The world cities on the cutting edge of innovation and social progress aren’t where you think.
When we think of the world’s most progressive cities, we often imagine the same destinations that form the pillars of the traditional travel industry: Amsterdam’s sexual liberation, Berlin’s art-obsessed hipsterdom, and London’s big city anything-goes tolerance are synonymous in many travelers’ minds with progress and liberation.
But in the last decade, the forefronts of many fights for freedom and dignity have shifted to Latin America.
In the last two decades, the region as a whole has experienced a renaissance of people’s movements and leftist economic thought known as the Pink Tide, a period in which more than 50 million Latin Americans have risen out of poverty. With an increasingly stronger middle class able to provide for its own basic needs and hold democratic governments accountable, the fight of the new Latin American middle class is in many ways shifting to the front of human rights and dignity.
While the region as a whole reinvents itself, four cities in particular stand out as beacons of social progress in this traditionally conservative and unequal part of the world.
Mexico City: Leading Latin America in LGBT Rights
The ushering in of marriage equality in Mexico’s Distrito Federal in 2009 was one of the first signs of the progressive wave sweeping across the Americas. In a world where over 70 countries still punish homosexuality as a criminal offense, the massive Mexican capital became the region’s first city to legalize its LGBT-friendly attitude.
Today Mexico City retains bragging rights to one of the most vibrant gay neighborhoods from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego in its Zona Rosa, a downtown neighborhood bursting with drag shows, dance clubs, and Korean karaoke any night of the week. But the most progressive thing about Mexico City is its tolerant and relatively LGBT-positive atmosphere that allows residents of and visitors to the city to walk down most streets holding the hand of whomever they choose.
Santiago: Social Investment through Startup Culture
While so many of its neighbors have struggled through economic uncertainty and instability, Chile has quietly built itself up into one of the success stories of the Americas. The country with one of the highest Human Development Indexes in the region, Chile continues to invest in its human capital and knowledge economy, and nowhere is that more evident than in its capital city.
Santiago’s now-famous Startup Chile incubator once looked like another dime-a-dozen developing country startup program, and now six years after its launch is held up as a model for creating innovation hubs in the Global South. The program brings aspiring entrepreneurs from within Chile and across the world to Santiago, where they’re given an interest-free startup loan as well as entrepreneurial mentoring and support. This is all part of the Chilean government’s plan to position Santiago as the “entrepreneurship hub of Latin America,” furthering Chile’s development and ability to offer better education, healthcare, and economic opportunity to its people.
Montevideo: Bringing Peace to the War on Drugs
In 2012, Uruguay shocked the world when it became the first country to ever completely legalize the growth, sale, and consumption of cannabis. In an era when the War on Drugs has shredded the social fabric of countries like Mexico and Colombia, the Uruguayan government has followed through on its popular mandate to combat drug crime by legalizing and regulating marijuana.
The decision has received both praise and criticism in the local and international press: its impact on organized crime and drug use in the country has been mixed, but the policy also provides promising opportunities for medical and psychological research impossible elsewhere. The government looks at it as a possible future revenue source, but for now the state-run marijuana industry’s main goal is to undercut the influence of the black market and organized crime in Uruguay, while at the same time providing an inspiring Latin American model for a post-drug war society.
Medellín: Innovating through Social Urbanism
From 1990s international murder capital to innovation capital of the world in 2014, Medellín’s program of urbanismo social, social urbanism, has made the city a model for urban progress that’s turned it not only into a model case study of Latin American urban planning, but also a tourism and expat hotspot.
By focusing first on the most resource-poor and opportunity-desperate parts of the city, Medellín’s social urbanism approach jump-starts social change by beginning with drastic and spectacular innovations in the places where they can make the biggest differences. The best evidence of this approach is the ultra-modern cable cars and outdoor escalator that have been constructed and integrated into the city’s modern metro system to connect isolated hillside shantytowns to the economic opportunities of the city center. Alongside these public transit investments, the impressive parques-biblioteca, “library-parks,” that serve as community and education centers in Medellín’s poorest neighborhoods make a spectacular statement about the city’s approach to progress.
It’s true that many of the cities where human rights and civil liberties are best translated into opportunities for their citizens are found in Europe and the Global North, but today, our battles for social progress have gone entirely global. Entire regions are shifting their own narratives, shaking off images of violence and narcotrafficking that no longer tell the true story of day-to-day life in Latin America.
Now is the time to go and experience the cultural transformations guiding Latin America into the future, to say you witnessed peace in Colombia, the completion of Chile’s successful transition to democracy, the fight for safety and rule of law in Mexico, and countless other people’s movements moving and shaking the region.