Award-winning project Heartfelt Houses / Proyecto Juan Bobo

Medellín, Colombia

Inhabitants of a former informal settlement are supplied with clean water, sewage, and waste disposal.

In 2004, the ‘Heartfelt Houses’-Initiative was launched in Medellin, the second largest city in Colombia. Medellin faces the problem of informal settlements and slums. The Heartfelt Houses Initiative aimed to intervene in one of the most critical districts of the city. This district was affected by: weak organisation, absence of leadership and control of the territory, and lack of infrastructure and hygiene. Additionally, the settlement suffered from structural deficits: 80% of the houses showed technical and functional deficiencies, 35% were put in risk by geotechnical restrictions and 94% lacked legal tenure. 

The ‘Heartfelt Houses’ initiative aimed at improving the structural and living environment in the area instead of relocating its inhabitants. This was sought to be achieved by consolidating the environment, infrastructure, existing houses, and strengthening the socio-economic environment of the inhabitants. Changes in policies and intra-institutional activities were another goal.

The project was initiated by EDU (Empresa Desarrollo Urbano de Medellin), a decentralized agency established by the local government to develop and manage municipal projects. EDU coordinates urban development projects for all the departments of the municipality by bringing together various institutional actors and levels. An institutional alliance was created, enclosing municipal, departmental, and national organizations.

Award-winning project

This project was awarded the 'Dubai International Award for Best Practices' in 2008. Learn more about the award.


City information

Size and population development
2011: 3,694,000; 1990: 2,135,000; 2025: 4,873,000; 2010-2015: +2.51%/year

Main functions
Capital City of Antioquia, renowned as an innovative city; won the Veronica Rudge Urbanism Award conferred by Harvard University in 2013; once famous for being the most violent city in the world due to conflicts caused by drug cartels

Main industries / business
Main industries include tourism, steel, textiles, processed foods, chemicals/oil

Political structure
Republican democratic system; political departments such as social mobility, urban culture, education etc.

Administrative structure
Mayor and municipal council, belongs to the Medellín Metropolitan Area (10 municipalities), the city itself is divided into six zones and five townships, which in turn are divided into 16 comunas, which consist of 249 barrios

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Background and objectives

The informal settlement along the river basin of the Juan Bobo stream amounted to about 1,260 inhabitants, who were mostly women, children, or elders. The settlement faced several serious problems. Concerning the environmental situation, too many people were living on too little space, the area was hard to access, and the settlement suffered from water and litter pollution caused by illegal water supply, an informal sewer system, and the absence of waste disposal. Furthermore, the surrounding environmental system was damaged: The local creek was highly contaminated and the hills surrounding the settlement were vulnerable to landslides.

Socio-economic conditions were in a bad state. Inhabitants of the settlement were in poor economic situations, and received their earnings from informal employment. The largest parts of community members were disadvantaged people, such as migrants, ethnic minorities, and single parent families. Additionally, the settlement was affected by unassured land tenure: People mostly owned the houses they lived in, but not the land they were built on. Governmental intervention was mostly perceived as a precursor for the threatening eviction of the settlement and therefore not accepted by the population.

The objectives of the initiative were to create cohesion within the community of the settlement and to strengthen and improve the relationship between inhabitants and local authorities. Additionally, the legalization of the tenure system; the compilation of new housing plans in close collaboration with the beneficiaries; the improvement of housing conditions; and the ongoing verification of the models expansion and sustainability were desired. By implementing these objectives, the initiative sought to maintain and enforce social and economic networks within the community, and conserve its urban and architectural particularities instead of relocating inhabitants and disrespecting the community’s identity.

The above stated goals led to the employment of fairly unconventional solutions, to the search of technical and normative flexibility and to the aspiration of finding solutions that would reflect the needs and expectations of the inhabitants. On the institutional level, the stated goals resulted in inter-institutional action and dialogues between the community and the different levels of governance.


When Empresa Desarrollo Urbano de Medellin (EDU) started the implementation in August 2004, it was confronted with weak communitarian organization, scepticism towards governmental intervention, and fear of eviction amongst the inhabitants of the ‘Juan Bobo’ settlement. One main focus of attention was the participation of inhabitants during all stages of the process (project planning, instrumentation, execution, maintenance, and tracking).

First of all, a participatory diagnosis was carried out in order to frame the scope of actions and to find out the particular needs of each family. Teams of EDU, specialized in technical and social matters, conducted conversations with the inhabitants, and held workshops to collect ideas and determine social demands. Thereby, communitarian participation and commitment was stimulated, a mutual consent among community members could be procured, and the involvement of the community members into the decision-making-process was secured. All actors involved came together and decided on actions to be conducted within the frame of an urban pact.

Meanwhile, standard process measures had been undertaken by EDU. In January 2005, legal, operational, technical, and administrative processes were started. Detailed geo-referential mapping and socio-economic surveys were accomplished. In June 2005, the availability of resources was secured and operational structures as well as intra-institutional agreements were set up.

The intervention into the territory started in February 2006. By that time, the program was threatened to fail due to negative developments in the process: institutions only showed presence during executions, discussion and actions between actors stagnated or irregular, and the unit responsible for the housing management, CORVIDE (Corporación de Vivienda y Desarrollo Social), was put out of duty. To answer these developments, the community decided to establish three committees to deal with questions of housing, environment, and the neighbourhood in order to anticipate the impending termination of the program. These committees were supported by the involved agencies and could finally achieve agreements between the actors and stable support of the government. Furthermore, these committees dealt with problems within the community: ownership regulations for houses with more than one resident family were found, a manual dealing with standards for coexistence and social graces was composed and agreements concerning the use of common spaces could be found.

Another problem was met when it came to the point of legalizing the properties: Information relating to technical aspects as infrastructure etc. was missing as well as cadastre records. EDU and other entities conducted attentive research and achieved the provision of studies that enabled the completion and transferability of the project.

In March 2007, EDU presented a concrete intervention plan that was politically validated shortly after. It comprised three main intervention strategies: the construction of new buildings, the upgrading of existing houses (reorganization of the settlement in order to bring in public services, such as sewage, water systems, and electricity), and the creation of public spaces and increased accessibility to the terrain. Concrete measures were the demolition of unsafe houses, the temporal displacement of residents during the construction of new apartments, and the provision of homeowners with materials to rebuild their houses.

During the construction work and the fiscal clearing, EDU was again confronted with problems arising from the illegal structure of the settlement: the implementation of urban regulations and legal procedures was difficult, as receiving structures were almost entirely informal. New technical tools and regulatory adjustments had to be adopted by involved actors as the land registry office, the municipal planning entity, urban planners, and the Medellin Utility Company. A further concern was the construction of the new houses, contributed to private sector entities. These actors were more concerned about commercial and formal issues than taking into account the nature of social housing projects. By the establishment of a cross functional team, affiliated to EDU and responsible for the planning and management of land purchasing and civil works, this obstacle was overcome.

Financing and resources

In total 5,463 million USD were raised for the ‘Heartfelt Houses-Initiative.' This financial support came from central, regional, local government, and para-governmental agencies. The Colombian Ministry of the Environment, Housing & Land Use Development provided 135.000 USD, local government contributed 4,711 million USD, the para-governmental organization VIVA (Empresa de Vivienda de Antioquia) 168.000USD, and communitarian organizations 449.000USD. EDU managed these resources and FOVIMED (Fondo de Vivienda de Interés Social de Medellín), a social fund set up by the local government, provided the pre-funding of the initiative that was later on being reimbursed by EDU.

EDU also contributed the largest part of organizational tasks as well as the coordination with a large number of actors. Manpower for cleaning, maintenance, and the improvement of houses came from the families of the settlement as well as human resources within the communitarian committees and community management projects.

Results and impacts

The former illegal settlement ‘Juan Bobo’ transformed into ‘Sector Nuevo Sol de Oriente’. Inhabitants of this area are guaranteed with clean water, sewage, and waste disposal. A mobility system, public parks, and squares were established. Furthermore, families no longer live in damaged or illegal houses, but possess legal tenure of the houses they live in. Land use is under social control, and safety within the settlement has significantly risen. The situation for children and women could also be enhanced by empowering women through their active involvement in the negotiation processes on the development of the area.

Within the community, workshops caused a positive effect: Capacity building, conflict resolution, and community cooperation were achieved. Through the establishment of an ‘acceptable community behaviour’ manual, common standards of coexistence were launched. By succeeding goals for the community, inhabitants feel more competent and self-confident. A negative development can be observed for the establishment of apartment houses: among residents living in apartments, a higher conflict potential exists than among those being able to stay in their houses.

At an institutional level, the concept of neighbourhood improvement via resettlement employed in the initiative caused changes within the municipal administration. The success of neighbourhood consolidation by improving and restructuring smaller settlements is recognized and being applied in other districts of the city. EDU, the executing entity, strengthened its capabilities and became a broker between governmental institutions, public sector, welfare institutions, and communities.

Barriers and challenges

Besides the above stated difficulties during the implantation of the process, such as initial barriers within the community and administrative complications during the process, there are a few further conflicts after the project termination. Some sources report on incurred debt arising from the construction process, there is evidence that some community members are unable to pay for formalized services (water supply, etc.), the project in general was very expensive, there is little indication for a sustainable economic development in the settlement and social conflicts among the inhabitants still exist. There is little evidence, that these problems are being counteracted, and processes of large-scale relocation are still taking place in Medellin.

Lessons learned and transferability

The above depicted barriers could be avoided by an ongoing enhancement of community capacity building, stronger participatory intervention, and improving economic development in the area. Nevertheless, the ‘Heartfelt Houses’ initiative can be clearly described as an exceptional and successful policy.

This is demonstrated by the purpose to replicate the model of intervention in other areas of the city of Medellin, as it was stated in the 2008-2011 Municipal Development Plan, and by an ongoing attention attributed to the project as an urban development housing model from municipalities within the country and from abroad.

Within the city, transfer is likeable due to the existence of several comparable zones suffering from geotechnical restrictions or informal structures of settlement. Other components of the approach, such as its cultural adaptability and the promotion of the community as an agent favouring local development, enable the model to be implemented in other regions.

One ongoing transfer of the policy is taking place in another area in Medellin located close to a stream, ‘Quebrada La Herrera’, counting 900 inhabitants. The 2008-2011 Municipal Development Plan aspires for further replications of the model in four other areas in the city, comprising about 6,000 families. Several municipalities, from Colombia asked to be admitted to the model and Mayors from other Colombian and international cities as La Paz (Bolivia), Tokyo (Japan) and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) asked for knowledge transfers.


- Blanco Muñoz, Diego L. (2009) : Case study ‘Proyecto piloto de consolidación habitacional y recuperacion ambiental de la quebrada Juan Bobo’. Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá. Retrieved on 15 December 2012 from:

- Perez Salazar, Bernardo (2010): Case Study ‘Lecciones de Gobernabilidad desde el urbanismo social de Montaña: Estudio de caso de la intervencion en la quebrada Juan Bobo y el surgimiento del sector nuevo Sol de Oriente en Medellin, Colombia’. Retrieved on 15 December 2012 from:,%20Experiencias%20y%20Diagnosticos/LECCIONES%20DE%20GOBERNABILIDAD%20-%20MEDELLIN,%20COLOMBIA%20-%20BERNARDO%20PEREZ%20SALAZAR%202010.pdf

- Salter, Nicholas (2011):  Slum Upgrading and Community Participation: A Policy to Avoid Relocation for Juan Bobo Residents: Case Study in Medellin, Colombia. Case study retrieved on 15 December 2012 from:, McGill University.

- Project description / Description of EDU:, Retrieved on 15 December 2012

- Project description: Viviendas con corazón: Proyecto Piloto de Consolidación Habitacional y Recuperación Ambiental de la Quebrada Juan Bobo (Medellín) Colombia. Retrieved on 15 December 2012 from: Slum Upgrading and Community Participation: A Policy to Avoid Relocation for Juan Bobo Residents