Urban Planning in Santiago

Santiago consistently ranks as one of the most liveable cities in Latin America but that reputation is threatened by urban development problems that are impinging on the quality of life. Economic growth in the last 30 years has brought tangible benefits for the city’s residents, but the dark side of growth has been increasing traffic congestion, air pollution and rampant construction, often with little regard for surrounding communities.

Perhaps the most contentious – and most visible – symbol of Santiago’s urban development is the Costanera Center, a huge mall and office complex on the fringes of the business district known as Sanhattan. The mall was scheduled to open in June and the main tower, which dominates the Santiago skyline, will be the tallest tower in South America when completed next year.

The building, developed by local retail group Cencosud, has been compared to the Eiffel Tower by Cencosud’s president, Horst Paulmann. But those who live and work nearby have a different view. The project is expected to cause traffic chaos in the area and office workers are already making plans to leave their cars at home and walk or take public transport.

“I’d rather walk… it will be very difficult to park there and the traffic will be a nightmare,” says Pilar Sepúlveda, an investment manager at the Chilean brokerage Tanner whose office is near the Costanera Center.

But the problems faced by commuters like Pilar in Sanhattan could have been avoided, says Marcial Echenique, a Chilean architect and professor of Land Use and Transport Studies at Cambridge University. 

In 2006, then-Public Works Minister Eduardo Bitrán commissioned Echenique to study the road mitigation works in Sanhattan. But the plan, which included a tunnel underneath Avenida Andrés Bello to improve access to the Costanera Center, has remained just that – a plan.

“Nothing has been done because no one took responsibility and that’s the sad truth,” says Echenique.

The road works announced by the Ministry of Public Works in May to relieve congestion, including the elimination of the Pérez Zujovic roundabout also recommended by Echenique, will not be completed for at least two years.

And Costanera is not the only building going up in the area. Within a one-kilometre radius of Pérez Zujovic, Echenique estimates there are 900,000 square meters of commercial space and 20,000 new parking spaces either approved or in construction.

“It’s physically impossible for this number of cars to enter the area on the existing streets,” he says.

Cramped by growth

Of course, Sanhattan is not Santiago, but its increasing congestion is a symptom of wider urban development challenges.

“Santiago is at a crossroads, its economic growth has generated new urban problems but the instruments and policies that worked 20 years ago are not able to cope today,” says Luis Eduardo Bresciani, head of the Urban Studies program at Santiago’s Catholic University and a former secretary of Housing and Urban Planning for the Santiago Metropolitan Region.

Santiago has not reached the point of collapse yet, but if its urban problems are not addressed soon, the worst could be yet to come, warns Bresciani.

Part of the problem is the city’s population, which has doubled since 1980 to around 6.5 million, representing over 40% of the country’s inhabitants. But population growth, which has slowed in the last decade, is not the city’s only problem. As prosperity has increased, so has demand for better housing and more space.

Compared to major cities in developed countries, Santiago is relatively crowded.  According to figures from the 2002 census, Santiago has 85 inhabitants per hectare, which is more than New York (19), London (42) and Paris (46), but much less than Karachi, which has over 300.

This is roughly in line with Santiago’s GDP per capita of around US$15,000, but today the city is denser than its level of development would indicate, points out Echenique.

With Chile close to full employment and incomes rising, the demand for new housing is surging, says Vicente Domínguez, executive director of the Association of Real Estate Developers (ADI). 

New home sales in Santiago rose 24.5% to 7,256 in the first three months of 2012 compared to the same period of last year, according to figures from the Chilean Chamber of Construction, and around 75% of those were departments.

Meanwhile, the land available for development is shrinking. According to a recent study by the Chamber, there is less than 2,000 hectares of land available for residential projects within the city limits.

“There is very little land for the number of projects,” says Domínguez.

And it’s not just residential demand driving development. Demand for education and health services is behind the construction of universities, colleges and hospitals, all of which require space.

Santiago is not growing as fast as other cities in Chile, particularly those in the north, but it could run out of land within five years unless a proposal to zone an additional 9,000ha for development is approved, warns Domínguez.

Mansions in the slums

Land designated for social housing projects in Santiago is mainly on the city’s periphery, which has created sprawling ghettos in districts like La Pintana and Puente Alto that are home to nearly a third of the city’s population.

While wealthier neighborhoods wrestle with urban problems brought by development, these ghettos face a different set of problems caused by underdevelopment, points out Bresciani.

“The political will and coordination exists to change this, but the instruments we have are weak,” he says.

Some progress has been made. Economic growth has helped reduce poverty, the city’s housing deficit has been virtually eliminated (although quality of housing remains an issue), and drinking water, sewerage and wastewater treatment coverage has reached nearly 100%.

But there is a chronic shortage of green space – a key measure of urban development. According to government figures, five districts of the city, including Las Condes and Vitacura, have 9.5m2 per inhabitant which is line with the amount recommended by the World Health Organization. But the 1.8 million inhabitants of southeastern Santiago, one of the city’s poorest areas, get just 1.9m2 each.

According to Pilar Giménez, head of the Urban Development Division at the Housing Ministry, the lack of green space and residential segregation are pressing problems.

“Santiago has a deficit of green areas, there are sectors with historical value that are not being adequately protected, many of its public spaces are deficient, it has very problematic transport connectivity, and all these things negatively affect the quality of life,” she says.

Stuck in a jam

As the city has stretched, people rely on their cars to get to jobs and educational centers. And, thanks to economic growth, more people can now afford them.

The number of vehicles on Chilean roads has more than tripled since 1990 to 3.5 million in 2011, 41% of which are in Santiago. An average 172 cars per 1,000 inhabitants circulated last year, according to the national statistics institute, INE, but this is still much less than cities like Sao Paolo which has over 300.

“Chile, and Santiago in particular, has a low level of motorization,” points out Marcial Echenique.

As vehicle ownership rises, traffic congestion is bound to increase. A network of modern highways, built through private concessions, has helped improve traffic flow, but there are not enough of them, points out Echenique who helped design the concessions system in the 1990s.

Public transport is an alternative but, unlike London, Paris or New York, Santiago’s public transport system has not kept pace with the city’s development. The Transantiago system, which was introduced in 2006, receives huge state subsidies but the new buses are unreliable and overcrowded.

Santiago’s Metro system is efficient and well-regarded, but it is relatively small – it has only five lines while Moscow, with double Santiago’s population, has 14 and New York has 24. Two new lines are under construction to better service the city center, but they are not enough to meet the demand, says Echenique.

Another solution could be charging a fee to drivers who enter congested areas. This system, known as road pricing, has worked in cities like London and Stockholm, says Echenique who is working with the Transport Ministry on a similar plan for Sanhattan.

“We are studying its impact, it’s an emergency solution,” he says.

Improving coordination

Urban planning in Santiago starts with the Regional Secretariat (SEREMI) of the Housing Ministry, which is responsible for drawing up a framework for the city’s development known as a Plan Regulador. But each municipality also has its own plan, which often pulls in a different direction.

For example, municipalities like Providencia and Las Condes have created regulations that limit the height and density of new buildings, says Vicente Domínguez.

“Communities are much better organized today and are standing up for their rights,” he says. “Development is now limited to 10 stories in some municipalities.”

With each municipality basically setting its own rules and ministries operating independently, problems are bound to arise, especially in situations where there are overlapping responsibilities.

“There should be a central government that harmonizes the regulations of all municipalities,” says Domínguez.

The Housing Ministry’s Giménez agrees: “The lack of an institutional framework that can manage development on this scale is an important part of the problem.”

Other cities like London and Berlin have shown that central regulation in land use, transport and other areas can help to manage urban development. But Santiago’s Intendente, the governor of the Santiago Metropolitan Region, lacks the funding and authority, points out Marcial Echenique.

“The Intendente should have the power to coordinate between municipalities and approve or reject new projects,” he says.

Creating a national policy

Projects like Costanera and Mall Castro – a mall built in the center of an historical city on the Chiloé archipelago – have made Chile’s lack of an urban development policy painfully evident.

Urban development in Chile is currently regulated by a collection of laws including the General Urbanism and Construction Law, which was originally approved in 1930 and amended in 1975. But the purpose of this law was to promote construction, not manage sustainable development.

In April, President Piñera formed a Presidential Advisory Committee, led by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, tasked with designing a new urban development policy. The committee is formed by 29 members including academics, architects and Ministry representatives.

“We aren’t reinventing the wheel, but the idea is to try to come up with a series of principals and strategies to guide the future of our cities,” says Antonia Lehmann, an architect at the firm Izquierdo Lehmann who has been appointed to lead the Committee. 

“Like all countries reaching a certain level of prosperity, we face new problems that require a rethinking of our development policies,” she says.

Chile has had two attempts at creating an urban development policy – the first was in 1979 and the second, replacing the first, was drafted in 1985 – but neither was supported by a political consensus. In 2000, the government of Former President Ricardo Lagos revoked this policy and began a process aimed at creating a new one but failed to reach a consensus. Until now, efforts to restart the process have come to nothing.

The main reason for the failure of these policies was the lack of public participation in their creation and their emphasis on the free market, says Lehmann.

“Many community groups were dismantled which reduced public participation… the free market was left as the only instrument of urban planning,” she says.

This time around, Lehmann’s Committee is holding a series of public meetings in Chilean cities to incorporate the views of all sectors, including citizens and the private sector.

One of the subcommittees is working on how to better protect Chile’s patrimony, a priority of the government after the February 2010 earthquake which devastated historical buildings in the hardest hit area, notes Lehmann.

Of course, creating a new policy is just the first step. The Committee aims to present its first draft by the end of this year, but institutional reforms will take time.

Building better communities

Fortunately, Chile is not starting from scratch. Julio Poblete, an architect at the firm Dupla, is studying urban development policies in different countries on behalf of the United Nations Development Program and will share his findings with the Committee.

Each city combines a unique set of cultural, social and geographical conditions, which makes it difficult to compare. “It’s pointless to compare Santiago to postcards of other cities, it will never be like Copenhagen where 40% of trips are by bicycle,” says Poblete.

But he suggests that Chile can learn from other countries, particularly the United States. For example, in 2009 President Obama launched the Livable Communities Task Force, a partnership between housing, transport and environmental authorities to coordinate federal funding for new urban projects.

At the state level, Maryland is a good example of what Poblete calls “smart growth”, while cities like Chicago and Boston are praised for their urban development. Further north, Toronto and Vancouver are also considered well-planned cities.

Chile could replicate some of their initiatives, but according to Poblete it should develop a policy appropriate for its level of development. “We have basic problems to resolve like education and health before getting too sophisticated,” he says.

Making Santiago more liveable requires building better communities but, as Bresciani points out, there is no silver bullet. “Having a vision does not solve the problem, it just creates a roadmap,” he says.

Meanwhile, Santiago’s residents will have to be patient. Traffic congestion is likely to worsen before getting better, but plans made now could benefit future generations. As Julio Poblete says, “In the city, things take time”.

Julian Dowling is Editor of bUSiness CHILE