Sergio Fajardo

Transforming Medellin through the power of libraries

15 min read
Fajardo in the Santo Domingo neighborhood in 2007, when he was mayor of Medellín. Credit: Scott Dalton for The New York Times
Credit: Biblioteca Parque España. Copyright © 2011 Mazzanti Arquitectos
Taking action

Sergio Fajardo no longer has a guaranteed future. Pension that had once been secured for him, when he was a tenured university professor of mathematics, is now a foregone benefit. Stepping into the unchartered territory of politics, Fajardo gave up all the security of his ordinary life. And now, there’s no going back.

When Fajardo gave up his career as an educator and decided to run for the Mayor of Medellin, he had a bold and clear vision: to solve the myriad of problems faced by Colombian society. To put to action what he said needed to be done. To root out inequality, violence and illegality, the latter which had corruption as its main source.

Life was short. There was no time to wait for the politicians to carry out what needed to be done.

Credit: Medellín, Colombia Urban Transformation. Copyright © 2015 Curry Stone Prize
Medellin, the most educated

Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia, was a ‘cauldron of violence.’ Home to a drug cartel run by Pablo Escobar, death and crime rates reached its all-time high during the 1990s. In 2002, Colombia recorded 185 homicides per 100,000 people. Medellin was the urban center of paramilitary activities, and according to Fajardo, the ‘Harvard University of drug traffic’ as armed groups came to learn and commit crimes. Needless to say, the city was poverty-stricken and unemployment rates soared.

When Fajardo was elected Mayor of Medellin in 2004, it was a surprising victory as he came from a non-political background. No one knew that the years to come ahead would be dubbed the "Medellin miracle."

Fajardo’s administration worked with the slogan ‘Medellin, the most educated.’ He wanted Medellin to become a city of education and innovation. To do that, he needed communal spaces where people could feel safe to gather, places that offered learning and experiences, and places that looked astoundingly beautiful that would attract people into it. Fajardo’s material projects were aimed to "change the skin of the city" to create spaces where people can meet again, away from the fear associated with violence.

Library parks

A series of libraries of immense sizes and impressive architecture were erected across the city. Nine libraries were built at the scale of parks (thus called “library parks”) and they were equipped with facilities to show films, stage exhibitions, hold theater productions, workshops, and they also had auditoriums, playrooms, sports facilities, computer rooms, and even citizen centers to handle administrative tasks.

Renowned architects were involved in the design. Japanese architect Hiroshi Naito designed the Bethlehem Library Park and Colombian architect Giancarlo Mazzanti designed the Spain Library Park funded by the Spain government, built just next to the final station of the Metrocable, Santo Domingo, which was one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Colombia.

Credit: Library Park Spain. Copyright © 2007 Sergio Gómez
Credit: Photo by Municipality of Medellín

The series of library parks was part of a greater cultural project to integrate the society and provide spaces where the community can congregate to learn, enjoy and experience and to bind the fragmented society from drugs, violence, and crime. So the libraries had to be accessible to those who were not privileged enough to enjoy the benefits of learning. They were built in the poorest neighborhoods and the Metrocable made it easy for people to reach from any part of the city.

The Metrocable was another important project of the Fajardo administration. Cable car became a form of public transportation connecting the city center with the poorest and least accessible parts of the city. It was one of Fajardo’s urban integration plans for social and economic development.

He knew the metro system itself would not solve the city's poverty and violence. Hand in hand with the establishment of libraries across the city, Medellin began to see change.

Credit: Biblioteca Parque España. Copyright © 2011 Mazzanti Arquitectos
Libraries as a catalyst for change

The positive impact of the library parks was evident. Employment rates rose by nearly 7 percent between 2002 and 2017. Communities with library parks had 17 percent higher employment growth rate than those without. General literacy level increased among young people. Homicide rate in the city declined to 32.5 per 100,000 people by 2006, lower than that of Washington D.C. and Miami.

Once a ‘cauldron of violence,’ now Medellin rose to become one of the most innovative cities in the world as dubbed by the Urban Land Institute in 2013 and by the United Nations. Institutionalizing change using culture as a force for change was key to eradicating organized crime and transforming the lives of millions.

Credit: Copyright © 2011 Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia

To Fajardo, culture was an educative force that enabled social transformation. Unlike the popular perception of culture as “high art,” appreciated by the well-educated and privileged, Fajardo used culture in the widest sense ⏤ encompassing science, technology, innovation, entrepreneurship, and education ⏤ to elevate the lives of the underprivileged.

Credit: Copyright © 2011 Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia
Credit: Copyright © 2011 Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia

Libraries were not just centers for information, they were hubs for cultural activities, for learning and socializing. Libraries were extended versions of classrooms, centers for knowledge sharing available to all citizens. They brought back a sense of dignity, pride and belonging to the people.

Credit: Biblioteca Parque España. Copyright © 2011 Mazzanti Arquitectos
The legacy

By the end of Fajardo's term, around 4,500 paramilitaries living in Medellin had demobilized, helping diminish the crime rate of the city. He finished his term in 2007 with 90 percent approval rating and went on to become Governor of Antioquia in 2011.

The success of Fajardo’s administration was a collective effort. Fajardo and his team invited the public to contribute and the government was transparent with sharing their plans to citizens.

“We asked them to get involved with whatever ideas they had so that our projects could be improve” said Fajardo. “This was a very good process in the sense that it increased participation. When people feel that they are included in what is happening, their reaction is always positive.”

Credit: Photo by Fredy Builes for Reuters (2018)

Even after Fajardo stepped down and his former secretary of government, Alonso Salazar, succeeded him to become the Mayor of Medellin from 2008, his team’s legacy lived on, and his successor continued their political project.

Fajardo still has a big dream to fulfill – becoming the president of Colombia to bring his project to the national level. His past two failed attempts at the presidential election won’t be enough to stop him from racing down the unbeaten path.

More information