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

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
– 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

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 h
ouseholds sharing a house or a plot with
their relatives, under overcrowded/precarious conditions – so called
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
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

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

[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.

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.

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.