The Colombian city of Medellin is competing against New York and Tel Aviv for the title of world's most innovative, a candidacy based on a public-transport system that aims to bolster social cohesion and chip away at longstanding problems of socioeconomic inequality, violence and drug trafficking.

Medellin has gone from being the world's most violent city in the 1990s to a finalist for the City of the Year prize awarded by the Washington-based non-profit research group Urban Land Institute, having already beaten out cities such as Chicago, Singapore, Sao Paulo and London.

In selecting Medellin, the ULI considered the construction there of an integrated public-transport infrastructure that, in addition to reducing carbon-dioxide emissions, has contributed to the social development of marginalized areas of the city and a reduction in crime.

Cable cars and escalators already existed. We didn't invent them here in Medellin, but using them as urban public transport, that was something new

- Mayor Anibal Gaviria

Medellin, the capital of the northwestern province of Antioquia, is home to roughly 2.5 million inhabitants and located in a valley surrounded by mountains.

The city's population has grown rapidly in recent decades due to the arrival of large numbers of people who have taken up residence in make-shift homes on its hillsides after being displaced by the country's long-running armed conflict.

These neighborhoods were cut off from access to facilities and public services and, therefore, an integrated public-transport system - consisting of two metro lines, two cable cars, 20 articulated buses and several escalators that allow people to get up and down the steep hillsides - was built to incorporate them into the city's economy.

"Cable cars and escalators already existed. We didn't invent them here in Medellin, but using them as urban public transport, that was something new, a developmental focal point in a depressed sector wracked by violence," Mayor Anibal Gaviria told Efe in an interview.

In making Medellin a finalist for its award, the ULI also took into account a project to build tram lines, a public bike-sharing system and the so-called Medellin Intelligent Mobility System, or SIMM, which uses cameras, radar and other equipment to improve mobility and public safety.

These developments have helped steadily bring the homicide rate down to 52.5 murders annually per 100,000 inhabitants, a rate that remains high due to turf battles among rival drug gangs and paramilitary successor groups.

This city has undergone and is undergoing a metamorphosis that we're proud to show the world," Gaviria said.

"Medellin's strength as an innovative city is that, despite the difficulties, despite not having the budgets that other cities do, it has transformed innovation into wellbeing for its people," the mayor said.

The winner of the City of the Year award, sponsored by Citigroup, will be announced in early February. 

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