Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Cali, Colombia

Just returned from a week in Cali Colombia. I was working with some colleagues at the Urban Observatory, POLIS, at Universidad ICESIThey are doing great work conducting surveys, collecting data and making social interventions such as trying to help trash pickers move into the formal economy.

The city is emerging from years of conflict: the long war between the government and FARC, the destructive nature of gang violence and internecine warfare between narco cartels. Things are getting better; homicides are coming down but are still high by US and European standards. According to official police statistics, close to 2000 people were murdered in the city in 2013. The murder rate just twenty years ago was 126 per 100,000; it is now down to 60. The comparative figure for Washington DC is 24 and only 4 for Amsterdam, which is the highest figure for a major European city.

The violence is concentrated in distinct parts of the city, especially the poor barrios where there is territorial competition between different criminal gangs. The legacy of violence is evident in the bunker architecture that prevails, the pervasive presence of armed guards and the disconcerting experience of sharing a restaurant with a young couple who had  their personal bodyguard posted outside.

And yet despite the easy characterization of the city as a place of violence, there are signs of hope. The murder rates are coming down, a more democratic politics are emerging and, despite poverty and enduring inequality, there is an active debate about creating a fairer better city. There are new land use plans, new proposals for sensitive urban renewal and creating green corridors. After years of unrelenting violence the city seems to be heading towards a better future.

In Cali, as in most cities in the Global South, poverty, marginalization and access to good quality public service remain important issues. Traffic is brutal and mass transit is barely adequate. But the city has a liquid sensuality, exemplified by its unique brand of salsa and in the provocative lyrics of popular songs. A hyper-sexualized culture, replete with widespread use of plastic surgery and loaded with public displays of affection and flesh, eroticizes the everyday and gives a powerful energy to the streets and a pulsating life to the city.
 Affluent neighborhood (Photo: © John Rennie Short)

   There is an energy to street life (Photo: © John Rennie Short) 

Slums in the west of the city (Photo: © John Rennie Short)

Motorcycles are a popular form of transport (Photo: © John Rennie Short) 

The city is located along the side of the Andes (Photo: © John Rennie Short)

Typical  gated dwelling (Photo: © John Rennie Short)