In city halls across Latin America, Medellin has a reputation for making miracles happen. Colombia’s second city, which was previously infamous for drug and gang violence, has transformed some of its most dangerous slums with a cable car system. Built in the early 2000s, the MetroCable connects the city centre to the sprawling hilltop slums—or barrios—on the city’s outskirts, the most violent of which used to be Santa Domingo.
Santa Domingo sits at the top of a steep hill, and like Brazil’s more well-known favelas, was built up over time as people moved to the city from the surrounding countryside. Fleeing the civil war and looking for opportunity, people built their own houses from whatever they had on hand. Its crowded, narrow streets and steep inclines made it unsuitable for conventional forms of public transport.
By providing a regular, reliable and cheap service from Santa Domingo to the city centre, people could leave to find work, bringing much-needed jobs and money to the community. More than this, the cable car and its stations became a symbol of belonging—by building it, the city’s authorities showed that Santa Domingo was accepted as a part of the city. Its residents had a real piece of infrastructure to mark it. Since the MetroCable was built, Santa Domingo has transformed from a no-go zone to a “place of relative peace.” The number of homicides dropped from 293 in 2001 to just 15 in 2016.
“In Rio, it is a complete failure”
“In Medellin, you had a very successful story, which has been copied by many cities in Latin America,” said Mariana Dias Simpson, a researcher and expert in urban development in Rio de Janeiro. “Where it did not work at all was in Complexo do Alemao, this complex of favelas in Rio.”
The sequel to Medellin’s MetroCable story is its replications across Latin America. Caracas, Manizales, Rio de Janeiro, and La Paz, Bolivia have all built their own cable cars, as local politicians chased the hope of transforming their problem areas into functional, successful districts, and eventually even tourist magnets. Some worked: Caracas’ cable car had a similar effect on the San Augustin barrio as Medellin’s MetroCable had on Santa Domingo. Rio de Janeiro’s didn’t.
“If you look at how different cities have tried to apply the same model, it is working in some of them,” said Santiago Uribe Rocha, the Chief Resilience Officer for Medellin. “But in Rio, it is a complete failure because it lacks some elements and was not really built for that context.”
From bad beginnings to collapse
Rio de Janeiro’s government started building a cable car system prior to hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2015 Olympics. It built lines to the Morros da Providencia, one of the city’s oldest favelas, and to the Complexo do Alemao Favela. They were the latest developments of the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC) a strategy launched in 2007 to invest heavily in city improvements.
“The cable car was probably the biggest project: it attracted the most attention and it had all the spotlight,” said Simpson. “But as local leaders pointed out from the beginning, the cable car was never [the residents’] priority. They had no basic sanitation, they had no housing—but they had a cable car that they called a white elephant flying over their communities.”
After it was built, the cable car failed to have the transformative effect on the community that it did in Medellin. “From the beginning, the cable car was never used by the population as expected,” said Simpson. “When they built it they expected that 70 per cent of the population would use the cable car. But a year after it was built, only 8 per cent of the population had registered to use it—and if you were a local resident, you could ride for free.”
The very geography of Rio’s favelas acted against the cable car. Santa Domingo in Medellin sits on a single steep hill, whereas Rio’s Complexo do Alemao and Providencia have many. This meant that many residents would need to use alternative transport to get to the cable car stations.
“They had no basic sanitation, they had no housing—but they had a cable car”
In Medellin, residents of Santa Domingo were consulted over the cable car plans and the MetroCable stations were built so as not to damage the existing environment. In the Rio favela of Providencia, city authorities changed the shape of the favelas to fit the cable car. A station was built in the middle of Providencia’s Americo Brum square, one of the oldest public spaces in the 19th century favela, changing its shape and character, and damaging livelihoods.
Today, the cable car has stopped running. The cables which carry the cars require maintenance, and Rio, in the midst of a terrible recession, doesn’t have the money to make the repairs. Violence is rising in the favelas, and unemployment and poverty have remained stagnant, while sanitation problems persist. Residents don’t mourn the cable car’s loss, but lament the waste of public money—which could have been spent on the lasting infrastructure they desperately need.
To plan better, cities need to work together
For Simpson, Medellin’s success has created the illusion that social problems can be resolved simply by dropping another government’s solution onto a waiting area. In reality, building urban improvements that last is painstaking.
“You can never solve the problems and issues encountered in favelas with these massive top-down projects,” said Simpson. “Physically and socially, they just don’t fit in the organism in favelas. To just copy a project from a different country without any constructive criticism [from the public] just doesn’t work.”
“It can’t be a coincidence that cities in Latin America are the most dangerous in the world”
The political process can hamper attempts to improve cities. Politicians’ need to stand in regular elections can dissuade them from long-term projects. Instead, they tend to favour big, flashy infrastructure projects, which are easier to take credit for. Often, the gulf between city hall and the streets can be too wide.
“The more you know about your city, the better you can apply foreign models, because it’s all about adapting them for your own practicality, for your own context,” said Rocha. “It applies to every single subject—transport, violence prevention, water management, energy, waste, social cohesion—everything. What is good for London could not work in Medellin.”
Now, urban experts and planners across Latin America are trying a new approach—one that champions collaboration between cities and recognises the shared roots of problems. Reformers aim to get residents to take charge of improvement schemes in their own neighbourhoods, and connect communities with others across the continent.
“Programs that are led by people tend to work much better”
“It can’t be a coincidence that cities in Latin America are the most dangerous in the world,” said Rocha. “We have something in common—there are connections, and they link up. How can you imagine being able to get any success if you work on your own? We have to really work as a unit: design together, work together.”
Government has a role to play to coordinate such exchanges. Without meaningful dialogue between communities and government, mistakes like Rio’s cable car will be made again and again. The right interventions, made well, can reinvigorate areas, and make life better for their residents. For both Rocha and Simpson, cities must learn to listen.
“Programs that are led by people tend to work much better than those which are massive top-down interventions enforced on favelas,” said Simpson. “Of course, you need public policy to be behind it—and I’m not saying the state should withdraw and that the population can do it alone. But if they are listened to, you have a much better chance of finding sustainable solutions to so many of these problems.”