Creating spaces of shared citizenship and social control : redefining invisible borders through urban design interventions in Las Independencias, San Javier, Medellín

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Todtz, Evan Thomas

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Medellín, a city once plagued by violence, has recently become a global model for more equitable urban planning and urban design practice. Initiated during the mayoral administration of Sergio Fajardo (2004-2007), a progressive planning tool known as the Integrated Urban Project (PUI) guides physical design interventions in the urban peripheries where historic state absence had led to extreme levels of violence and socio-economic inequities. Collectively denoted as social urbanism, these new institutional and mobility projects seek to disrupt the existing geographies of violence, referred to by local residents as invisible borders (fronteras invisibles), while newly created public spaces aim to promote a culture of shared citizenship (cultura ciudadanía) between neighborhood residents. Given the state’s intent to shape and exert control over the socio-spatial relationships of residents within contexts of urban informality, this thesis seeks to contextualize the planning and design of new public spaces within the everyday lived experiences of neighborhood residents by presenting a case study along the public escalator system in the neighborhood sector of Las Independencias, San Javier. Based on a “quasi” design ethnography research methodology, including researcher observations and local resident interviews, the thesis provides a detailed description of physical and social characteristics of new urban common spaces. The public escalator system was designed to disrupt existing geographies of violence by creating new spatial connections and an institutional presence in Las Independencias. However, this mobility infrastructure also erodes the social vibrancy of the stairway, a dynamic social space within contexts of urban informality. By supporting only unidirectional movement (up or down) and removing the stairway’s potential for residents to gather, the escalators generate a pass-through space by design. Furthermore, the design favors social gathering in highly controlled public platforms between escalator segments, limiting the potential uses of these spaces to what the state deems acceptable and desirable. Ultimately, the design and surveillance of the public escalator system paradoxically works to provide residents with enhanced mobility, accessibility and socio-economic opportunities while simultaneously strengthening the state’s institutional presence in the sector, limiting the potential to reflect embedded local cultural values and practices.


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