Colombia’s newest city, Serena del Mar, is an experiment in privately funded urbanism.
Fireworks explode into the warm night air over the old walled city of Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The 16th-century plazas are packed with people, their faces lit by fireworks scattering into the sky over their heads. It’s the opening night of Día de la Raza, a national holiday, observed every year to commemorate the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the explorer from whom Colombia derives its name, in 1492.
Groups of women are garlanded in headdresses of bright silk flowers, twirling the colourful layers of their pollera skirts to the music that is coursing through most of Cartagena’s old town squares. Some revellers are sipping cans of chilled lager, which are being sold for a few pesos apiece by hawkers who are diligently peddling their wares in the crowds. Others are nibbling on grilled meats or sweet treats, hips swaying and spirits high.
While the boisterous mood is characteristic of this holiday in Colombia at large, it is representative of a broader ebullience in Cartagena. Its buoyant economy has seen visitor numbers rise – and yet living costs soar and the range of housing stock dwindles. Colombia’s fifth-largest city, with a population of one million people, is forecast to reach 1.2 million by 2035. With the city’s boundaries as they are now, there will be little room to accommodate that number of residents.
If Cartagena risks becoming something of a victim of its own popularity, it is Serena del Mar, a privately funded urban development being built to the north of the city, that will be tasked with easing those burgeoning urban pressures. “We consider ourselves to be the catcher’s mitt,” says Daniel Haime, the president of Serena del Mar, from behind the wheel of his car as he drives to the site, drawing a parallel between Cartagena’s ambitious northern expansion and one of Colombia’s national sporting pastimes. The car is gliding across the pristine tarmac of a new highway that will link the existing city of Cartagena and its newest enclave to the north. “We are thinking of it as a city within a city,” he says.
The development of Serena del Mar, which is billed (rather romantically) in publicity material as “the dreamed city”, is one of the most ambitious urban-development projects to have been undertaken in Colombia. It is a masterplan city built across 971 hectares of land, covered by the lush greenery of mangroves that populate this patch of Cartagena’s northern shoreline; land that’s been in Haime’s family since the late 1940s.
Fundación Serena del Mar
In 2006, Fundación Serena del Mar was established as a bridge between the new development and residents in the existing, low-income settlements that are tucked along its periphery. Serena del Mar’s network of schools will include a mixture of public and private institutions catering to all school grades, with the goal of students from different social backgrounds being able to mix and interact.
The foundation offerstraining for adults (particularly in chemical engineering, which is useful for careers at Cartagena’s port and its affiliated industries) and for children and new mothers. Daycare services have been introduced to allow new mothers to return to work. Residents in the existing towns have also been granted subsidised access to new affordable homes in Serena del Mar.
Its scale and the goals set by its developers have few models elsewhere in Latin America while the slow, considered and piecemeal approach to the building process should draw attention from urban designers everywhere. Serena del Mar is, in many ways, a lesson in how to build a city from scratch.
“I don’t think that there are very many precedents such as this,” says Haime of the ambitious project, which he conceived more than a decade ago. His company Novus Civitas, which he co-founded with Rafael Simón del Castillo, another of Colombia’s prominent industrialists, is serving as its master developer.
Construction began five years ago and is slated to be completed by 2030. When it is finished, it will have an estimated population of between 150,000 and 200,000 people and will house a major medical centre, university complex, landmark natural-history museum, five large-scale hotels and even a new international airport (plans are under way to move Cartagena’s current air hub to Serena del Mar by 2026).
Some elements of the hospital, university and affordable housing are already up and running. “What we have here has not been improvised in any way,” says Haime. “The sequence of the development and the quality of the infrastructure will make Serena del Mar, I hope, a showpiece of how something like this should be designed and brought to fruition.” That sequence, as Haime describes it, is aimed at anchoring the new urban space with institutional buildings so that people have a reason to come to the fledgling urban centre long before other parts of the development – like its residential and retail districts – have been completed.
“Cartagena is an interesting place because it has different layers from different eras,” says Shawn Micallef, a commentator on urban affairs at the University of Toronto. “The problem, sometimes, with a masterplanned city is that it’s all done at once. You take the wrapper off and say, ‘Voilà, we have a city!’ But interesting cities take decades to evolve – it’s not just one central idea.”
It is that wholesale approach that the developers at Serena del Mar are attempting to avoid by building it in stages; each part will be lived in before the construction of the next phase begins. Affordable housing units were among the first structures to be finished and sold out within two weeks of going on the market.
It is unusual for urban developments on the scale of Serena del Mar to be spearheaded by private funding, particularly in Colombia where many larger property developments have, historically, been shadowed by corruption. Large-scale protests against alleged graft took place in cities across Colombia last November. What is also unusual is that Serena del Mar won’t have a mayor or city authority to govern it; nor will its maintenance and upkeep fall under the purview of Cartagena’s existing city council, given that it is being constructed on private land.
It will, in effect, be overseen by the company that built it and which will maintain the public spaces and transport thoroughfares. The work will be paid for by a mandatory monthly fee for residents that varies depending on the size of the property. Serena del Mar’s lower-income households will be exempt.
Other large-scale city-building projects with similar models – such as the Sidewalk Labs development of a digitally driven neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront being built by Google’s parent company, Alphabet – have been the subject of scrutiny over the level of control a private corporation should have over the lives of those who live and work in the properties they develop. But Haime, one of the most famous business names in Colombia, who to date has a strong reputation for being fair, dismisses such concerns and points to some of the nobler goals unfolding at Serena del Mar. “When we were thinking about Serena del Mar we wanted it to include all members of society,” he says as he drives beneath the vast, low corrugated-steel canopy of the roof of what will be the area’s public-transport hub (5,000 bus passengers will pass through this terminal every day once work is completed).
“We wanted to include subsidised low-income housing, all the way up to the highest cost of living, so that everyone from all walks of life, from all socio-economic levels, can live, work, have a family and retire here,” says Haime. “It all sounds somewhat utopian, I know. But I’m confident that we can achieve it.”
A new state-of-the-art hospital, which will eventually house 409 beds and is designed by the Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, began admitting its first patients at the end of last year. Safdie has also designed a portion of the city masterplan; the sense of quality of care, and quality of life, imbued in Safdie’s hospital design (his first to be realised) act as guiding principles to the broader development.
“Daylight and openness to the outside are fundamental to the sense of wellbeing,” says Safdie from his studio in Singapore. “I recognise that that’s setting the bar high because very few hospitals ever achieve that. [In older hospital buildings] you really are in an environment that’s very oppressive. You have no sense of where you are, you have no light.
“So I approached the hospital with two ideas in mind: one, that daylight is key; the other is that gardens, courtyards and water are all already places of healing, in my judgement. That gives the hospital a completely different feeling from any hospital that I know. We were able to do things that are often difficult to achieve.”
Nearby, Colombia’s prestigious Los Andes University opened its first campus outside Bogotá last summer. The Serena del Mar site has an initial focus on further education, offering classes to adults who already live in the surrounding towns, which are tucked along the shoreline.
“We have never built a city before,” says Daniela Ventura, smiling, who heads Serena del Mar’s communications team as we enter the open-air atrium of the university building, which was designed by New York-based architect Brandon Haw. A welcome breeze cuts through the humid afternoon, barrelling through Haw’s central courtyard, which was inspired by the orientation of the Spanish colonial plazas in Cartagena’s old city.
“The hierarchy of urban space is always very important with a masterplan,” says Haw. “People often think that public urban space is parks but it isn’t. It starts with the streets. I think that any city-making needs to be formulated with a series of background buildings at one level: residential buildings, commercial buildings and then special civic buildings that become the monuments of the city.
“We wanted to partner with the best designers and developers in their fields,” adds Ventura, listing a who’s-who of Colombia’s property-development sectors, and Serena del Mar’s other partners. Grupo Attia, for example, is the go-to developer in the country for retirement homes; Arias Serna Saravia is renowned for its luxury apartment complexes in Bogotá, Medellín and La Calera.
Among its international partners are the US’s Johns Hopkins University, which has partnered with Safdie’s hospital project, and the UK’s Applied Wayfinding (responsible for the signage at London’s Olympic Park and on Vancouver’s public-transport network), which is mapping out how vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians will traverse the new space. At the other end of the scale the studio of Robert Trent Jones II, the golf-course architecture practice, is designing the putting greens in the more affluent corner of town.
“I think that it is important to lead by example,” says Haime. “We have put a tremendous value in the inheritance of future generations. I hope that, at the end of the journey, we will have an example of what a modern city can be.” Time will tell whether a Colombian city built for profit is a promising model for urbanists around the world.
Serena del Mar in numbers:
km of cycle paths
km of navigable canals
km of new roads
residential units sold to date
educational institutions spanning primary, secondary and tertiary
emergencies that hospital complex will be able to admit every year
Serena del Mar might prove to be the exception but it’s healthy to start any conversation about the construction of a new city with one eyebrow raised. Here are a few reasons to be sceptical – and some questions to ask.
Many developers, architects and politicians see possibilities for personal wealth, fame and legacy when these projects are proposed. A good first test is to ask who this will enrich.
We all know what a city is: it’s New York, it’s Bologna, it’s Cartagena. A second test is to ask what the sellers mean by a “city”. Do they mean a private campus? A middle-class suburb? Is this just urban sprawl with a ribbon on it? Or do they mean a real city with all its complexities, including letting citizens meddle with or adapt the proposition on offer?
Why is this new city needed? Often politicians get behind these proposals because they know that they have screwed up the management of the real city: “It’s filthy! The people are poor! The public transport is shot! Let’s leave it all behind and move somewhere new!”
The environment, stupid. Lavish projects on greenfield sites have an ecological impact. Ask what damage all this construction is likely to do.
Once the brightest and best have moved out of the downtown core, what will happen to the people who remain? Will their access to healthcare and education be enhanced? Or are we going to forget them? Ask those who got left behind in downtown São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro when the wealth moved to the fringes – they’ll doubtless have robust views to share.
If, after all this, you’re convinced then, sure, press play. But making a city isn’t simple; making a place loved and real takes years, a light regulatory touch and citizens who feel that the city belongs to them.