Rebuilding Peace in Colombia
Reflections on the role of planning in a post-conflict country
by Carlos Andrés González
Violence is an issue that has particularly affected Colombia’s history in recent decades. Armed conflict between the national government, guerrillas, and paramilitary groups—the latter two being irregular armed organizations of different origins – and the war against drug trafficking has hurt the people of Colombia and undeniably impacted the development of cities and towns across the South American country. As a Colombian student studying City Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, I have asked myself a series of questions about the challenges faced by Colombian cities as a consequence of violence. This text is a compilation of approaches I believe the country should consider when planning its territory, which revolve around three key aspects—forced displacement, people, and drugs.
For one, the armed conflict has caused massive internal migration. According to a recent report, Colombia has accumulated more than 8 million victims of forced displacement in recent decades, with more than 5 million still internally displaced.  Inequality features as a protagonist in this story as most people forced to migrate come from conditions of poverty or are vulnerable groups, such as children, people with disabilities, and single women heads of households. 
Forced displacement has been significantly accelerating population growth not only in Colombia’s cities but also the areas surrounding them, as demonstrated by patterns in the accompanying maps. Figure 1.0 shows the number of reported forced displacement events in the year 2022. It illustrates how six main cities—Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla, Cartagena, and Bucaramanga—contain the highest density of displacement events, measured in events over the area of the municipality/city. It is also evident that municipalities adjacent to these cities reflect a similarly high level of cases. By accelerating population growth at the outskirts of cities, forced displacement is causing sprawl that is most affecting people in conditions of high poverty and vulnerability. Immigrants are also commonly located in informal settlements at the outskirts and edges of cities, which presents different challenges for urban and regional planning.
Informal housing conditions are critical to this argument because people tend to build their homes precariously, for instance without seismic resistance in structural design or without proper access to water. Such settlements are also far from major opportunities of employment, transportation, health, and education. In this situation, it becomes necessary to create land-use planning policies that can control the growth and edges of cities, and to respect and learn from the growth patterns of informality to encourage orderly development without relocation, unless strictly necessary due to risk.
... of recognizing the human component of displacement when rebuilding; of gathering communities ... working with them to understand how they would imagine any reconstruction.
People and Memory
Cities must be planned around people, which necessarily involves conflict actors—in this context, primarily victims and former combatants. For this, it is essential to link the characteristics of Colombia’s immigrant population to its specific context. Colombia is currently experiencing a crucial moment in the search for peace. It is in the process of implementing a peace negotiation with one of the strongest armed groups in the country’s recent history: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla. This presents an opportunity to draw up a post-conflict plan in which urban and regional planning can, and must, take the lead.
On considering homes and other areas to be mended in a recovery planning process, it is important to note that every abandoned territory has a history and memory that must be respected. Many of these places can even be re-inhabited by those who had to emigrate. Ana Felicia Velasquez, a woman photographed by Colombian artist Jesús Abad Colorado, went back to what was once her home carrying flowers so that the house “would not feel sad.”  This denotes the importance of recognizing the human component of displacement when rebuilding; of gathering communities, listening to the past of their cities and towns, and working with them to understand how they would imagine any reconstruction.
Planners should put forward mechanisms to offer access to opportunities for those who chose peace and are working to achieve it.
The actors of Colombia’s conflict do not only include its victims— ex-combatants are also fundamental in this process. According to government figures, more than 13,000 former FARC guerrillas are accredited in reincorporation4. Part of the agreement involves offering opportunities for people who lay down their arms. Some sentences in the transitional justice already include the reconstruction of infrastructure in areas affected by the conflict - an opportunity for urban planning to integrate complex processes. In addition, planners should put forward mechanisms to offer access to opportunities for those who chose peace and are working to achieve it, an effort that can help avoid marginalizing and isolating ex-combatants.
Photo: Ana Felicia Velasquez, photgraphed by Jesùs Abad Colorado
Finally, drugs have been a crucial element in triggering and deepening the crisis of violence in Colombia. It must be repeated ad nauseam that we all lost the war on drugs—governments, cartels, populations, and exporting and consuming countries. It is the task of the planners, then, to link ourselves and advocate for responsible regulations of drugs.
In 1970, United States President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, one that has left thousands of victims in the countries where it has been waged. For Colombia being an exporting country, this substantially aggravated internal violence. The Medellin and Cali cartels waged war against the Colombian government towards the end of the 20th century. Later, guerrilla and paramilitary groups joined the illegal drug business and financed themselves with the money it produced. Even consumer countries, such as the United States, have suffered severely in terms of public health, safety, and mass incarceration from the Opioid crisis. Philadelphia’s own neighborhood, Harrowgate, witnesses considerable drug use till today, with empty syringes lining the streets and increased incidents of gun violence. 
So, what does urban planning have to do with it? A lot. And an international effort is required. If the war on drugs has failed, different paths should be sought, such as advocating for responsible regulation, where drug consumption is controlled and reduced, and public health policies implemented around the consumer. This would make it possible to root out drug businesses away from criminals. In Colombia, for example, armed groups that take so many victims would lose their primary source of financing. Urban and town planning is an indispensable tool to strategically offer access to health centers focused on drug prevention and treatment. Cities like Philadelphia have been committing to harm-reductive, trauma-informed intervention strategies. This also includes community involvement as critical for ongoing dialogue to reduce stigma and address the crisis.
Photo: Riddhi Batra
The war in Colombia is a very complex issue, but the consequences of internal displacement, reparations for victims, reincorporation of reinserted persons, and the debate on drugs are matters that we must assume as responsible for territorial planning. With this text, I only outline some of the challenges that urban planning should address in the Colombian context. Beyond that, I believe the role of planners should be more active in the countries where we choose to work.
About the Author:
Carlos Andrés González
Carlos González is a Colombian architect from Bogotá, currently a second-year City Planning student in the Public-Private Development concentration. Carlos believes that design is a path to achieve social, environmental, and economic sustainability through urban development, participatory processes, and urban policies. Outside this context, he enjoys watching movies, reading a new book (to add to the pile of unfinished ones on his nightstand), having a beer with good company, and walking the city.
“Las cifras que presenta el Informe Global sobre Desplazamiento 2022.” Unidad de Víctimas. May, 2019. https://www.unidadvictimas.gov.co/es/registro-y-gestion-de-informacion/las-cifras-que-presenta-el-informe-global-sobre-desplazamiento
Ceballos Bedoya, María Adelaida. “El desplazamiento forzado en Colombia y su ardua reparación Araucaria”. Revista Iberoamericana de Filosofía, Política y Humanidades, vol. 15, no. 29, 2013, pp. 169-188 Universidad de Sevilla Sevilla, Spain
Jesús Abad Colorado. “Ana Felicia Velásquez.” https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-37452970
Agencia para la Reincorporación y la Normalización. “ARN en Cifras corte abril 2019.” April, 2019.
Chatterjee, González, Griffiths, Gutierrez, McCrary, Peña, Pierce, Wang. “Existing Conditions: Health + Wellness”. Harrowgate Neighborhood Plan. Pp. 24. University Of Pennsylvania, 2022.