Post-conflict Colombia looks to its cities

Urban policy key to turning the corner from 50 years of civil war, policymakers and advocates say.

The Colombian flag waves above the Cartagena Fort in 2013. (LMspenser/Shutterstock)

CARTAGENA DE INDIAS, Colombia — As Colombian legislators last week approved a revised deal to formally end the longest-running civil conflict in the hemisphere, there is growing recognition that urban policy could be key to delivering a durable peace here.

As the country now turns to recovering from the 50-year war, policymakers are making clear that they will need to respond to longstanding demands for greater equity. The end of Colombia’s civil war thus is coinciding with new demands for Colombian cities in terms of reconciliation, inclusion and security.

This momentum is overlapping with Colombia’s unique focus on the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the international framework that this year began to guide countries’ efforts to end poverty and bolster equality. Colombia was among the first country to create a national commission to guide progress on the SDGs, formed even before the goals were finalized.

In charting out their early SDGs strategy, Colombian policymakers have emphasized that they see cities as key to implementing the goals. “Colombia believes that truly transformational action must happen at home, locally,” the country stated in a Spanish-language report released this summer. “For that reason it has focused its efforts on incorporating the SDGs in the planning structure at a subnational level.”

Certainly President Juan Manuel Santos is directly connecting his country’s priorities on sustainable, equitable urban development with Colombia’s post-conflict needs. Santos was an architect of the peace deal, work for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year.

“Peace, more than the absence of armed confrontation, is development and the daily conditions needed to live well and be happy. And setting that stage is none other than the city,” Santos said in October in Bogotá, the capital.

[See: Bogotá Mayor Enrique Peñalosa on making better cities]

“During Colombia’s war we have concentrated suffering in the rural areas, but today 78 percent of Colombians live in cities. And in 20 years we will have 10 million more — 83 percent of all Colombians,” he said. “Colombia is a country that is principally urban … And unfortunately despite progress, there remains a profound unequal imbalance between urban and rural parts of the country — and that’s one of our biggest challenges.”

Into the 21st century

In part because of the civil war, Colombia is today a notably urban country. The armed conflict, combined with poverty and lack of access to public services in rural areas, has led people to abandon the countryside in droves. Colombia now has the largest number of internally displaced people of any country, according to the United Nations.

“Peace, more than the absence of armed confrontation, is development and the daily conditions needed to live well and be happy. And setting that stage is none other than the city.”

Juan Manuel Santos
President of Colombia

Germán Calderón, coordinator of social affairs in the Foreign Ministry, said the country is working on three priorities with regard to its cities policy: Integrated territorial development, climate change, and poverty eradication through inclusion and social security.

Bogotá, for example, is discussing integrated territorial development, a complex term that nonetheless goes to the heart of one of Colombia’s post-war priorities: creating urban policy that takes into account both the city and the surrounding municipalities. “There is a need to widen administrative and political boundaries — the urban and regional issues are complex,” said Calderón. “The city needs to … take in account the influences of the rural in the urban side.”

[See: Assessing the New Urban Agenda’s ‘new concept’: Integrating the city and countryside]

Much of this strategy is already being informed by the SDGs. Raúl Buitrago, from Bogota’s Department of Planning, said that 80 percent of the programmes of the District Development Plan for the next four years take in account the new goals. The SDGs include a first-ever aim to create cities that are “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”, while a new “roadmap” for implementing the goals in cities, a strategy adopted in October called the New Urban Agenda, devotes significant attention to issues of integrated development.

There is much to reverse, according to multiple experts. Colombian cities remain segregated in such a way that construction for the poorest people tends to take place in areas that are most vulnerable to natural disasters, said Gerardo Ardila, leader of the Colombian National Environmental Forum and former secretary of Bogota’s city hall.

“Today, Colombia has the largest number of internally displaced people of any country.”

The post-conflict challenge is around taking Colombia’s cities from the 20th into the 21st century, Ardila said. The last century was characterized by “growth, expansion and inequality”, while the next needs to be marked by compact cities, an increase in “collective areas”, the protection of nature, and bolstered equality and democracy.

[See: The New Urban Agenda can strengthen land policies — with some caution]

As yet, Colombia’s cities remain dangerously reflective of that 20th-century mode of thinking, Ardila said. He points to Medellín, one of the country’s largest cities. “Medellín has made some advances in transportation, but there you can see one of the highest levels of segregation in the country,” he said. “People live in very vulnerable places because of the predominance of real estate interests.”

Still, many say the SDGs could push officials at the local and national levels to rethink these patterns, particularly as decades of conflict come to an end. The new framework not only will encourage authorities to gather information to track how urban development interventions are impacting on inequality but also to do a better job of gauging what citizens actually need in a society that is recovering from conflict.

“There is a need to fill gaps in information to be able to measure the goals,” said Tania Jimenez, professor of Environment and Development at Universidad Tecnológica de Bolívar. “There is also a need to raise awareness … because from now on to comply with the SDGs, Colombian development must be sustainable and needs to take account of the citizens.”

The displaced

Despite the signing of the peace agreement, for many city officials the impacts of decades of war have yet to end. Indeed, the same could be said of millions of Colombians, too. The government reports that more than 7 million people are registered as internally displaced across the country, and many of those are clustered in cities.

“The city needs to … take in account the influences of the rural in the urban side.”

Germán Calderón
Coordinator of Social Affairs, Colombian Foreign Ministry

The mass movement of people who have fled rural conflict zones and into urban areas is today a key priority for upcoming development planning. Many officials now hope that the signing of the peace deal will lead to the creation of a formal plan on how to address the displaced — and that such a plan would come along with real resources.

[See: U. N. summit on migration crisis fails to address front-line role of cities]

Rafael Hernando Yepes, the secretary of planning in the town of Neiva, says that around 40,000 people are illegally settled in the city. While caring for this population is a top priority for city hall, he says, there is a major gap in information about the displaced and their needs.

The city did recently create a new strategy on resettlement, aimed at helping government officials find housing in the city and surrounding municipalities, he said. Officials also are setting up a digital tracking system that can keep track of this population, which Yepes says tends to move around a lot, making it difficult for the city to get needed services to them.

But flashpoints continue to crop up — around resources for the city but also more broadly. Tensions have risen over the use of public space, for instance, and the city is now working on new ways to design its markets in order to ensure that they work for all parts of the city.

Neiva is one of several Colombian cities working on such issues through a new U. N. initiative. Starting in May, the National Cities and Post-Conflict Programme (PCP) has aimed to “to support the Colombian cities in building peace, through tools and interventions that reduce inequities, strengthen urban-rural integration and strengthen the economic potential of the System of Cities”, according to a programme document.

The initiative, which is focused particularly on intermediate cities, began in Neiva, Sincelejo and Florencia. The mayors of each say they need help in accessing national and international resources to respond to the new needs that will arise with the signing of the peace deal.

[See: Who’s really left behind in today’s most dangerous cities?]

The displaced are at the top of that list. Stella Romero, secretary of planning of Sincelejo, said her city is currently home to around 165,000 such victims. She is hoping that the finalized peace deal will bring with it support for cities to better care for the war victims who have already arrived — and to be able to welcome the more that could soon arrive.

The city has few details about this 165,000-strong population, she said. But plans are afoot to start identifying them next year: who they are, where they come from, what they do, their expectations. Officials also will try to determine what people’s intentions are once they register as displaced: Do they expect to remain in the city?

The answers to these questions will help tremendously in terms of the city’s planning, Romero said, particularly as Sincelejo has many expectations about the coming post-conflict process. “The whole thing is under construction. But as the city has received a lot of people, victims are a big component of our development plan.” At the moment, however, local governments like hers are awaiting indications from the central government.

Such work is only just beginning. It remains to be seen whether Colombia will be able to get fully on a track to peace. But once it does, the country’s cities are clearly getting ready to do their part in building that peace with equity.

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Maria Clara Valencia

Maria Clara Valencia is a journalist and professional in literary studies based in Colombia with broad experience in print and broadcast media. Maria Clara is currently a full-time journalism professor at Universidad Tecnologica de Bolivar in Cartagena de Indias, and she works as a freelancer for media from Colombia and overseas, mainly writing about environmental issues.