Who is it for? A critical reflection on power in “social urbanism” and planning

I wrote this reflection for a course that looked at Medellin as a case study through which to examine the concept of “social urbanism.” It was the first more design-focused class that I have taken and it was new for me to be working with brilliant designers and architects who made up the bulk of the class. Challenging but also illuminating, as I hope this reflection demonstrates.


This course launched from the idea that “social urbanism,” or rather, design and architecture with a social conscience, is increasingly gaining in popularity in urban areas around the world. One very visible example of this is the city of Medellin, Colombia, where a transportation project of a metro and above ground cable-car system was set up to connect the city center to the marginalized informal areas that sprawl up the city’s steep hillsides. One such area is Comuna 8, one of Medellin’s 16 sectors that is home to about 136,000 people who are predominantly low-income and many of whom lack formal land titles (Terms of Reference, 2013).

medellin mapPlanned urban interventions in Comuna 8, Medellin

Medellin is the second largest city in Colombia and for a long time held a high-profile reputation for violence and drug activity. But with intensive public investment in infrastructure and urban renewal, encompassing transport as well as facilities such as libraries and learning centers, Medellin was largely able to change its global brand from city of violence to city of innovation and hope. However, there is little indication that these interventions have succeeded in addressing the widespread poverty and inequality that remain deeply entrenched. This raises the question of how much “social urbanism” can really answer to the needs of the people it purports to help. The following is an overview and analysis of some of the main concepts in the course, based on group project work, readings, and my own doodles and thought processes.



To me the most obvious concept that stands out in the context of a transportation intervention like that in Medellin is that of mobility. Brand and Davila’s (2011) article raises some interesting issues on the matter, exploring whether mobility is representative of opportunity. In my own life, mobility has been a great privilege and this remains true in London, where my ability to purchase a monthly transport card coupled with the city’s comprehensive transport system allows me to access many services and opportunities I may not otherwise have. Alternatively, if one is confined to the periphery of a city, as is the case with Comuna 8 in Medellin and in peripheral urban areas all over the world, this severely limits the pursuit of livelihood. The introduction of the cable car system, which has increased ease of mobility to and from Medellin’s center and periphery, has represented a form of capital, both physical and symbolic, for the people living in informal areas. But does increased mobility automatically mean increased opportunity? Davila asserts that a lack of mobility adds to deprivation; however, increased mobility does not necessarily imply an improved social condition (Brand & Davila 2011, p.648).

It is also crucial to examine whom the mobility is for. Is it really a way for urban poor to have more opportunities? Or is it a way for businesses at the center to have a more mobile and easily-accessible work force? Or is the cable car, for example, a way for central Medillin residents and tourists to access the new services now located at the periphery, such as the library and the eco park? Is it a way for metro authorities to increase ridership of their metro system, which was previously underutilized? (Brand & Davila p.650) Of course, it may be all of these things, but it is important to realize that there are a variety of motives for implementing such a project. Certainly the value of peripheral poor areas is raised as they appear more well-connected to the rest of the city and thus more attractive to visitors. But who really benefits from the awards and higher status of Medellin as a whole? Is it possible this obscures some of the problems that remain? It has been shown that the metrocable is raising the visibility of marginalized areas, and this may be beginning to reverse social exclusion. But there is still a lot to be done; as Brand and Davila (p. 658) states, “the spectacular nature of the aesthetics of the cable-car systems loses its appeal against a backdrop of unmitigated poverty.”

Screen Shot 2014-01-12 at 4.45.25 PM.png

Notes from Aureli’s article, where he states that “walls, squares and streets are not only meant to support
the functioning of the city, but they also form an extensive governmental apparatus.” (Aureli, 2011, p. 32)

Public space

The second central concept is that of public space, for which there exists abundant literature that I am only beginning to explore. What has most struck me is the idea that public space, while usually intended to benefit the public especially in the realm of social urbanism, can also be limiting of social life. In a piece on urban archetypes, Aureli (2011) discusses examples like the Via Giulia in Rome and the Place Royale in Paris, both of which can be conceived of as public space, but also as spaces in which the public is controlled. Space is always infused with questions of power, and this is very true in the case of Medellin. As in other areas of dense informal settlement, a lack of public space is often lamented by architects and urbanists, and the goal of many interventions is to open up space (Navarro-Sertich, 2011). I had also rested on the assumption that a needed open/green space in a city is usually an improvement. But Schwab (2013) discusses how in Medellin, public space was for so long perceived as a threat because of the continued presence of violence. Open spaces are not necessarily desirable; the possibility of them falling under the control of drug lords is fairly high (Navarro-Sertich, 2011). In fact, Schwab (2011) explores how the development of cultura metro, or new culture surrounding metro transport, was one of the first real discussions of public space, and that the state-sponsored events for feria de las flores, an important traditional holiday, represented an important reinterpretation and reclaiming of it. However, Schwab argues in the end that the state presentation of public space as somewhere to be celebrated where all are welcome was actually a method of defining appropriate behavior in that space and excluding informal workers.

public space.pngIn one class we discussed public space, looking at case studies from South Africa where in one example, one of the main shared/community spaces was actually inside someone’s home. Here we explored the potential of community “public” spaces in Comuna 8 where open space is harder to come by and not necessarily desired.

Thus it is easy for public space to be co-opted in the interest of the state. Now, with the introduction of the cable car, the required infrastructure is opening up new spaces. In the areas around the stations, there is evidence to show that these spaces are actually much safer now. But these areas have also become spaces of state control. With surveillance infrastructure now in place, areas that were previously “no-go areas” for police are now under the watchful gaze of the state (Brand & Davila 2011). This of course may be preferable to the open possibility of violence, but it also means that control has merely shifted from one powerful force to another. Public space has the potential of serving as an equalizing force, but it may also reinforce social hierarchies and keep the actual users of a service (e.g., “the community”) at bay.

Participation and ownership

This ultimately brings us to the question of how a space can really be ‘community’ controlled, and whether a design intervention can somehow facilitate this. For our group project, we conceived of making use of the space opened up around the pillars that have cut into the urban fabric as essential to cable car infrastructure. The idea was to provide very loose and flexible infrastructure or even ‘furniture’ that could be more easily appropriated by surrounding neighborhoods (its small scale makes it more easily appropriated, as is suggested by Navarro-Sertich, 2011). This stemmed from Peter Kellett’s lecture about the diversity of livelihoods in informal areas. We began thinking how in dense informal areas such as that found in Comuna 8, boundaries between ‘home’ and ‘work’ and other spaces used throughout the day are not always clear. One of Kellett’s examples showed a woman in a city of northern Colombia who ran a tailoring business from home. Another example showed a woman who had used a room of her house as a school, shifting the contents of the space quickly to accommodate a group of schoolchildren with not many other places to go.

group project.png“Infrastructure for livelihoods”: group project idea for a small-scale intervention

“The poor” are often portrayed by the privileged as a homogenous group; sometimes as pitiful and helpless; in more recent times, poor informal residents are often presented as “entrepreneurs,” an idea that can be equally damaging. Though I want to avoid any generalizing terms, the fact of the matter is that people can and do have ways of making do with what they have. The intervention we came up with in my group hoped to bolster this by providing a shared space in which livelihoods could intersect and be expanded: a vendor of crafts may have a new space to work and to sell, a teacher could have a space to teach. In addition, while the cable car intervention has raised pride over the city as a whole, a more localized community space could more easily provide a sense of ownership and pride over the neighborhood itself. Some authors such as Bahl (2012) have discussed how participation should entail “shared control” rather than be consultative.

tyre housing.pngAnother type of “shared control” explored in our course was that of a housing cooperative for the fisherman of Tyre, Lebanon. The structure is semi-enclosed with shared common areas but with many gaps for circulation with the outside world.

Though I liked my group’s idea for a small-scale design intervention, I still struggled with how much these kinds of ‘social urbanism’ interventions could really address deep-seated power relations that perpetuate the problems in Medellin in the first place. I spoke with a girl from Colombia who I lived with briefly (the nature of London to have people from around the globe in your direct vicinity) who had visited Medellin. She said that in visiting the city, the cable-car system does indeed inspire awe, and that Medellin, which had for so long been synonymous with a drug and murder haven, had successfully changed its image for the better. She spoke of the fact that more and more people were visiting these marginalized neighborhoods now, and that kids of the area had even taken it upon themselves to provide tours and explain the regeneration of the area to new visitors. But she also said that this inevitably means gentrification, that current residents were and would continue to be obliged to move elsewhere as the neighborhoods become less affordable. For whom are we planning, then? What is the point of new design interventions to foster community connectivity, etc., if the intended beneficiaries have had to move away because of the new perceived “value” of the area?

This is the kind of global trend affecting cities around the world that is presented as “inevitable” that I’m not sure we should have to accept. But I don’t know if a design intervention could have much effect. As Tafuri states,“it is useless to propose purely architectural alternatives. The search for an alternative within the structures that condition the very character of architectural design is indeed an obvious contradiction” (cited in Clarke, 2005, p. 45). In other words, it cannot be assumed that the reordering of space will naturally bring about the desired participation on the part of community residents. Tafuri’s words are perhaps also touching upon how architecture has been historically ruled by “experts” who themselves are interested in preserving a certain power structure. The aim (whether implicit or explicit) of planners and designers has so often been to ensure that the build environment reproduces the social order (Harvey, 1996). It is thus clear to me that social urbanism is as much political as architectural, and urban design on its own is not sufficient to address the global unequal forces that daily shape how we live our lives.

But if the only power we have to intervene as supposed “citizens” of a city is in the immediate space around us, then this possibility should not be discounted. The question is how such an intervention can challenge the existing social order rather than merely reproduce it. A difficult task, I think, but not an impossible one.

Works Cited

Aureli, Pier Vittorio, 2011, “City as Political Form: Four Archetypes of Urban Transformation,” Architectural Design, Vol. 81, No. 1, pp. 32-37.

Bahl, Veyom, 2012, “Murder Capital to modern miracle? The Progression of governance in Medellin, Colombia,” DPU Working paper No. 143, Development Planning Unit, London.

Brand, Peter and Davila, Julio D., 2011, “Mobility innovation at the urban margins,” City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, Vol. 15, No. 6, pp. 647-661.

Clarke, Paul Walker, 2005, “The Ideal of community and its counterfeit construction,” Journal of Architectural Education, pp. 43-52.

Harvey, David, 1996, “On Planning the Ideology of Planning”, in Campbell, S. and Fainstein, S.S. (editors), Readings in Planning Theory, Blackwell, pp. 176-197.

Navarro-Sertich, Adriana, 2011, “Favela Chic,” Berkeley Planning Journal, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 175-196.

Terms of Reference, Critical Urbanism Studio 1: Learning from Informality: Case Studies and Alternatives, 2013.


6 thoughts on “Who is it for? A critical reflection on power in “social urbanism” and planning

  1. Reblogged this on ramblinginthecity and commented:
    All the good stuff- connectivity, mobility, participation and ownership and public spaces that the community needs (not necessarily open spaces), this post looks at Medellin and picks out elements that make it work. It also explores some questions around which we can better understand urban connections and issues.

  2. Hello! I could have sworn I’ve visited your blog before but after going through some
    of the articles I realized it’s new to me. Anyways, I’m definitely delighted I stumbled upon it
    and I’ll be book-marking it and checking back frequently!

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