challenges, it doesn’t appear the city is taking any half-measures. Medellin’s initiatives are wide-ranging and include everything from eco-friendly transportation, housing, renewable energy, reforestation, water management and waste.

Let’s take a took at the different initiatives, policies and strategies that the city of Medellin has already implemented.

Beating The Heat With Green Corridors

Despite being known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its year-round enjoyable weather, rapid urban development had given way to the urban heat island phenomenon, where heat is absorbed by roads and buildings. This tends to make urban sprawls much hotter – some 10°C warmer than their rural neighbours.

In 2016, the local government led by Federico Gutierrez began its Green Corridor strategy, involving the establishment of 30 strategically placed green corridors. These aren’t just tree-lined streets but rather multi-layered levels of flora. Beneath the trees, the corridors include a selection of plants, shrubs and flowers.

These corridors have been carefully located to bring maximum value, by connecting with existing parks and green spaces. Furthermore, they have been placed in areas where they are most needed, such as the Avenida Oriental – the city’s most congested road. 

Medellin's green corridors have gained it recognition as an ecocity.
An example of a "green corridor" which has multiple layers of flora.

In essence, the idea of these “corredores verdes” was to increase the amount of shade throughout the city while mitigating the effects of pollutants emitted from vehicles (which also contribute to heat).

Although the city appears to be extending its green corridors with new additions and plantations, the initial outlay was USD $16.3m. This includes 30 green corridors, 12,500 trees, 120,000 plants. By 2021, the number of trees planted rose to 880,000 while the number of small plants and shrubs rose to 2.5 million.

So, did it work?

Absolutely! The Green Corridor project has been a great success in reducing the average temperature of the city by 2°C. It has also proven to mitigate pollution from traffic.

In a time of rapid urbanisation and rising temperatures, Medellin has been an exemplary city in showing how to tackle the human heat island effect. Other cities and governments have observed what has been done already in Medellin and hope in an attempt to garner the same results.

Leading the Way in Public Transportation

You may know that Medellin is the only city in Colombia with a metro system – a proud investment that already pays economic and environmental dividends.

Unfortunately, Medellin continues to be one of the most congested cities on the planet and each day, the city tackles an ever-growing number of cars on its roads.

Fully aware of the fact that this is both its greatest barrier and opportunity towards becoming an ecocity, Medellin hasn’t shied away from trying to tackle the issue. The city has developed a comprehensive strategy to gain control over its mass transit. 

First, we must mention “pico y placa”… 

Vias excentas pico y placa
Pico y placa

Promoting Public Transportation: Pico y Placa...

In Medellín, “pico y placa” is a traffic restriction measure aimed at reducing congestion and pollution. It restricts vehicles from circulating during specific hours on certain days, based on the last digit of their license plate number. The term “pico y placa” literally translates to “peak and plate.” During the designated times, vehicles with license plates ending in certain digits are prohibited from circulating in certain areas of the city. This measure encourages the use of alternative transportation methods and helps manage traffic flow during peak hours.

This measure, whether popular or not, has been proven to reduce levels of harmful PM2.5 particulates hovering throughout the city. Based on this alone, we’d argue that this is a strategy congruent with the behaviours of an ecocity.

Expansion of the Medellin Metro System

The expansion of the metro system in Medellín, often referred to as “Metro de la 80” or “Línea L,” is a significant infrastructure project aimed at improving public transportation and connectivity in the city. This expansion project involves the construction of a new metro line that will extend to the western part of the city along Avenida 80.

The Metro de la 80 project is expected to provide residents in the western neighbourhoods of Medellín with faster and more efficient transportation options, reducing travel times and alleviating congestion on existing roadways. It will also enhance accessibility to employment opportunities, education, healthcare, and other essential services for residents living in these areas.

Metro de la

The new metro line is anticipated to have a positive impact on urban development, promoting economic growth and revitalisation in the western districts of the city. Additionally, the expansion of the metro system aligns with the city’s broader goals of promoting sustainable mobility, reducing carbon emissions, and improving the overall quality of life for residents.

The project involves extensive planning, engineering, and construction work, including the development of new metro stations, infrastructure, and rail lines. While there may be challenges and complexities associated with such a large-scale undertaking, the expansion of the metro system represents a significant investment in Medellín’s future and its ongoing efforts to enhance public transportation and urban connectivity. That’s certainly enough to leave Bogota’s residences with plenty to complain about!

So, how is this environmentally friendly?

  • Reduced emissions – powered by electricity unlike the city’s many cars powered by fossil fuels.
  • Encouraging a paradigm shift – an effective transportation system provides a viable alternative for motorists, thus reducing the traffic of private transportation (cars). Fewer cars on the roads means less demand for parking spaces and other road infrastructure.
  • Promoting sustainability urban development – Time and time again we see that areas close to metro stations become popular places for people to live. This is known as transit-orientated development (TOD), which reduces the need for long commutes while encouraging environmentally friendly ways of transport such as walking and cycling. We can observe this phenonmenon in Medellin around the neighbourhoods of Estadio & Buenos Aires which are closely tied into the metro system. 
Medell n translohr car pulling away from buenos aires station eastbound in may

Medellin's Cycle Infrastructure

As part of its overall strategy to make its roads cleaner, Medellín has made significant strides in developing its cycle infrastructure to promote cycling as a sustainable and healthy mode of transportation. Below are are some key aspects of the cycle infrastructure in Medellín:

1. Ciclovía – Medellín hosts a popular weekly event called “Ciclovía,” where several main streets are closed to motor vehicles on Sundays and public holidays, allowing cyclists and pedestrians to safely enjoy the city streets. This initiative promotes recreational cycling and encourages people to explore the city in a car-free environment. Two notable streets are Avenida El Poblado (known as the ‘Golden Mile’ of Medellín) and Avenida Las Palmas.

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2. Cycling routes (ciclorrutas) – Medellin has invested significantly into expanding its cycle routes and connectivity throughout the city, making it an ever-appealing option in place of the car. Despite the topographic challenges Medellin faces with all its hills, the cycle routes are all fully connected, from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Furthermore, the city has embellished many of their trails with the aforementioned green corridors, making it feel like you’re cycling through an urban forest.

3. Bike-sharing program – The city operates a bike sharing program called “EnCicla” – this is totally free allowing access to all of its inhabitants regardless of income of socio-economic strata.

Ecocity Means Going Electric!

Medellín is making strides towards adopting electric transportation as part of its efforts to promote sustainability, reduce pollution, and mitigate climate change. The city has demonstrated its willingness to take risks orientated towards innovation and sustainability. By 2030, Medellin seeks to become the ‘Latin American leader in Electric Mobility’.

This means that by 2030, the city will have electrified all of its public transport.

Medellín is currently in that process, replacing its current modes of transportation, which are major sources of pollution, with electric buses and taxis, while also developing public electric charging infrastructure.

An empirical and personal observation is that they do have some way to go – the conventional busses do seem to outnumber the electric ones.

Byd kg electric bus columbia medellin e x

Another green thumbs up for Medellin is that over 70% of the spare parts for the city’s metro are locally sourced and produced, while the remaining percentage comes from China. The director of Medellin’s Sustainable Energy Cluster is confident that as the city’s contract with China ends, they can fully source all they need locally.

Reforestation Throughout the Aburra Valley

Anyone who’s been to Medellin will likely agree that it’s one of the greenest, tree-lined urban environments they’ve ever laid eyes on. Most streets are tucked under thick tropical canopies, parks are ubiquitous and it feels impossible to walk 5 minutes in any direction without encountering one. The city is home to 7 protected nature hills. Everywhere you look, it’s green and lush!

And this isn’t based on my observations alone. In 2023, the city was officially recognised as one of the most densely tree packed cities of the world by by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Arbor Day Foundation.

It wasn’t always that way though. Medellin, before undergoing its rapid urbanisation, was a landscape dominated by ganaderos (ranchers). This meant that in place of trees, the land was cleared to make way for cattle. Furthermore, even 50 years ago, there was no consciousness in the minds of Medellinenses to incorporate green spaces within their streets. Yes, they had the parks, but everything else was grey, leaving a dichotomy between the urban environment and its surroundings. The public’s mind has since changed and today Medellin is much greener for it. 

The local government invest heavily in keeping all of its streets green and strict rules ensure that trees cannot be needlessly felled. 

ecocity medellin reforestation

In 2019,  following the aftermath of a devastating fire that swept through the Cerro de las Tres Cruces (Hill of 3 Crosses), the government took action to secure by buying it off private owners.  Once achieved, their goal was to plant approximately 70,000 trees and restore the hill’s natural ecosystem. 

Read more here.

In addition to the internationally acclaimed green corridors, the city regularly carries out reforestation campaigns throughout the city and surrounding territories. These are funded by both EPM, the city’s utility/energy provider alongside the government (alcaldia). 

Keeping the City Clean! Waste Management

Waste management still has its challenges, however, Medellín has undergone significant transformations in recent years, with the city implementing innovative approaches to address waste generation, recycling, and disposal.

One notable initiative is the transformation of the former dumpsite known as “Moravia” into a vibrant community park and botanical garden.

The Moravia landfill was once the largest open dumpsite in Medellín, receiving thousands of tons of waste daily and posing significant environmental and health hazards to nearby residents. In the early 2000s, the city government embarked on an ambitious project to remediate and repurpose the landfill site.

The transformation of Moravia began with the closure of the dumpsite and the implementation of waste management measures to reduce pollution and prevent further contamination of soil and water sources. This was followed by a comprehensive redevelopment plan that involved community engagement, environmental rehabilitation, and urban revitalization efforts.

Moravia antes y despues

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Moravia project is the creation of Parque Biblioteca España, a state-of-the-art library and cultural center, which serves as the centerpiece of the revitalized neighborhood. In addition to the library, the site features community spaces, recreational facilities, and educational programs aimed at promoting social inclusion and community development.

Furthermore, a significant portion of the former landfill site was transformed into the Jardín Botánico de Moravia, or Moravia Botanical Garden, showcasing a diverse collection of plants, trees, and green spaces. The botanical garden not only provides residents with a peaceful and recreational environment but also serves as a symbol of environmental stewardship and sustainability.

The Moravia project represents a successful example of integrated urban planning, environmental restoration, and community empowerment. By reclaiming a former dumpsite and converting it into a vibrant public space, Medellín has demonstrated its commitment to sustainable development, environmental conservation, and social equity.

Unfortunately, this transformative space is again under threat of unauthorised housing, known as “invasions”. This can be seen in the picture above. 

In a way, Moravia’s transformation from dump to green oasis parallels the city’s transformation from violence and decay to what it is today.

Facing Challenges: The city has some way to go!

Unfortunately, we have not fully covered all the city’s green initiatives and strategies. In addition to everything above, Medellin is:

  • Driving towards renewable energy.
  • Invested in water management. In Medellin, the vast majority of its inhabitants, regardless of economic strata, have access to potable water. Furthermore, EPM (Empresas Públicas de Medellín) and National Waters signed a cooperation agreement with the City of Copenhagen to receive advice and technical support in wastewater treatment and water loss management, marking an important milestone in collaboration for promoting water resource efficiency and sustainability.
  • Developing its eco-tourism infrastructure.

Medellin is resolute in its endeavour to become an ecocity. In our opinion, however, before the city can fully realise this goal, some issues need to be resolved. Let’s cover them below:

Air Quality Remains Problematic

Medellín’s unique topography, sitting within a valley and often trapped in stagnant, warm air, poses a significant challenge in combating air pollution. Despite efforts, the city frequently sees its air quality index hovering at concerning levels, posing health risks to its residents.

Between 2011-2016, 22,992 people in Medellín succumbed to respiratory diseases. Dr. Hugo Grisales Romero, an epidemiologist from the University of Antioquia, highlights the global impact of air pollution, with 8.7% of global deaths attributed to particulate matter (PM2.5) exposure. Besides the bustle of industry, Medellin’s growing population further complicate the situation of air quality in the valley.

Research by the University of Antioquia emphasises the need to maintain PM2.5 levels below 25 microns per cubic meter of air per day to prevent the loss of healthy life years. The city regularly exceeds these numbers, especially during prolonged dry spells.

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Waste Management Isn't Quite There Yet...

Despite improvements in the management of waste, including the famous case of Moravia, there is still much that needs to be done. The city generates substantial amounts of waste, leading to the rapid filling of landfills. La Pradera is where 80% of Medellin’s final waste is received, and is expected to last until 2029 from its inception in 2003.

Recycling infrastructure in Medellin is also not fully developed, with the vast majority of recyclable goods ending up in the Pradera landfill. 

Other issues like illegal dumping, burning of plastics and lack of circular economy initiatives all stand in the way of Medellin being truly green in its management of waste. 

Conclusion

Medellín is making remarkable strides toward achieving ecocity status. Many of its initiatives, like the development of green corridors and the transformation of the Moravia landfill, serve as global benchmarks. Moreover, significant efforts are underway behind the scenes, including the transition to EV public transportation, the enhancement of cycling infrastructure, and resource management strategies.

Unlike many ecocities situated in prosperous nations, Medellín faces unique challenges shaped by its geography and socioeconomic context. Nevertheless, we are confident that Medellín, on its current trajectory, will soon join the ranks of the world’s leading ecocities.

For inquiries or further information, feel free to reach out to the Medellín Advisors team.

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