Emma, University of Cambridge

Urban Transformation in Colombia, 2019

P1240881Emma, an MPhil Candidate in Architecture and Urban Design at the University of Cambridge, tells us about her time as a student on our 2019 Urban Transformation in Colombia course in Medellin. 

Esperanza, meaning ‘hope’ in Spanish, is a word that I encountered many times during my two weeks on Red Tree Study’s Urban Transformation Programme, and one that I will take with me when leaving. It encompasses the resilience and positivity of the residents of Medellín, especially in light of a very recent difficult and violent past, and I have learnt so much from the mindset of the residents – that a place is defined by its people, and that we should all inhabit the place we call home with optimism and the constant strife to make our cities a better place.

From those at Red Tree Study – both staff and students, to the professors at Universidad Pontifica Bolivariana, to the Comuna leaders, to the stranger that waited for me out of concern when using the cashpoint then reprimanded me for my carelessness, I was entirely struck by the warmth and kindness that everybody showed me that made my time in Medellín so enjoyable. The programme far exceeded any expectations that I had, comprising two weeks of a meticulously curated course covering a vast amount of information, experiences and socio-cultural activities. In particular, what made the programme stand out to me was the professionalism of the co-ordinators – Daniel and Juan – who not only went above and beyond to ensure that the programme catered to everybody’s interests including amending the schedule to feedback throughout the trip, but also played the role of translator, support system, friend, and more. I leave back to the UK feeling very privileged to have been exposed to such a unique environment and to have had the opportunity to understand Medellín not only from my personal viewpoint but also on the terms of those that live it every day.

P1240888In terms of academic activities, I especially enjoyed that the days consisted of workshops and lectures on specific social projects, followed by site visits to see the effect of those projects first-hand. A highlight was learning about the process of transforming water tanks into parks (UVAs) from the organisation that organised and drove the projects itself – electrical company EPM, and seeing the communication and conversations that they had with each different community, the drawings produced by the residents of their dreams for these parks, and how these needs and desires expressed by the communities were met specific to each Barrio. Then, visiting different UVAs after the talk, and seeing their various physical manifestations as a result of their context, was crucial to me in forming an understanding of the transformational impact the UVAs have had on the people socially and mentally, as well as through giving them access to high quality facilities, education and a defensible space by seeing the residents take pride in the buildings, utilising them and enjoying them with each other.

Another valuable experience was the chance to interact with Comuna leaders such as Nelli, Gloria and Liliana. Throughout the guided tours they gave us around their respective Comunas such as Comuna 8 and Moravia, engaging with them in a social mapping workshop, and learning about their involvement in Jardin Circunvalar, I was constantly exposed to the strong feminist movement within these communities and the responsibility that these women bore and the strength and pride they approached their roles with. It was inspirational to see that all the leaders that we met were female and had dedicated their lives to the betterment of their neighbourhoods, advocating the views of their people and taking initiative to ensure the survival of their Comunas alongside governmental social projects, and playing active roles in communication to bridge invisible frontiers despite having frequently experienced tragedy, hardship and conflict throughout this process.

Overall, it was an experience that I will always be thankful for, and one that I would recommend to both architects and those simply interested in Medellín as a city and a case study for social change. I am especially thankful to Alex and Red Tree Study for giving me this opportunity, to Daniel and Juan’s tireless efforts as co-ordinators to give us such a personal and meaningful experience, to Gabriel and Juan Camilo and the rest of the UPB team for their endless patience and happiness to share their city with us, and to Cindy for giving her own time to get to know us.