Jorge Pérez Jaramillo and the dystopian, utopian parable of Medellín

Jorge Pérez Jaramillo. Courtesy of J. Pérez Jaramillo.


King’s Review’s editor Giulia Torino and King’s College’s fellow Felipe Hernández met Jorge Pérez Jaramillo, Colombian architect and urbanist, during his visiting fellowship at King’s College to write his latest book. The work will deal with a critical overview of the widely celebrated post-1991 urban transformation of Medellín that became a planning reference for cities all around the world, under the soi-disant appellation of “the miracle of Medellín”. Drawing on his role as educator, social innovator, academic and architect, ones who champions the social role of design and planning, Pérez Jaramillo discusses with KR the role of the academy in shaping social and urban change in exceptionally contested human environments, the effects of the “peace agreement” with the FARC on the endemic national struggle over land, and the chronic weakness of Colombian institutions, in a lucid analysis of the city of Medellín during and after the apogee of narcotraffic.

Giulia Torino: Colombia is going through an unparalleled epoch in its modern history. Caught in-between the recent peace agreement with the (now demobilised) country’s main left-wing guerrillas, the FARC; the seemingly failing peace agreement with the country’s second major left-wing guerrillas, the ELN; an unprecedented Venezuelan migration to Colombia’s major cities; the very delicate and contested situation of the upcoming national elections of 27th May; the ever-present ghost of forced disappearances and the killing of social leaders, due for the most to right-wing paramilitaries; the world’s second highest number of internally displaced people after Syria; a tension toward social “modernity” and the construction of a new imagery for the country, while most of its society is still victim of a structural problem with social inequality… Colombia currently finds itself at the centre of some truly complicated historical and political conjunctures. And the city of Medellín is no exception to all this. Why don’t you start telling us something about this long-standing relationship between yourself and the city?

Jorge Pérez Jaramillo: I was born and spent my whole life in Medellín. I am part of that generation who lived through one of the most painful and tragic epochs of the history of Colombia. An epoch of profound contradictions; of territorial, identity, and social conflicts; of problems accumulated throughout the whole history of what came to be known as Latin America. I studied in a school of Benedictine monks, which contributed to the strong humanistic inclinations and social preoccupations that I have had throughout my civic life… and in my job.

GT: When did you decide to become an architect, and how did this decision affect your social concerns and activity?

JPJ: I have always wanted to study architecture. In front of the dramatic conditions of illegality and complex power structures that were surrounding me in the 1980s, I understood that I had to turn myself into part of the solution. This led me, together with many others, to become what back then was called a “nonconformist student”, deeply involved in the debates on and around the city. This was possible to a great extent thanks to our professors, and to their critical spirit in looking at society. We graduated in very precarious times for the economic situation of the country in general, and of Medellín in particular, so it was those same professors who convinced me to remain in the academia, while carrying out my internship in architecture and signing my first design projects. Soon enough, students started to take the lead on important issues, despite the traditional and Catholic approach that characterised the Bolivarian University back then. It was at that point when a student movement asked me to become Dean of the School of Architecture! 1Only “School” from here on. That was the moment in which we started to employ the School as a tool to (re)think our city. My long deanship, next to my professional practice, shaped my deep interest for urban questions. When I left my position as Dean, I took charge of the metropolitan planning for Medellín and some years after I was Director of the Department of City Planning, until 2015. More or less, this has been the story so far!

GT: How old were you when you became Dean?

JPJ: I was 28. It was 1993. In that period, the School was a “house for thought”, as one of its former deans once said, in the 1950s. Antonio Mesa Jaramillo was the one who planted in the school the idea that architects were social actors, rather than mere designers. During the social crisis of the 1990s, we understood that the School had to re-appropriate such a role; it had to formulate alternatives for the future of the city and the society at large. We understood that what was being taught and experimented in the undergraduate courses could not avoid dealing with the very problems of the urban reality that surrounded academia. So, the School turned itself into a sort of laboratory, a place of great experimentation! Which made possible that a whole generation of architects grew with a strong commitment to public issues, and with a great operational capacity to intervene upon the city. This led to what today is well known as the “miracle of Medellín”, and wrongly so, because what happened was anything but a miracle! It was, instead, a substantive advance in the urban society and urban organisation of a city that, until the 1990s, was deemed to be socially doomed and urbanistically non-viable; an advance that did not explode all of a sudden, but which started very early, during those same 1990s.

GT: During those years the power of Colombian narcotraffic cartels was at its peak, with Pablo Escobar being elected as an alternate member of the Chamber of Representatives in 1982 and backing, among others, the M-19’s famous siege of the Palace of Justice in Bogotá, in 1985. This national condition of insecurity was particularly harsh in Medellín, which infamously became the world’s “murder capital”, with 55,365 violent deaths between 1990 and 2000. The Colombian literature of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s constantly refers to words like violencia and olvido. I am thinking, among many others, of Héctor Abad Faciolince’s “The Oblivion We Shall Be” (El Olvido Que Seremos) (2006), Laura Restrepo’s “Delirium” (Delirio), and Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s “The Noise of Things Falling” (El Ruido de Las Cosas Al Caer). They all powerfully convey the underlying anxiety of being in the public space and the omnipresent concern of people about personal and collective safety. Like invisible, spectral, and bloody hands. How would you describe the social and spatial condition of Medellín during those years?

JPJ: We lived in a city of fear and terror, in which public space and public life came to be associated with risk. The city filled up with guards, walls, control, surveillance… public space became a no man’s land. We lived inside our houses, in the private space detached from the danger of the streets. We also lived in a society that was the mirror of the recent and impressive urban growth of the 1980s and 1990s, characterised by high levels of informality, precariousness, and segregation. Back then there was no real democracy, nor solid political institutions, in Medellín. We were also living a stage of profound decline in the economy, and our commercial tradition, oftentimes associated with smuggling, was almost entirely substituted by illegal commerce, money laundering, and the development of increasingly more powerful criminal organisations. Overall, a society in which the abnormal was deemed to be normal.

Our streets, our habitat, was under the control of narcos who, in virtue of their unlimited wealth, were progressively integrating into various sectors of the economy, politics, and the institutions. This situation was characteristically represented by the real estate sector, which witnessed an unparalleled and unnatural boom after becoming a mechanism par excellence of the money laundering of narcotraffic. The real estate also became a symbol of social ascent, and it was more and more common to see eccentric and opulent private buildings designed by some of our most prestigious architects. Those years witnessed an impressive transformation of traditional neighbourhoods, with low density and urban development, into luxurious housing, first, and speculative housing developments for the upper class, later. It was a stage plagued by violence and desperation, in which we were formed as a generation with no future.

GT: What were the main concerns and debates within the School during those same years?

JPJ: From the very beginning, what was crucial to us was the creation of an academic community, which shared collective mechanisms and objectives. Academia and the city have something in common: at the general level, they are made in such a way that interest groups come into conflict, and by doing so they often lose sight of the principal objective, that is, the [academic or urban] community itself. As most of us were still students back in the 1980s, it was not hard for us to understand that the School had to create possibilities for the future of the new generations.

We started to run the School in a collegiate way: I was the dean, yes, but not the typical one you would imagine — somebody with a profound and long-standing experience and with the personal capacities to orientate the school according to his own intellectual specificity! Rather, we were putting together a sort of jazz band and constructing the School as a jam session: a collective movement, yet very compact, that discussed and constructed everything together. Dozens of young professors grew up in this way, with the idea of an inspiring academia. And those same professors were later to be the very actors that greatly influenced the urban transformation of Medellín.  For the first time in many decades, the academia was attuned with the questions that the city was raising.

GT: And attuned to the Colombian Constitution of 1991, through which the country started to open its doors to the world, after a long economic and cultural protectionism. At the same time, however, the needs of those citizens who had been historically marginalised and excluded from the narratives and promises of modernity — and of the Nation — remained almost unchanged. Which was the role of the academia in Medellín in addressing those demands?

JPJ: Indeed, the Constitution of 1991 and the political changes of that time, from the local election of the Mayor to the decentralisation of 1988, contributed to shape our decision to engage more directly with the problems of Medellín from the academia. Not only for academic interest, but also to contribute to the political and social debate. Those years were following an epoch of profound confusion in Colombia, during which the murder of the progressive leaders, the bipartisan political conflicts, and the crises in both the countryside and the city were constituting a dystopian panorama. Therefore, it is also thanks to that progressive opening of the country at the national level that, in the 1990s, the Bolivarian University started to constitute itself as a place for social critique and political activism, and ceased to be the university of the élite. Differently from the National University 2In Colombia, the National University (Universidad Nacional) is considered to be the academic institution par excellence in terms of socio-political engagement; although in recent years many private universities have become more socially engaged. we had never had a strong socio-political presence until then.
Starting from the third semester of the degree, all the undergraduate studio projects dealt with real issues of the city, with urgent urban questions. For instance, the Mejoramiento Integral de Barrios [Comprehensive Neighbourhood Plan] and the Mejoramiento de Vivienda [Housing Upgrading Plan] occupied the fourth and fifth semesters and were at the core of the degree in architecture. We conceived the School as extra muros: we wanted to get out of the “ivory tower” the Bolivarian University had been for so long, and support the society at large in Medellín, while also adding to it. I remember that, after the terrible earthquake in the Coffee Region, in 1999, we were working from the School on a planning solution for the reconstruction of Armenia3The city that was hit the most during the 1999 earthquake.: it was called El Taller de la Ciudad [The City Workshop]. Together with a group of teachers and students from the university, we ended up actually constructing our design project! It was a moment of amazing dynamism, in which we strongly believed that education in Latin America could be experimental. With certain levels of practicality, of course, but above all with great critical creativity and analytical capacity, to understand and help our communities.

Felipe Hernández: I know that you invited many architects to the School, during those years. Almost at the same time in history, in the Anglo-Saxon academy there was a moment of similarly searching for alternative positions in relation to issues dealing with gender, discrimination, colonialism, etc. That moment in cultural studies was tremendously influential for architecture in England and the United States. Did it have any impact on architecture in Latin America?

JPJ: There were many open questions in our society at that time. Problems dealing not only with inequality, social marginality, violence, and an overall fragmented society, but also with the architectural profession itself. With its idea of professional autonomy, architecture had progressively taken distance from reality, and from society… to the point of becoming a professional autism. We realised that we had to create the conditions in the School whereby it could start building upon theory, debate, and critical inquiry. It was at that moment that the conditions for the creation of Masters programmes such as the one in Critical Theory & Design started to emerge. We endeavoured to invite people that had the ability to share how, from the perspective of architecture and urbanism, one could better understand the architect’s role and responsibility in society. Yet it was rather hard, back in the days, to attract scholars from the Anglo-Saxon world, because of the language barrier. So we focused on Latin America and Spain. Spain was an interesting case because it was in the process of entering a democratic process after a long dictatorship, and we were also united by our shared language, culture, and way of understanding the city. Nonetheless, most of the Colombian professors active in the School, as well as those we were inviting, had studied in Italy and the UK, New York and California, among others.

GT: From your words, it seems that the progressive constitution of a strong bond between the academia and the urban society was crucial in enabling what would later be known as the “miracle of Medellín”. Would the urban change have been possible without that intense phase of social experimentation inside the university, and especially inside the school of architecture?

JPJ: Absolutely not. What I champion, and what was truly valuable in the process of change in Medellín, is that what changed were the communities, the leaders in this process, the people: the urban transformation came later, after the social and civic change. I believe that education was so powerful, the questions that emerged did mobilise to so large an extent the minds and spirits of the people, that the obtained change truly offered alternatives. Which is why change ultimately acquired such a great magnitude. Politics changed, the way of thinking about the city changed, the social sciences changed… Education was (and is!) such a marvellous tool! Yet there is a fundamental issue: change did not depend upon the single individuals, as we often hear in the case of Medellín. It rather depended upon the formation of a whole generation which was able to give shape to and structure all those ideas. What happened in Medellín was, ultimately, that many people with great abilities of critical thinking were involved in changing the city. This is what made a real transformation possible. And this is not something you can create from a day to the other, nor something that a leader alone can produce, nor that can emerge out of one condition alone… An academy, an educational system, which starts to raise questions and to research solutions: this is what engendered real change.

FH: When you gave your first talk at the Department of Architecture, here in Cambridge, my colleagues were surprised about the rapidity of change in Medellín. In the UK the social and political system operates much more slowly due to, among other factors, an entangled bureaucracy. Has the situation changed in Colombia, during the last decade?

JPJ: This question is pertinent to both the city and the university. The best stage in the School was that in which the School was at its worst. That is, when we had only questions. The worst stage is now, when we have only answers —  or, well… so we think. When the School started to acquire greater “formality”, a rigidity so to speak, a certain stability and shape, the first forms of limelight started to emerge… with all different ideas and objectives compared to our initial stances. The same has happened to the city. At the beginning of the 1990s, Medellín seemed to have no future ahead. The clearest thing was that nothing was clear! That is why, as professors, we used the least traditional academic approach. Moreover, almost none of us had a Masters, let alone a PhD! Not that there weren’t Masters and doctoral programmes at the time, but those who had done them were… in a different state of tranquillity, let’s say.

The fact is that Medellín has always been characterised by a certain trajectory, according to which we always need to act: people are not happy to merely conform to the plan and the theoretical approach. The School, as much as the city, has a strong design-led tradition, according to which we are always asking ourselves: qué hacemos? — what do we do now? So strong that, often, what we lacked was indeed a theoretical basis to underpin practice. The architectural scene in Medellín has a fantastic practical ability, and yet little theoretical and critical understanding of the city. Nowadays, however, our urban problems have become so overwhelming that they outmatch our technical design abilities. Today a design project also involves the planning of the legal and social management, the ability to work with the state and to arrange agreements between private and public institutions, and so on and so forth. The almost immediate relationship between problem and solution that we used to have until the 1990s is rarely found today. We are entering a different stage, in which there is much more “formality” in the processes of urban change. At the same time, the political and electoral debate is much more open than before: it is harder to win with the majority, and there are more options to choose among. This also means that the political front is more divided, and there are more perspectives on the city.

Parque del Rio urban redevlopment in Medellín. Courtesy of J. Pérez Jaramillo


FH: Which is the role of urban design and planning in this moment?

JPJ: I think it is fundamental that they create an atmosphere of critical debate, inside and outside of academia, in order to construct again collective dialogues with the society as a whole… something that, in the last years, we have lost. The attitude has become that of celebrating the past without understanding the present. Academia shall be the place par excellence where thinking is formed and takes place — but that thinking must be critical and political. Instead, the past energy and transformative impetus of academia faded away at the turn of the century. There is now a widespread numbness.

FH: This problem of the lack of criticism seems very relevant. Criticism is a field, not a thing; yet my Colombian colleagues usually take critiques rather personally, thus inhibiting the constructive power of criticism. When somebody makes a criticism, one is stressing a point that requires debate and development, rather than saying that somebody did something wrong. Yet in Colombia criticism is usually frowned upon, both inside and outside academia. That is why I have the feeling that it is hard — sometimes even impossible — to construct a critical discourse there…

JPJ: Claro, clarísimo, preciso! I have the same impression. The only reason for which it was possible to make re-emerge our critical legacy was that those debates were needed in a moment of absolute crisis. The power structures, order and control, in Medellín proved to be impotent in front of the power of reality… and this opened pathways to critical thinking. The bad news about this is that what happened was not due to a modern and progressive revolution of the society, which understood the need of criticism and thus welcomed it. No. Change depended upon the necessary and, to some extent, sudden response to a state of emergency. Criticism in Colombia still generates rejection, distrust, almost a feeling of danger. Even though I have been very privileged in having the possibility to intervene in certain scenarios, mine was a rare case: that is not the normal praxis in Medellín, nor in the rest of Colombia, characterised as it is by a feudal structure, a crystallised status quo. And this is obviously connected to the lack of critical thinking.

Medellín cable car. Courtesy of Giulia Torino, 2014


Today in Medellín we are paying a high price for this loss of critical perspectives: benefitting from such an advancement made us lose the ability to delve deeply into that same change, and into the new solutions that the city would require today. We find ourselves in a sort of dialogue between the deaf, in which those who dare to start some critical debate get labelled as negative, dangerous, deployed against somebody else. This is probably the situation in Colombia as a whole, which tends to minimize problems. It was like that for the narcotraffic and it is like that for corruption, and for much more. Our structural problem is not the FARC, as the media and the government like to declare. That is one among many others. The peace process should have been about a long-term strategy and “peace trail”, with long-term agreements to improve the lives of everyone. Instead, a sort of vetoed peace process was created, which could not be discussed nor criticised by anyone… otherwise you are labelled an “enemy of the peace”! The country is still not ready to welcome critical discussions that do not end up in personal enmities, or hate…or even deadly episodes of violence. This was probably the main challenge in the peace process — and so far, it has failed. The same is true for academia, the city, the country.

GT: How does the peace agreement, which very recently led to the complete disarmament of the FARC, concern Colombian cities —  and, therefore, also urban designers and planners?

JPJ: This is a matter of the utmost importance. The peace agreement with the FARC offers different scenarios with a great potential for change, and many opportunities for the country. As it is known, the future of Colombia’s cities — in a country and a subcontinent in which the population is primarily urban—  was barely tackled by the agreement. This is obviously worrying, to the extent that the social conflicts of territorial control and land property, which are at the basis of our long-standing history of violence, do not seem to be at the centre of the future steps envisioned by the agreement. Which means that, in the current scenario, many questions about our accumulated conflicts will manifest themselves in cities, and they will require all of us to react to them — not only in front of different forms of violence, but also and especially in front of the institutional and democratic challenges that will emerge from them. It will thus be needed to overcome the fragility and limits of our institutions, while addressing the difficult conditions of inequality and segregation that prevail in our cities and society.

GT: Despite over a year having passed since the signature of the peace agreement, violence and violent conflicts are still an inescapable reality in Colombia. At the same time, however, episodes of violence and their victims continuously risk being submerged by the olvido that seems to chronically infect Colombian society. How to ensure that the violence of the 1980s and 1990s does not get forgotten by the celebratory narratives that globally portray a brand new Colombia (and a brand new Medellín), in which “the only risk is that you’ll want to stay” (“el riesgo es que te quieras quedar”), as an early 2000s touristic slogan famously declared? How to ensure, in other words, that what Abad Faciolince calls the “oblivion of the elites of the [Colombian] society” is not pursued any longer? That, indeed, “lo que se escribe con sangre no se pued[a] borrar”? (“that which is written in blood cannot be forgotten”). Because, after the rush of the last two decades to wash away a past of common associations with narcotraffic, a part of Colombia often seems to have also forgotten about the horrors produced and suffered by its society — despite the fact that they are all but part of the past, although mostly far away from the eyes of the international tourism.

JPJ: It would be fundamental to develop a peace process which truly incorporates the whole of society; by means of which all Colombians could reflect self-critically, moving beyond ideological and sectorial shores, in order to take charge of reality and its problems — our accumulated problems — as well as possible solutions, to dream about a real change.  In reality, our peculiar assemblage of violence cannot be undone by conventional analyses nor partial solutions. It demands, instead, a true awareness about what we ought to change, how we can change, and what it is possible to change, in order to forge a project of future in peace. This did not happen with the [peace] agreement between the FARC and the government. On the contrary. The so-called “peace process” has exacerbated the national fragmentation and has unleashed a renovated war — of polarisation, hate, and fear, as powerful as those of the past, and which has divided our communities even more, keeping us off the chance to agree upon our common problems and mistakes, upon injustice and segregation; off the chance to build, together, propositions and a common future. This perverted acceptation of “peace”, which validates violence and death on the basis of collective mistakes, now represents a misjudgement which prevails in all sides of politics and the society.

GT: Not long ago, Al-Jazeera published a very interesting documentary entitled “Ghosts of Medellín” in which the film-makers addressed the nation-wide issue of forced disappearance (desaparición forzada) and urban mass graves in the city. The stories narrated by the documentary are indeed contemporary, and the victims always members of the lowest socioeconomic spheres of society. Do you think that the narratives around and about the “Medellín miracle” and “urban model” have overridden this prominent aspect of its urban society?

JPJ: I don’t think so. Our conflicts have, of course, different impacts in all the spheres of our society, and in the transformation of Medellín problems such as inequality and social inclusion were prioritised. Behind our urban evolution, there were many positive results dealing with social inclusion, people’s civic participation, and public investments in the poorest communities, with many positive results. What is true, however, is that the complexity of our social problems and the presence of criminal groups in different sectors is very complex. Medellín is currently the most powerful city in the North-West of South America, connected with both oceans, the Darién Gap, and the Panama Canal. It operates like a key centrality for the international organised crime, including and beyond smuggling and narcotraffic, which are sadly an undeniable part of our history. Colombia, like other countries, fulfils a good part of the dirty job associated with international organised crime. In Medellín, those engaged in arms trafficking, drug trafficking, money laundering, and other forms of corruption and crime, have encountered a fertile ground for the development of their illegal activities. As if this weren’t enough, it is obvious that the war against the guerrillas had an urban foothold, by means of different organisations that complicated even further the already problematic conditions of the barrios and comunas [slum or peripheral settlements] of the city.
Thanks to the research developed by the Institute of Urban Studies (IEU) of the National University in Bogotá, it is now patent that, since Spanish colonisation, the Colombian territory has been acquiring a geo-strategic configuration for the conflictual relationships with illegality and violence. Our barrios are territories characterised by several social and economic problems, alongside a very limited presence and control on the part of the State. This configured them as appropriate scenarios for the development of illegal activities. The mixture of all these factors generated a highly complex reality, which remains distant from a prompt, complete, and unifying solution. As a matter of fact, however, Medellín has showed how, in spite of its exceptional difficulties, we managed to evolve starting from our social investment, toward a society with better conditions of and for life. The current rates associated to the overcoming of extreme poverty, unemployment, and social services coverage (health, education, etc.) are all noteworthy. Obviously, Medellín has reached an “incomplete equity”, in which many difficulties and challenges still separate us from achieving a truly just and equitable society.

GT: Common omissions in the careful consideration of these “difficulties and challenges” have risked creating an international imaginary of Colombia, and in particular of cities like Medellín and Bogotá, that is sadly still far away from the social reality of the majority of its inhabitants, despite significant social changes have been achieved since the 1990s. Do you think that such omissions can undermine the legitimacy of the results obtained in, among other cities, Medellín and Bogotá — and of its mayors, who are still largely welcomed like heroes by most of the international opinion?

JPJ: I think we ought not to oversimplify. And certainly this is something that some have done. There has been a lot of propaganda, for electoral political interests, imbued with messianic narratives which have caricaturised what were, instead, the undeniable advances of our cities and societies, and which have brought us to blindly believe in the existence of [urban] “miracles” and “models”. After decades of complete unawareness about the injustice and precariousness of our society, during the last three decades our city governments have gradually started to make experiments with local democracy and the development of public institutions, in favour of a more serious, democratic, and modern society. Notwithstanding, no miracle nor complete solution have existed, and the way ahead is still highly problematic and full of obstacles. What we do have is a very vital society, with some levels of clarity and a good technical development, with civic learnings and conquests at its back, but still with a lot of precariousness. This requires to understand that civic processes take much more than individual heroism (caudillismo) and demand an active and solid citizenship; that is, to shape political and civic projects with vision and with longterm agreements.

GT: There are other forms of less known heroism, though. For instance, the hundreds of social leaders that, every year, fight for their life and protection at the risk of being “disappeared”. However, the memory of the disappeared ones has often evanesced from official and mainstream narratives. A phenomenon possibly best pictured by what Colombia’s Nobel Prize Gabriel García Márquez called, in “One Hundred Years Of Solitude”, la peste del olvido —  a chronic loss of memory. That same olvido that seems to shape paradoxical yet simultaneous societies and temporalities in Colombia: on the one hand, a tension toward “modernity” and “civilisation”; on the other, a persistent appeal to some of the crudest and most horrible forms of violence, on the part of institutions as much as individuals. A violence that, of course, has characterised Colombia since much before the rise of narcotraffic, and that still seems to undermine and shake its democratic structure despite the alleged institutional defeat of “the drug lords”, after the killing of Pablo Escobar. I am thinking, for instance, of the scandal of the False Positives (Falsos Positivos), under former president Álvaro Uribe; or about the systematic killing of Colombia’s social leaders, which has produced over 200 deaths (although figures vary) since the peace agreement was signed, in November 2016. In a country officially “at peace”, these are unacceptable data —  and most of mainstream media, both locally and internationally, are tacitly ignoring them. How are these issues affecting Colombian cities in general, and Medellín in particular? Also considering that, despite being the society in Colombia a primarily urban one, the relationship rural-urban remains a very strong one.

JPJ: As we said, our situation is highly problematic. Many of the structural issues that have sustained violence and conflict in Colombia still prevail. The so-called “peace process” is, fundamentally, an agreement between two sectors which, together, do not manage to cover the half of the Colombian society; it thus cannot constitute an easy scenario for the future. In the agreement, Colombia’s structural problems were not adequately discussed. If we stick to the political debates in force, we remain distant from gaining a clear understanding of the substratum of our conflicts. We are still far-removed from the consensus necessary to a real, and much needed, change. This is due to the partial and often corrupted visions that, from the right- as much as the left-wing, have justified killing and hate for too much time. We cannot even agree on what is needed in order to leave in peace. I have reservations on the positive evolution of the country… But its immense territory, with an incommensurable natural and human richness, has an unquestionable potential.

GT: Indeed!  And “Pepe” Mujica, Uruguay’s former president, recently said that Colombia’s peace represents a chance for redemption or failure for the whole Latin American region…

JPJ: …nonetheless, the extreme concentration of national territorial resources into a few hands, the precariousness of the State and of our democracy, in a country with an urbanisation rate higher than 80% [of the population], and with complex geo-strategic problems in the middle of an increasing global polarisation, well, all this presents a very uncertain scenario, fragile and hazardous. In this context, the urban future is not a clear priority in neither the agreement of La Habana nor in the political proposals of the ongoing presidential campaign. Even though Colombian cities host over the 80% of the population, as well as more than the 80% of the crimes and the violent conflicts, the peace does not seem to be an urban issue. We are not prioritising the governance of the territory, nor the progressive growth of the Twenty-First Century city, that is, the metropolitan phenomenon, which calls for an appropriate institutional evolution and for new forms of governance. Furthermore, in the case of Medellín, the advancements and indubitable successes accumulated have confused us: we are losing track of the collective agenda of many of the previous city governments, and we have fallen victim of incomplete visions, with great inconsistency, discontinuity, and fragmentation. This puts at risk the former advancements of the city, as well as our chances to consolidate a true change.

GT: Another emerging problem of great socio-political weight, as well as being one that has garnered much media coverage, has been more recently determined by the unprecedented Venezuelan migration to Colombia, which some politicians, during the presidential campaign, have alerted may soon become ungovernable. The migratory wave, which is especially affecting big cities like Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali, but also border-cities like Cúcuta, is said to have reached 100,000 migrants per day crossing the border between Venezuela and Colombia. This situation has already triggered a wave of xenophobic reactions and political preoccupations (alongside, it must be said, examples of solidarity), juxtaposing to (and often interweaving with) the already structural racial discrimination of indigenous and Afro-descendant populations in Colombia. Despite the problem still being widely under-analysed, both at the academic and institutional level, at the urban as much as at the national scale, do you already prospect any particular panorama, in terms of future planning strategies that could make the current situation more socially and spatially viable for everyone, rather than exacerbating it?

JPJ: This is undoubtedly an emerging problem in Colombia and Colombian cities, and it represents the legacy of a very complicated common history between the two countries, in which both failed to construct a solid relationship, and which has rather been a brotherhood manipulated by corruption and political agents, in order to tear us apart and bring us to a conflictive scenario. In addition, the precariousness of both governments, which seem today weaker than ever before, makes the whole situation highly dangerous and problematic. In the Colombian case, several difficulties are already affecting potential future scenarios in the country, and therefore it would be audacious to venture into premature speculations. For the time being, it is a matter of fact that the growing presence of Venezuelan citizens looking for better opportunities in Colombia finds forms of expression which encompass all aspects of social life, including of course illegal groups. To find viable ways ahead for the inclusion of these people will soon be a new challenge for all of us.


This interview was conducted mainly in Spanish, and translated into English by Giulia Torino.

JORGE PÉREZ JARAMILLO: is an architect based in Medellín, where he has been leading his architectural and planning practice since 1987. Former Medellín Chief Planner (2012-15), and Mayor in Charge (May 2013), he is a member representative of the city and Dean of the School of Architecture at Universidad Santo Tomás,  Co-chair of the Regional Committee for the Americas, and Chair of the Emerging Cities Group of World Urban Parks, among others. From 1993 to 2001 he was Dean of the Faculty of Architecture at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (UPB) in Medellín. Pérez Jaramillo was Visiting Fellow at King’s College Cambridge in 2017, where he started writing his forthcoming book about Medellín´s urban transformation.

References   [ + ]

1. Only “School” from here on.
2. In Colombia, the National University (Universidad Nacional) is considered to be the academic institution par excellence in terms of socio-political engagement; although in recent years many private universities have become more socially engaged.
3. The city that was hit the most during the 1999 earthquake.

Giulia Torino is a PhD Candidate in Urban Studies at the University of Cambridge, where she is a member of the research group Cities South of Cancer (Martin Centre, Department of Architecture), founder of the King’s College Urban Network together with Professor Matthew Gandy, and founder of the multi-departmental Urbanism in the Global South Working Group. In her research, she seeks to interrogate and problematize the concept of racial segregation in a Latin American metropolis (Bogotá) from the perspective of Afro-descendant invisibility and Latin American ‘decoloniality’ theory.

Felipe Hernández is an architect and Fellow in Architecture at Kng’s College Cambridge. He has carried out extensive research on architecture in Latin America and he is the author of “Bhabha for Architects” (Routledge 2010) and “Beyond Modernist Masters: Contemporary Architecture in Latin America” (Birkhauser 2009), among others. He is also co-editor of three volumes on Latin American architecture: “Marginal Urbanisms: Informal and Formal Development in Cities of Latin America”(Cambridge Scholars 2017), “Rethinking the Informal City: Critical Perspectives from Latin America”(Berghahn 2009), and “Transculturation: Cities, Spaces and Architectures in Latin America” (Rodopi 2005).

Suggested Reading