Visionary leadership for safer cities and urban transformation

  • 18 Mar 2015 | by Gabriela Aguinaga

Visionary leadership for safer cities and urban transformation – Blog

A new wave of urban philosophy and a national need for profound change in Colombia, paved the way for new political leaders who radically transformed the cities. Photo: Mime artist in the City of Bogota. (c) Courtesy of the Office of Antanas Mockus)

A new wave of urban philosophy and a national need for profound change in Colombia, paved the way for new political leaders who radically transformed the cities. Photo: Mime artist in the City of Bogota. (c) Courtesy of the Office of Antanas Mockus)

Two of the most violent cities in the world, Medellin and Bogota in Colombia thanks to visionary political leadership achieved remarkable low levels in violence and crime over the past ten years. In this article, Gabriela Aguinaga highlights the role played by two political leaders with innovative ideas. Gabriela finished her studies of Political and Administrative Sciences at the University of Konstanz. She currently interns at the GIZ Inclusive Violence and Crime Prevention (VCP) Programme.


The Colombian “urban miracle”

In the 90s, Colombian cities were characterized by urban decay, poverty and violence. The two major cities, Bogota and Medellin, were internationally known as extremely dangerous headed by Medellin, the most violent city in the world, with a homicide rate of over 300 per 100.000 inhabitants.

However, in this context of desperation, Bogota and Medellin experienced a profound urban metamorphosis. A decentralization process that provided mayors with more independence and political power combined with a new wave of urban philosophy and a national need for profound change, paved the way for the emergence of new politicians that radically transformed the cities at a speed that no one could have imagined.

City Leaders in Colombia: triggering urban transformation

Bogota: Antanas Mockus

In Bogota, the transformation began with the election in 1999 of Antanas Mockus as mayor, a mathematician and philosopher who ran the elections as an independent, apolitical candidate.

In a city of complete chaos, marked by violence and lawlessness, Mockus, while still being the rector of the University of Bogota, dropped his pants and mooned an audience of rowdy students in the auditorium of the School of Arts to gain silence.

“There is a tendency to be dependent on individual leaders. To me, it is important to develop collective leadership. I don't like to get credit for all that we achieved. Millions of people contributed to the results that we achieved. I like more egalitarian relationships. I especially like to orient people to learn.” Antanas Mockus

While Mockus had to resign as rector after this incident, he gained a national reputation as an honest person and a moral model and ran a successful electoral campaign to become the mayor of Bogota.

With an educator’s inventiveness and untraditional communication methods based on symbols, humour and metaphors he aimed to implement a “social experiment”. His aim was to thoroughly change the “citizens’ culture” in Bogota in order to reduce violence and re-establish the rule of law in the city.

The approach was based on the idea that in order to trigger social change, policies should not just aim at changing the laws, but also address the moral norms and the culture of communities. 

In order to regulate the chaotic traffic of Bogota, Mockus trained mime artist to mock traffic violators because he believed that Colombians feared ridicule more than being fined. The same approach was applied to tackling violence and corruption which were the priorities of his program.

Mime artist in the City of Bogota mocking traffic violators. photo ©
Although this kind of methods may seem eccentric and ineffective, the truth is that within two years the homicide rate dropped from 72 to 52 and the rate of traffic mortality from 25 to 20 per 100.000 inhabitants. The city also gained international reputation and managed to attract international investment, which supported the city’s transformation.

During the legislature of the next major Enrique Penalosa, both opponents supported each other to follow a joint long-term project for the transformation of the city aiming to regenerate it as well as foster social integration and reduce violence. This included introducing new systems of public transport, building public parks, regenerating the inner city and other decayed areas, building libraries, as well as improving service delivery in the more underprivileged areas. 

Medellin: Sergio Fajardo

While Bogota was drastically transforming into a liveable, democratic city and growing economically, Medellin was struggling with alarming levels of violence and decay. However, the experience of Bogota had a strong influence on the city’s civic and political movements and led to the emergence of “Compromiso Ciudadano” (Citizens’ engagement), a movement that aimed to transform the city of Medellin and put an end to violence.

Antanas Mockus (left) and Sergio Fajardo (right). photo © 
The movement ran an electoral campaign for the city’s presidency with Sergio Fajardo as a candidate, an independent mathematics professor that had no experience in politics. Through his independence and innovative ideas that broke drastically with traditional politics, he managed to become the mayor of Medellin in 2004.

Fajardo and his team had a strong vision of the future of Medellin and they developed a strategic plan for the city’s transformation. This plan was designed after visiting neighbourhoods and carefully analysing the city’s challenges and getting the city into their “skins, heads, and hearts”.

“A group of dreamers in Medellin managed to advance deeply the transformation of our society.” Sergio Fajardo

Farjado's principle was based on integrated and strategic planning, breaking with the improvisation and inconsistency that marked previous political leadership.  The strategic plan aimed at social integration, reducing fear and closing the gap between rich and poor. It was based on three solid pillars: to create a new way to relating to public space, to build the most beautiful projects in the humblest neighbourhoods and to invest in education.

Through consistency and coherency in the city's re-development, supported by new methods of communication and public participation, Farjado managed to build political legitimacy among the citizens as well as trust and a strong belief that transformation was indeed possible.

Slogans such as “Medellin the most educated” or “The most beautiful things for the poor” were used to communicate their plans for Medellin's transformation. A TV show was created for the sole purpose of responding to citizens demands.

Additionally, Fajardo showed a constant presence in the streets and included participatory methods into the design of policies and projects, such as public budgeting techniques.

Finally, Fajardo achieved to build political commitment among his opponents. He managed to win the support of the 21 city council members in less than six months by publically recognizing the ideas of any councillor who came up with a constructive view.

This constructive cooperation and support among political opponents made the transformation strategy of Medellin a long-term project that has been supported and carried out until the date.

Towards visionary leadership of mayors

The cases of Bogota and Medellin show that strong committed political leadership can play a decisive role in successfully promoting profound social transformations and specifically in reducing violence.

Strong political leaders presented an alternative to traditional politics. They used new ways of communicating and put citizen participation at the core, which helped both in designing better policies as well as enhancing political legitimacy among citizens. 

A clear vision of each city’s transformation was crucial and the strategies carried out were designed after a thorough analysis of the city’s challenges.

The ideas of Mockus and Fajardo were coherent and consistent, creating an image of honesty and enhancing political trust among the citizens. Symbolism was used in order to create new reference models for citizens that enhanced their duties and highlighted the importance of education and tolerance.

Finally, commitment towards the city’s transformation was achieved across the different sectors of the society as well as among political opponents, which converted the strategies into a long-term process that prevailed still long after leaving their position.

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