Sam, University of Sheffield

Urban Transformation in Colombia 2019

Sam, studying MA Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of Sheffield, was the recipient of the 2019 Urban Transformation in Colombia Scholarship award. Here he tells us about his time in Medellin. 

55f7d170-2272-4a14-a119-3787bc4713d4 (2)I have been to many places in the world but I’ve never felt such a deep understanding and connection with a city as I have in Medellin. Every person you meet has been affected by the city’s extraordinary history and has a fascinating story to tell.

Through the Red Tree Study programme, we were able to work and engage with local people to learn first-hand how the area has been transformed. It was amazing to watch as the residents could literally draw out on the map every invisible boundary which was once part of a violent territorial war. They would point to the places which were safe and the places they would never pass through for fear of being shot. They told us that every police officer had a price of a million pesos on his head and that the city lived in fear because of Pablo Escobar and the gangs.

P1030645Yet, being a foreigner in Medellin today is near to a polar opposite. From the moment I landed in Colombia I was made to feel incredibly welcome by both the local people and the Red Tree co-ordinators. The course was extremely busy and engaging without being overly demanding; we were allowed to explore and learn about the rich and interesting development of the city at our own pace but weren’t under the pressure of any assessment. Juan and Daniel from Red Tree had thought of absolutely everything to make sure that we had the most immersive and enjoyable experience and went well beyond their job description in doing so. The majority of the learning takes place outside of the classroom, from walking tours and workshops to an array of cultural and social activities, my favourite of which has been partying on the Chiva bus – driving around the town dancing to Latina music and parking up at special viewpoints. As well as experiencing the city, we were also able to visit nearby attractions including the beautiful landscapes of Guatape and the colonial town of Santa Fe.

P1030617As a design student, the experience of studying abroad for me has been incredibly valuable because it is simply so different to working on studio projects in the UK. Firstly, it is a collaborative effort between students at different stages of their education, from different backgrounds and fields of study and so by studying the issues of Medellin holistically, we were able to have a much more productive conversation about the urban transformation. It also provides a real challenging perspective on what is actually achievable in urban design on the ground when you have to navigate social-political jigsaws and, in the case of Medellin, how powerful a bold and radical proposal can be in changing people’s lives. The city is iconic as a success story for this and evokes great belief in the power of architecture and urban design but it also has a long way to go to resolve issues of safe housing and misplaced power.

I have the utmost gratitude to Red Tree for the opportunity to explore a part of the world I have never seen before and to appreciate it with such depth that it will inform my future education and career in architecture and landscape design. I have little doubt that through all my world travels, Medellin will remain my favourite city.