What message does your city send? This is Medellín’s.

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As 2015 rolls on, Medellín is still enjoying its reputation for innovation and urbanismo social (social urbanism)–an inclusive form of urban development famously manifested here in the use of cable cars and outdoor escalators as public transit and the placement of major public works like the España Library in poor areas. The city exudes an inspiring insistence on making sure that the tide of urban development lifts all boats.

But a question that comes up on occasion is whether Medellín’s reputation is based on reality or is merely the product of great marketing. (That Medellín resuscitated itself after years of violence toward the end of the 20th Century is not a subject of debate.) This Next City article, “Latin America’s New Superstar: How Gritty, Crime-Ridden Medellín Became a Model for 21st Century Urbanism“, and this This Big City piece, “Medellín: Miracle or Marketing Ploy?” provide a point-counterpoint.

As a new resident of Medellín, I’ve come to see the debate as a little beside the point, as long as the marketing is accompanied by sincere actions and significant progress. Living in a city that holds good values and repeatedly asserts them in a visible, pervasive way matters. Messaging can’t take the place of hard work and actual successes in helping people out of poverty and designing communities with a decent quality of life for all; the marketing would be downright offensive and frightening (nobody wants to be brainwashed or feel like they might be) without efforts in those areas. But, as the author of the “Medellín: Miracle of Marketing Ploy?” article alludes to toward the end, city leadership that expresses real concern about the needs of all its residents and acts on it, even if insufficiently and imperfectly, is better than city leadership that isn’t concerned at all. Besides, the good marketing ideally helps create a positive cycle in which saying the right thing and doing the right thing–at both the leadership and grassroots levels and on the individual and collective planes–feed each other.

For me, nowhere is Medellín’s messaging more notable than in the small text that appears just below the vast majority of billboards in the city (sponsored I assume by the Alcaldía, the Mayor’s Office).

The text is not the primary message of the billboard; the advertising space is usually filled with the expected pitches from cell service providers, Subway, Apple, new condo developments, law offices, etc. Instead, the text is found in the small bar just below the billboard, in the place where in the US you might see the name of whoever owns the sign, e.g., Clear Channel Outdoor. The messages are positive, inspiring, and encouraging of community involvement, and I appreciate them every day. Below are some I’ve noted during walks, drives, and jogs through the city. A few are also pictured above; I promise they are easier to see/read in person! Any mistakes in the Spanish-language text or the English translations below are my own. Corrections welcome!

Ten el coraje hacer lo que te dice tu corazón.
Have the courage to do what your heart tells you.

La fuerza de tu voz abre muchas puertas.
The strength of your voice opens many doors.

Perdonemos, así conseguimos La Paz.
By forgiving, we find peace.

La vida no se nos ha dado para ser felices, sino para merecer serlo.
Life was not given to us so that we could be happy, but so that we could deserve to be.

La tolerancia es el valor que nos hace dos ganadores.
Tolerance is the value that makes us both winners.

Y vos…¿Qué haces para cambiar el mundo?
And you? What are you doing to change the world?

El principio de la educación es predicar con el ejemplo.
The principle of education is to lead by example.

No existe gran talento sin gran voluntad.
Great talent does not exist without great will.

Interesarse en las personas tiene la ventaja de transformar sus vidas.
Being interested in people has the advantage of transforming lives.

Sin embargo, frente a la opresión, el saqueo y el abandono, nuestra respeta es para la VIDA.
In the face of oppression, looting and neglect, our respect is for LIFE.

Seamos concientes del poder de lo insignificante.
Let us be aware of the power of the insignificant.

La cultura es la llave de la vida.
Culture is the key to life.

Valorar lo que se tiene es realmente tener la Felicidad.
Valuing what you have is to truly have Happiness.

En Medellín, todos somos parte de la innovación.
In Medellín, we are all part of innovation.

Medellín, todos por la vida.
Medellín, all through life.

Medellín, un hogar para la vida.
Medellín, a home for life.

Medellín, ciudad de Paz y convivencia.
Medellín, city of Peace and coexistence.

And two that I saw just today that I may not have gotten exactly right (I was trying to memorize them as I jogged past!):

Felicidad no es siempre hacer lo que uno quiere hacer, pero querer lo que uno hace.
Happiness is not always doing what one likes to do, but liking what one does.

La belleza pertenece a quien la entiende, no a quien la tiene.
Beauty belongs to those who understand it, not to those who have it.

Powerful stuff, these messages. I like the values they reflect. They remind me not only of how I want to live my life, but also of my role as a resident in holding my city accountable to the bar that’s been set. They remind me that cities, like any institution, are collections of individuals, and that it’s up to us individually and together to make the most of what we’ve been given.


2 responses to “What message does your city send? This is Medellín’s.

  1. Timely post Courtenay! I spent 6 weeks in Medellin last year and loved the city and the charming people. I still dream everyday of going back again but the small issue of how to support oneself financially is a bit of a stumbling block when your Spanish is below average. Keep up the great work!


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