Why you should care
The city is edging closer to the coast, not away from it.
Smog. Storms. Rising sea levels. These are things that make bustling port cities tremble, cough and whimper. Hurricanes — like the ones that tore through Puerto Rico and Houston in 2017 — reinforced suggestions throughout the region that having people run for higher ground might be smart. But a Caribbean port city to the south, Barranquilla, is flipping that approach on its head.
Research suggests that coastal cities from Miami to Amsterdam face the risk of a rise in sea levels of 13 to 34 inches by 2060. But here, on Colombia’s Caribbean shoreline, Barranquilla is inching toward the coast, not away from it. After a half-century-long slumber of decay, the port city that was once the country’s New York City is awakening with a number of infrastructure projects that it hopes will again turn it into a magnet for tourists and residents, and a model in battling flooding.
Barranquilla is investing more than $280 million in a master plan to build a 900-plus-acre city near the adjacent Magdalena River and plant 250,000 trees over the next seven years. It is investing $600 million in a tram that will connect the airport to the city’s downtown. The city of 1.2 million people has 220 public parks, and they’re currently getting a makeover to quadruple the city’s green cover — from 3.7 acres per person to 14.8 acres. And to the north, the city built a $150 million boardwalk along the river in 2017. That’s pushing Barranquilla’s residential physique into vast, vacant spaces along the shore where factories and warehouses used to whir. The city has also cracked down on crime, switching from a reactionary policy to a preventative one.
We want to do our own thing.
Carlos Acosta, Barranquilla city manager
What Barranquilla wants isn’t unique: It hopes these initiatives will draw newcomers, and keep them there with enough public spaces that stay cool in the sticky 87-degree heat. But how it’s going about that is different from other cities — and that’s no coincidence.
“If you … talk to people, you’ll hear Barranquilleros say that they don’t want to be a replica of Miami,” says Carlos Acosta, the city’s manager. While the mayor is the face of the city, Acosta is the manager, making day-to-day things happen. “We want to be us. We want to do our own thing.”
Until a decade ago, that confidence might have come across as misplaced. At the start of the 20th century, while Italians and Irish were arriving in New York City, it was people from the Ottoman Empire who were coming to Barranquilla. Immigration and geography made the port city a major hub of commerce and industry in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1920s and ’30s, it was exporting the majority of Colombian goods — most of it coffee — which made it the New York City of Colombia. But by 1950, the city declined as Buenaventura, a port city on the Pacific, ascended, taking more and more of the country’s share of coffee and goods out to sea.
By 2008, Barranquilla was broke; it had lost control over tax collection, which was run by a private company. That was “totally unacceptable,” Acosta grumbles. That same year, businessman Alejandro Char was elected mayor, and he yanked Barranquilla out of bankruptcy. The ball-cap-wearing leader, still in power, espouses a populist brand. “His idea was, if I build this boardwalk, if I build this city center — they will come,” says Acosta. It’s a strategy that appears to be working.
It’s 9 p.m. when 17-year-old Sebastian lands a windmill flip with a thump in Suri Salcedo Park in central Barranquilla. Shirtless and muscular, Sebastian and his buddies are here every night to train in gymnastics on the bars. That was unthinkable a few years ago, when Barranquilla suffered from high crime rates. But the city has reduced homicides by 32 percent since 2004. Better policing, public schools and parks, and improved access to health care, constitute the meat of the city’s prevention strategy. Now, Sebastian says, the parks are accessible through the night. “There’s no curfew. Sometimes we’re here until one in the morning,” he says before taking to the bars again.
To the east of the park, Barranquilla is upgrading its river port to handle seagoing ships. The city wants to develop into the logistics hub on Colombia’s Atlantic coast that its landlocked bigger brothers Medellín and Bogotá can’t become. Oil and gas companies are pouring millions of dollars into exploring Colombia’s Caribbean offshore. The past few years have already produced finds, such as Anadarko’s natural gas discoveries in the Kronos offshore fields. With a few major discoveries, Barranquilla hopes its economy will blast off.
The emphasis on expanding greenery is in keeping with a broader plan to focus on the environment. Barranquilla is also installing air sensors at mobile stations that will collect data on pollutants. “When you poll people who are migrating from city to city, air quality is something that’s popping up more and more,” says Acosta.
Barranquilla’s strategy of building toward the coast may prove shortsighted, warns Clara Irazábal-Zurita, a professor of urban planning at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “Coastal cities are enormously vulnerable because of climate change,” she says. “So how will Barranquilla get the drinking water it needs to support its expanding population and expanding tourism?”
Acosta concedes there are challenges. Though homicides are down, from 41 per 100,000 in 2004 to 28 per 100,000 in 2017, the city has witnessed an uptick in robberies since 2010. Still, he says, the city’s approach of melding infrastructure development, a focus on the environment and measures to improve security is working. Barranquilla’s gross domestic product has doubled since 2007. Located on a hill, Barranquilla also has natural advantages over its Caribbean neighbor cities in dodging the worst effects of climate change, says Acosta.
Back in his office, Acosta presses play on a video that shows how Barranquilla used to be. The video shows a bus getting washed violently down a street in a flash flood, once common in the city. Now streets are flooded with public works, concrete and tubes that snake through the ground for stormwater. One can’t help but wonder how much of Barranquilla’s development is a pump-and-dump real estate scheme. Still, Char, the mayor, enjoys a 94 percent approval rating. He’s got a lot of popularity to lose, a lot of Barranquilla left to build and a unique urban model to prove.