Colombia: Fluid Futures

Mention Colombia to a group of urbanists and you can be sure their eyes will light up. Perhaps they will envision Bogotá’s efficient public transportation system, Transmilenio, and extensive bicycle networks. Or their minds may drift to Medellín’s playful yet socially-conscious public works projects, such as the Metrocable and the España Library. If members of the group are aesthetically inclined, they might recall recent fanfare surrounding Cali’s art scene, and the artistic collectives sparking a cultural renaissance in the city. Those interested in historical preservation may imagine Cartagena’s colonial architecture, and efforts to restore the city’s rich cultural heritage.

It is likely, however, that the discussion will end there. The realities of daily life in cities like Turbo, Tumaco, Barrancabermeja, Montería, Florencia and Quibdó remain invisible not only to most urbanists outside Colombia, but also to many working within the country. Though the majority of Colombia’s roughly 30 million urbanites live in these cities, and this is where future urban growth is likely to take place, they remain off most maps of the contemporary urban world. This is not simply a case of the biggest and brightest stars – the four or five metropolitan hubs with over a million inhabitants – outshining their smaller and less radiant neighbours. The country’s ordinary cities are ignored for other reasons.

Colombia has long been associated with the masked guerrilla, the murderous narcotraficante and images of urban dystopia. Although this reputation persists, international observers have recently begun to lavish praise on charismatic mayors, budding architects and their creative interventions within the urban fabric. Colombia is now celebrated as a laboratory of enlightened urban innovation, and this reputation dominates discussions about its cities on the international stage. Many of the stories that do not fit this narrative never surface; others are dismissed as exceptions to an otherwise uplifting tale of urban regeneration. These inconvenient truths are mostly found outside the metropolitan centres, or on their peripheries, out of sight.

The rapid inversion of Colombia’s stubborn infamy is not benign, however satisfying it may be for those hardworking, civically-minded people struggling to free their cities from the grip of violence and drug trafficking. Focusing exclusively on the big cities and their recent advances in urbanism allows other realities elsewhere to remain invisible. The stories these other places have to tell may not be as hopeful – on the contrary, many are quite disturbing – yet they are central to processes of urbanisation unfolding in Colombia and beyond. Revealing the often-overlooked realities there will broaden our understanding of the 21st century urban condition.

The port city of Buenaventura is a prime example. Despite its increasing importance to the national economy, it rarely figures in conversations about Colombian cities. In fact, even those who have heard of it are sometimes surprised to learn that as many as 350,000 people live there. “That’s ten times more than I thought,” a friend from Bogotá once told me. Though Buenaventura’s star is rising, the city remains in the shadow of the country’s urban renaissance, despite a recent spurt of coverage by both national and international news media. Such invisibility is strategic: there are powerful people whose commercial interests – drugs bound for North America, electronics arriving from Asia – depend on keeping it that way. Highlighting the links between trade, both licit and illicit, and the worsening humanitarian crisis there threatens to expose the violence underpinning business as usual.

Urbanists also have reason to take note. The city is rapidly transforming in relation to two imminent world-historical shifts – the dominance of the Chinese economy and climate change – making it a good place to examine dilemmas faced by most contemporary cities. Like all future scenarios, projections of economic development and global warming contain a range of uncertainties. With imperfect and often contradictory information about the future, urban governments must make decisions in the present. Bigger cities have access to resources, information, and expertise that are simply unavailable elsewhere, especially in the global South. Places like Buenaventura are no less impacted by future uncertainty, and may have even more to tell us about how it shapes urban life in much of the world.

The national and local governments both envision a future in which Buenaventura will become a “world-class port city,” as is reflected in the economic development plan of the same name.1 As Colombia’s only Pacific Ocean port, enthusiasm is tied to projections of booming trade relations with Asia. With commentators far and wide heralding the advent of the “Chinese century,” Buenaventura has been labelled “Colombia’s gateway to the Pacific,” which the local development plan calls the “basin of the future.”

The certainty with which the Colombian state views the global economic future is not matched by observers elsewhere. Consider the cautious and somewhat pessimistic tone of a 2013 report co-authored by the World Bank and the Chinese government’s economic advisory body: “Growth prospects [for China] are obviously highly uncertain, not only because of the short-run uncertainty linked to the global financial crisis but also because structural growth trends are contingent on innovations that are virtually impossible to predict. Nevertheless, strong signs suggest that population aging and the shift to services will slow growth in China and many other parts of the world.”2

The Colombian government, however, is confident that increasing economic ties with Asia and expanding its Pacific seaport are keys to securing the country’s future prosperity. Vast amounts of public and private capital, from the Colombian government and investors from Europe, Asia and the Middle East, are being funnelled into infrastructure megaprojects (additional port terminals, a new highway to the interior, a logistical operations centre, a deeper shipping canal, a waterfront promenade, even a trans-Andean railway) to accommodate, but also to entice, the anticipated increase of goods passing through the bay.

Official visions of Buenaventura’s future are informed by a second imminent transformation: climate change. There is considerable disagreement as to what the warming of the planet will mean on a local level. Yet government officials are convinced that climate change is likely to adversely impact Buenaventura in the years to come. This ominous forecast is producing its own material effects, many of which tend to facilitate the official vision of urban development, such as further dredging of the shipping canal. As with the uncertainty surrounding projections of China’s global economic dominance, the uncertainty of climate change is rendered negligible insofar as it inhibits Buenaventura becoming a “world-class port city.”

Standing in the way of these plans for the future are waterfront settlements collectively known as Bajamar (meaning “low-tide”), built and inhabited primarily by Afro-Colombians. These settlements are occupied by an estimated 110,000 inhabitants, approximately one-third of the city’s total population. Positioned at the intertidal zone between land and sea, they have become subject to a range of displacement pressures.

The official vision for the city’s future sees Bajamar as an obstacle, since it occupies the land on which megaprojects are to be built. This plan, which combines aesthetic and technical criteria for how a “world-class port city” should look and function, would require the removal of the majority of Bajamar’s residents. Additionally, projections of the potential impacts of climate change identify these neighbourhoods as highly vulnerable. According to the city’s recently created risk management agency, the imperative to create a “resilient” Buenaventura demands the relocation of low-lying occupations classified as “high risk.” And, finally, wars between rival paramilitary groups and state security forces are concentrated in these very same settlements due to their strategic importance to economies, both legal and illegal, that use Buenaventura for access to overseas markets. As a local religious leader put it, “Paramilitaries and development go hand in hand.”

In spite of mounting displacement pressures, activists and residents of Bajamar propose alternative scenarios for the future of Buenaventura. Unlike the government’s vision, which ignores economic and ecological uncertainty in favour of a rigid plan to increase the city’s function as a port, their proposals take uncertainty seriously as an essential feature of everyday life. The solutions they imagine are based on settlement patterns and livelihood strategies uniquely adapted to the fluid social and environmental conditions of the Pacific coast.

The city of Buenaventura was founded on an island, the Isla de Cascajal, which now hosts the commercial centre, government offices, and a residential population. From as early as 1860, vacant lots had to be filled in with earth before construction could commence. In the mid-20th century, the urban population grew as Afro-Colombians migrated from nearby river basins and established settlements in a similar manner, reclaiming land from the sea. Habituated to riverine life, they gravitated to the edges of the bay, filling in the mudflats with mollusc shells collected from nearby mangrove swamps. There, they built houses on stilts, adapted to the brackish estuary’s tidal fluctuations, which allowed them to continue fishing, harvesting timber and mining artisanally for gold – their primary ancestral livelihoods, all of which depend on access to the sea and its tributaries. They linked their houses together with elevated pathways and established connections to the municipal electricity and water supply as well as to its network of sidewalks and streets. “We call these areas territorios ganados al mar” [territories reclaimed from the sea], a local leader told me, rejecting the name Bajamar, “low-tide,” since it implies the need to be rescued from a situation of ecological vulnerability.

On the contrary, the rest of the city may have something to learn from these settlements and their intimate relationship with the sea. In 2012, one of the foremost journals of architecture and urbanism in Latin America, Revista Escala, organised a design competition in Buenaventura focused on climate change adaptation in coastal cities. It brought together students from 35 leading architecture schools in Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela to analyse existing settlement patterns, assess their vulnerability to environmental hazards and propose solutions for future development. Out of the 63 proposals submitted at the end of the study period, not a single one endorsed the government’s plan to relocate the residents of Bajamar. Instead, each team proposed a combination of neighbourhood upgrading and risk mitigation.

Many of the proposals envision localised improvements throughout existing settlements combined with the restoration of the aquatic ecosystem surrounding the island. Mangrove forests, once fully established, would provide a protective buffer zone between the city and the sea, increasing the (already high) degree to which the settlements are adapted to their environment. And since mangroves provide the habitat for commercially-important shellfish, as well as valuable wood for construction, their restoration could be followed by a sustainable development plan based on community-led resource management. The judges praised the designs as offering promising approaches to climate change adaptation in Buenaventura, applicable to other coastal cities throughout the region.

Activists and residents in Buenaventura have since lobbied the municipal government to consider these proposals as serious alternatives to port expansion and mass relocation. Current development plans fail to recognise that these settlements are already highly adapted to unpredictable climatic futures, that architectural, engineering, and ecological interventions could make them more so and that livelihood strategies enabled by proximity to the sea are more suitable for economic uncertainty. For example, waterfront access gives people the ability to shift from fishing to construction when a shipment of wood arrives and a house needs to be built, then to transportation when a group of miners needs to travel upriver and to fall back on fishing when there’s no more paid work to be found. Without the ability to foresee what will happen next or where tomorrow’s meal will come from, work must remain flexible, diversified, opportunistic. Contrast this to the inelastic official strategy of wagering everything on the port, and on the future of the Pacific basin economy, predicated on the displacement of waterfront residents to the city’s landlocked periphery. For Buenaventura’s seaside communities, the right to existing livelihoods and sustained access to the sea is the right to remain adaptable in the face of economic and ecological uncertainty.

Unfortunately, pleas from residents and activists repeatedly fall on deaf ears. The intransigent vision of the “world-class port city” forecloses alternative urban futures. While such alternatives are not perfect, they do offer possibilities for adapting to and living with uncertainty. Yet the forces standing in the way of their realisation may be too strong. Urbanists need to look beyond packaged success stories from metropolitan centres. Creative responses to the world’s urban challenges may be found in unexpected places – if only one dares to look.

1 Ministerio de Trabajo. 2012. “Buenaventura, ciudad puerto de clase mundial: Plan local de empleo 2011-2015”. Buenaventura: Ministerio de Trabajo, Fundación Panamericana para el Desarrollo.
2 The World Bank and The Development Research Center of the State Council, People’s Republic of China. 2013. China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative Society. Washington, D.C., 362.

Austin Zeiderman is Assistant Professor of Urban Geography at LSE and Research Fellow at LSE Cities (2011-2014).