BAC Students Explore Social Urbanism in Medellín, Colombia

Ten-day studio intensive followed by onsite studio

Medellín landscape. Photo by Maria Bellalta.

Medellín landscape. Photo by Maria Bellalta.

Boston Architectural College students recently returned to campus after a ten-day intensive in Medellín, Colombia, a city recognized globally for its recent efforts to improve social conditions through innovative infrastructure projects. While abroad, BAC students collaborated with architecture students from the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (UPB) and together explored the city's local conditions to better understand the progress that has unfolded over the last decade. This experience is now being developed by an onsite studio, which will focus on approaches to urban design and transportation infrastructure, housing typologies, and placemaking in Medellín's urban context.

"I am incredibly proud of my students for having accompanied me on this amazing journey to Medellín, and for believing in the social and physical issues we need to tackle as designers in today's modern world," said María Bellalta, Dean of the School of Landscape Architecture at the BAC. "Inequality and poverty are the leading causes of Medellín's history and struggle with violence, and we are now seeing how strong and meaningful urban interventions are leading positive change."

The intent of the studio, which continues this fall, is to better understand how various global conditions and contexts each demand socially based responses. The students' challenges are to consider natural, constructed, social, and economic criteria affecting urban design, housing typologies, and sustainable practices in a context that has physical and spatial conditions that vary hugely from those they are more familiar with here in Boston. As they explore different design solutions, the BAC students will continue to collaborate with their UPB colleagues through webinars, social media, joint reviews, and presentations.

"While Medellín has come a long way in terms of urban design strategies, the housing typologies and patterns leave much to be desired," María explained. "The students and I will be exploring these housing issues, in search of clearer manifestations of how chaotic versus ordered space can impact the social climate of a community."

During the semester, students' research will consider the constructed environment and conditions affecting informal and formal settlement of one specific barrio of Medellín, called El Parajito. They will analyze design elements such as scale of the district and its relationships to its surroundings, ultimately proposing a particular housing density and typology to work with El Pajarito's existing housing areas.

Given its complexities and uniqueness, exploring Medellín firsthand was a necessary foundation and inspiration for the students to successfully engage in this advanced planning studio. The city stands at the forefront of progressive urban strategies, addressing issues of equity in existing socio-economic systems and embracing transformation. This progress is something students will leverage and discuss throughout the semester as they develop design proposals at an urban design, planning, and site specific scale.

"I was extremely inspired by the willingness and solidarity of the people to embrace a new collective urban strategy," said Stephen Godanis, Master of Landscape Architecture candidate at the BAC, who attended the Medellín intensive. "The implementation of strong civic and public spaces was also remarkable. Above all else, the people are warm, friendly, hospitable, and approachable."

"A key take-away from the trip was the power of thoughtful design and policy to empower communities," added Tom Klein, Master of Landscape Architecture candidate at the BAC, who also participated in the Medellín excursion. "We saw many examples of the government creating formal spaces or infrastructure within the informal fabric, which had a positive outcome for the quality of life in these communities. The interdisciplinary nature of this work was inspiring."

As the semester picks up steam, the students all look forward to developing complex interdisciplinary programmatic solutions to Medellín's complex problems. 

As Stephen puts it, "We should feel proud that the BAC is not just talking—we're doing."

The research and work that is being initiated by the School of Landscape Architecture is meaningful and impactful, and paves the way for continued collaborations with Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana and broader conversations around public policy related to urban design and social space.