Habitat International Coalition
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Mapping urban conflicts: An interactive map illustrates the impacts of neoliberal urban restructuring in Santiago de Chile as well as the struggles against it.
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Kristin Schwierz

Mapping urban conflicts

An interactive map illustrates the impacts of neoliberal urban restructuring in Santiago de Chile as well as the struggles against it.

In a growing metropolis with seven million inhabitants like Santiago de Chile, there are a lot of emerging conflicts but they are not always visible at the first sight. A quick glance of Santiago could leave the impression that its main problem is the air pollution (due to its position in the Andean valley) given that the social problems are not as obvious as in other Latin American metropolis: There are no huge 'Favelas' like in Sao Paolo and the homelessness is not that visible like in the city centre of Buenos Aires, for example. One would have to look behind the scenes to get a closer look at the impacts of urban growth, neoliberal housing policies and the urban social movements struggling for their right to the city.

The Institute of Social Studies and Education - SUR Corporación - developed a very useful instrument to visualize this phenomenon: the map of urban conflicts, an interactive online map of Greater Santiago with markers indicating the location of the conflicts. Clicking on the markers provides quick information, while more details are available by browsing through the database. Different themes, issues or types of conflicts are classified as follows: urban growth, use and appropriation of urban space, environment, housing and earthquake damage. The map provides an overview of conflicts and struggles throughout the city so one can see that they are spread across nearly all districts of Santiago. One hundred conflicts have been registered since the map was created in 2007; most of them concern urban growth, with 37 cases, followed by housing conflicts with 20 and environmental conflicts with 18. A total of 13 cases refer to the struggles for urban space and 12 to the problem of earthquake damages.

"The idea arose in about 2006 when we noticed that new types of social associations were beginning to appear, formed to defend their territorial spaces,” explains Alejandra Sandoval, staff member of SUR and co-developer of the map. The first published version became an important source for public discussion about urban conflicts and urban citizenship, so that the team decided to transform it into an interactive online map.

More than 50% of the registered conflicts are located in the city centre as well as in the peripheral districts and the western outskirts of the city, mainly in the district of Peñalolen. But there are differences between the locations of the conflicts. While the conflicts of urban growth are more concentrated around the centre, the focal point of the housing conflicts lies in the northwestern and western parts of the city, as well as in the southern and western outskirts. The fact that the housing problem is concentrated in certain marginalized districts has a lot to do with the high segregation of the city[1] – one of the benefits of this map is that it illustrates this relationship.

The database provides the possibility to follow the history of the conflicts from their start to the current situation and allows at the same time to identify new conflicts related to the impacts of neoliberal urban development. It highlights the work of organizations and citizens' groups that are struggling against this type of development and for the right to the city. It is not only a scientific project but an instrument to support social movements in the city. It was therefore created in cooperation with organizations and citizens' initiatives, as well as the "Red Observatorio de Vivienda y Ciudad” (Observatory for Housing and the City Network).

A "representative sample”: The documented cases

A range of cases are subsumed under one keyword even though they differ in their character, the social actors involved and the way in which the conflict developed. A short summary of the cases follows with some illustrating examples.

Under the keyword of ‘Housing', one can find cases of families living in very precarious conditions without their own plot of land or house who rent a room or a flat often informally (without contract) from house owners or of households sharing a house or a plot with their relatives, under overcrowded/precarious conditions - so called 'Allegados'. They are organized in assemblies and, at a higher level, in movements that are not only demanding housing solutions but a complete change of the subsidy-based housing policies. The majority of cases feature associations of debtors living in houses financed with state subsidies and unsecured mortgage credits. The debts have been totally privatized and, due to the usurious interest rates, debtors end up paying double or triple of the home value. The mobilization started in 2004 in all of Chili, organized in different movements and organizations. The housing issue also contains the case of the biggest land seizure – a so called 'toma' - in the district Peñalolen that involved 1600 families in 1999 and still exists with 400 families waiting for a housing solution. This land seizure was as emblematic as in the sixties and seventies when land seizures became a mass movement, or as in the eighties when they were an important part of the movement against the dictatorship. The Pobladores[2] in 1999 rebelled against housing policies and demanded dignified housing space in their district. From this particular land seizure arose the successful movement ‘Movimiento de Pobladores en Lucha' (Movement of Dwellers in Struggle), now organizing dwellers and carrying out housing projects for poor families on the basis of self-management. The movement struggles in general against the housing policies that preferentially cater to the market and consider people to be simple subsidy-beneficiaries.

In one of the poorest districts of Santiago, La Pintana, the ‘Movimiento Pueblo sin Techo' (Movement of People without a Roof) also struggles against the neoliberal housing policies and carries housing and other social projects. The group organizes public protests that include e.g. symbolic land seizures and demonstrations. Furthermore, they pressure the Ministry of Housing and enforce in this way the dialogue.

Urban growth includes, on the one hand, the extension of the city towards the periphery and, on the other, the densification and restructuring in the city centers and the surrounding districts. The real estate boom, with its high-rise buildings, the construction of mega-projects like malls, the destruction of older buildings and the construction of motorways – just to mention the most important - provoke conflicts, mainly with the people who are directly concerned; in most cases, they mobilize citizens and neighborhood groups and organizations against the restructuring. They also resist against the communal zoning plans ("Plano Regulador comunal”) that define where certain things can be built, to what height, in what density and in to what extension – always with economic interests in mind instead of the citizens’ interests. In Santiago's wealthiest district Vitacura residents prevented the construction of three high-rise buildings with a plebiscite, representing the first time in Chile that citizens participated in the decision-making process of an issue of this sort.

Furthermore, the environmental impacts of many urban construction projects are the source of discontent for ecological groups. In some cases, different groups fighting against the same urban restructuring measures often forge alliances.

The conflicts relating to urban space concern neighborhoods, as well as parks, streets and houses: Neighborhood assemblies struggle to protect their ‘barrio' against real estate projects (mainly high-rise buildings) and defend the cultural and social heritage; social and cultural initiatives squat or regain empty houses to create culture centers[3] and neighborhood initiatives reclaim free spaces; neighbors refuse to allow the sale of their street.

A successful example of the defense of the neighborhood is that of Barrio Yungay, where the neighbors began to mobilize because of problems with waste disposal. Afterwards, they organized themselves to stop the construction of high-rise buildings and defend the historical and architectural heritage of the area against the threat of real estate projects. Since then, residents have organized in the ‘Neighborhood Assembly in Defense of Barrio Yungay', participating in the communal urban planning and protecting the barrio's heritage. The neighborhood was granted the status of ‘Zona Tipica', which gives it basic protection against the construction of high-rise-buildings and the destruction of old houses. This organized neighborhood not only wants that "our barrio" is spared from the destructive tendencies of neoliberal urban development, but rather wants to intervene in urban planning to create a more inclusive and participative city.

The ecological problems in Santiago due to urban development are increasing: The construction boom, the expansion of the city, the traffic infrastructure, the waste problems, the energy supply etc. have strong impacts on the environment, so it could be sad that this conflict and other urban conflicts mostly overlap. Most of the cases are about protecting the environment –trees, green areas, parks, community gardens etc. - in a district or a neighborhood that faces urban expansion, real estate projects, the extension of exclusive roadways for public buses and other construction projects. But neighbors also organize themselves against waste dumps, gas plants and antennas that affect their health and quality of life.

Last year, the map was upgraded with the emergence of a new issue: the strong earthquake in February 2010 caused heavy damages in some parts of Santiago. Its impacts inevitably provoked serious conflicts because many people lost their accommodation. In some of the newer high-rise buildings, there were significant damages that led to them being declared uninhabitable. Residents and owners are claiming their invested money back, the immediate repair of their houses or any form of compensation from the builders and building enterprises. Neighborhood assemblies are struggling for subsidies for their uninhabitable houses and demanding a reconstruction plan from the Ministry of Housing. Students and teachers also protested for the reconstruction of their schools.

An example for the struggle for reconstruction is that of Villa Olímpica, built in 1961 and consisting of 82 buildings with 3000 flats. Nearly all of the houses were affected by the earthquake; sixteen buildings were hardly damaged and seven have been declared as uninhabitable. The neighbors organized themselves shortly after the earthquake in a neighborhood assembly that demands solutions for the reconstruction. They organized demonstrations, campaigns and other activities to raise public awareness and pressure the Ministry of Housing. They demanded another kind of state subsidy that benefits all the residents of the neighborhood without difference since the existing reconstruction subsidies are, in a lot of cases, not sufficient. Furthermore, the neighborhood assembly worked out its own evaluation of the damages and the reconstruction process, and published irregularities with the allocation of subsidies. They participated in demonstrations on the first anniversary of the earthquake and became part of the 'National Movement for a Just Reconstruction', founded shortly after. More than one year after the earthquake, the neighborhood assembly achieved, on the one hand, that the first uninhabitable buildings were reconstructed with state subsidies and, on the other, the participation of the neighbors in the reconstruction process in the form of a continuous dialogue with the Ministry of Housing.

The map of conflicts reveals the conflictive impacts of nearly 40 years of neoliberal policies, as well as the accumulating problems of a growing neoliberal metropolis:

"The map does not claim to be a register of all the conflicts, but a representative sample that allows a general and comprehensive view on the phenomenon,” Alejandra explains, pointing to one of the objects of the map/register. "To understand it in this way, is to see that it is not just about particular struggles but that they respond to structural problems that have to do with the neoliberal model of the production of the city and the lack of power of persons, inhabitants and citizens to decide about their territorial spaces in this context”.

Kristin Schwierz, June 2011

[1] Poor families have been systematically pushed to the periphery by the subsidy based housing policies of the last 40 years. The housing conflicts at the periphery have their origins mainly in this policies.

[2] Poblador/ra could be simply translated with "dweller”. But he/she is more than an inhabitant of a ‘Poblacion', or poor settlement, because of his/her historical origins; they became a very important actor in social and political mobilizations in the context of the land seizures in the 60s and 70s when 'Pobladores' built up parts of the city. ‘Poblador' in this sense has more of a political significance and refers to collective struggles for the right to housing and the right to the city.

[3] In 2009, all ‘squatters' were evicted in the course of a zero-tolerance policy against the squatters movement after two (of four) bombs detonated in different places of Santiago de Chile – what is better known in Chile as the "Caso Bombas”. Officials accuse an "anarchist group” to be responsible for the bombs. The case has not been clarified as of yet.


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