Medellín was named Most Innovative City by the Wall Street Journal; it rates B on our Open For Business Cities Ratings, but 20 years ago this rating would have been considerably lower. There was a time when anti-gay groups called for “cleansing” in the city; and before 1981 homosexuality was illegal in and punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Today, Colombian law has legal protections for LGBT+ people and the country’s Constitutional Court has ruled in favour of same-sex marriagesu, paving the way for cities to focus on LGBT+ inclusion. Medellín has an increasingly vibrant LGBT+ community, and its main nightlife area, la zona rosa, now has several “gay, gay-friendly” bars and clubs.
Progress for LGBT+ people in Medellín is part of a broader transformation for the city. It is the second largest urban area in Colombia, and today it accounts for nearly a tenth of the country’s GDP. As well as thriving steel and textiles industries, the city now serves as headquarters for many national and multinational companies. Fashion has become an important part of the economy and culture of the city, which hosts Latin America’s biggest fashion show, Colombiamoda
This success story has its roots in deep crisis. At one point, Medellín was considered the most dangerous city on earth. From 1990 to 1993, more than 6,000 people were murdered annually. Today, the city is seen as a model for urban innovation and economic transformation:
– Its murder rate is down 80% from 1991.
– Its unemployment rate is down from 15% in 2004 to 10% in 2016.
– The poverty rate is down from 36.5% in 2004 to 14.1% in 2016. Its Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) dropped from 54.2 in 2008 to 46.3 in 2016.
These improvements are largely connected to the start of Social Urbanism, a policy enacted by Sergio Fajardo, mayor of Medellín in 2004. Urban development projects typically target infrastructure solutions to physical problems. Medellin opted for a different strategy, using architecture and culture as tools for social inclusion: projects such as the España Library Park and the city’s elevated Metrocable are designed to connect together different parts of Medellín society.
LGBT+ inclusion has become an important part of this strategy. In 2008, the mayor opened the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, which focuses on challenging stereotypes about LGBT+ people, providing employment opportunities, and reducing discrimination. It also hosts sexual diversity roundtables, which allows LGBT+ people to discuss discrimination in the city.
The proactive inclusion of the LGBT+ community is an acknowledgment of the contribution it can make to the cultural life of the city. Luis Bernard Velez, the Center’s director, says, “Medellín is a city that has understood diversity,” and that the Center “was born out of a recognition of the diversity in the city and participation of this community.”
It should be noted that LGBT+ inclusion is not perfect in Medellín. According to Colombia Diversa, there is still a higher-than-average rate of homicides of LGBT+ people, particularly gay men and transgender individuals. There are also issues of forced displacement as a result of threats of violence. This presents an opportunity for Medellín to continue proactively including the LGBT+ community in its continued growth.
Achieving this opportunity is possible, and Medellín is positioned to do it. As a report by the World Economic Forum the importance of this inclusive approach to the transformation of the city: “Medellín has changed in the past 10 years, not just in its spatial dynamics but also in the mentality and perception of its inhabitants who now see culture as an important tool for development.”