self managed settlements

What’s behind a place’s name?: Poblaciones in Chile

This graph is a small list of self-managed settlements in Chile during the 70’s. By that time creative and radical forms of city-making were put to practice. Tomas, as they called them, consisted of take-overs of land by a group of poor city dwellers and families. They were initially considered illegal but became a popular form of city production due to decades of unresponsive housing policies (de Ramon, 1991, Santa Maria, 1973). Once land was occupied, usually done quickly in the early hours of a morning, pobladores would build their houses and communities with whatever building materials they managed to obtain (pobladores is a Chilean expression which refers to the low and mid income urban dwellers). For a few years The land occupations or take-overs were eventually legitimized and supported by a wide range of institutions, such as the church, borough mayors, congressmen, students, unions and political parties from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other. It even became a state policy, named “Operacion Sitio”, and President Alessandri delivered speeches suggesting a need to knowledge the right to live in the City.

catastro campamentos 1971. Source: Direccion general de carabineros

catastro campamentos 1971. Source: Direccion general de carabineros

Historians suggest (de Ramon, 1990, Santa Maria 1973)these names do not always reveal the type of relation between  the urban movements pro-housing and the institutions backing them up. Even though some institutions were sincerely concerned with the housing shortage and living conditions, others found it an opportunity to obtain political support and votes. This partly may explain why it became a mainstream urban program. Since it went in well with the establishment it was widely supported.

But not all were in favour of Tomas. The idea of promoting self-managed settlements implied autonomy to be involved in collective decisions regarding where to live and freedom in terms of what type of house will be stood up. In many occasions it developed high levels of solidarity for various issues: employment, food, security, basic services, and so on. Levels of organization and self-determination which help poorer groups to be less vulnerable to, for example, evictions. It even went as far as to providing construction material to start up the house. If you take into account that thousands of pobadores actually signed up to social organization which were responsible of Tomas in Santiago, this drained a significant number of urban dwellers from the real estate driven market. The social organization became an alternative to the usual “Rancherios”, Conventillos,Cites or other form of state/firm provision of housing and amenities.

It is worthwhile mentioning that the absence of this building sector, may have significantly contributed to the explosion of participation among pobladores and the wide range of institutions. Indeed, these social organizations centred their agenda around housing. And were not necessarily obliged to include real estate firms into the process of selecting people, choosing a place, defining the land sizes, the size and shape of the house and so on. But the need to legitimize a take-over of land in a mainly capitalist driven urban growth, and obtain valuable organizational skills still required strategic association with powerful institutions “outside” the pobladores world. Institutions which some have been mentioned in the first paragraph. This period of Chile’s urban policy was a form of re-politicization of the city making process. By re-politicization I mean an inclusion of more institutions or actors into the urban process. Institutions which used the urban process as a means of establishing links with pobladores to find similarities in agendas and collaborate towards similar goals. Consequently, the process of making a Toma is important just for the fact that it diversified the ways in which social relations were created. It would then be true to suggest that those who control the city making process control social relations. Many of these relations are reflected sometimes through their names.

There is a long history of naming the places where the poor live which also reflected the social relations of the time. During the 1900s up until the 1970s poor urban dwellers lived either in rancherios or in cites and conventillos. Rancherios had a negative connotation to where families and individuals lived just outside the city. Land owners would rent parts of their farm land to poorer groups, and charged according to size of the self-made housing. Rancherios is also a name that according to de Ramon (1991) and Santa Matia (1971) were associated to thieves, indigenous groups and the poor. It was during the 1920s and 1930s that mid and high income classes decided that it was trendier to live in the country side. And the places left to the urban poor were what this group left: inside the city. The inner city became the new areas for the urban poor, which eventually were filled with Cites and Conventillos.

Cites and conventillos are names much friendlier than rancherios, in the Chilean language at least. Cite is associated to a French word. And conventillos is the diminutive of the word convent, which had a more dignifying and “spiritual” sense of place. But both words, as much as they evidenced a change in how poorer groups were named, simply hid the process of concentrating the poor into urban enclosures and unhealthy living conditions. These words were probably show an intention to forget rather than initiate a process of integration through the housing policy. By the way, cites and conventillos were built by the real estate sector of the time. Due to the pressures of the media as well as elites, a solution to the urban poor was “urgent”. And it was through a series of financial policies and incentives that real estate firms provided a new form of living in the central areas of Santiago. An example is showed below.

Cite or Conventillo. Source:

Cite or Conventillo. Source:

Much of the process of making tomas was also one which reshaped the sense of popular identity. Institutions, by helping to organize and then having some liberty to name the toma created a form of institutionalization of the mix between popular and institutional identities; a form of institutionalization of popular identity. The names of tomas also reflect the competition among some institutions to obtain political support and votes. Naming the toma was a way of establishing a precedence of the institutions social oriented agenda, one which cleaned their image and provided a positive response form the political and social establishment. It also created a permanent effect among pobladores to what kind of ideology or party they should feel associated to. But whether tomas were used by some and genuinely supported by other institutions, a wide range of places were named in the city, and institutions became embedded into city through the Toma/making process.

Finally, as ephemeral as a name may seem to some, its creation is a simplification and interpretation of an identity constituted by different people and of a complex process, like the Tomas. This is why this version of history may not be the only valid interpretation of this specific topic and part of urban policy in Chile. Nevertheless, I believe these names show a innovative reaction to the need for social integration. And the urban process became the media through which collaboration and association among various actors became possible. This period of urban policy also teaches us to be more critical to the wide range of intentions of the institutions involved in integration and inclusion processes. After all, the names do reflect a poblador-institution relation which questions how “autonomous” or “independent” pobladores really were to be the drivers of their own history.

lo que (no) nos dicen los nombres de las poblaciones

De adonde provienen los nombres de poblaciones? Como algunos sabrán, hubo una época en Santiago, donde las “tomas” o campamentos eran formas legitimas de encontrar un lugar para vivir y construir vivienda. Muchas de estas iniciativas eran intensamente apoyadas desde un principio por diversas instituciones y personajes: diputados, alcaldes, la iglesia, estudiantes, cooperativas, etc. (de Ramón, 1990, Santa María 1973) . Y por supuesto casi todo el espectro de partidos políticos, desde la Partido Nacional (derecha) hasta el MAPU (izquierda).

catastro campamentos 1971. Source: Direccion general de carabineros

Catastro campamentos 1971. Source: Direccion general de carabineros

Muchos de los nombres que se encuentran en esta lista reflejan este vínculo movimiento urbano – institución organizadora. No obstante, la idea de imprimir una identidad institucional sobre los movimientos que reivindican la identidad del poblador tiene una doble lectura. Si bien algunas instituciones eran sinceras en su apoyo a pobladores, otras los usaban para obtener votos o apoyo político. Esto de obtener apoyo político ademas de conseguir de paso una imagen positiva frente a la comunidad política y social podría explicar en parte la aceptación general del “establishment” chileno de las Tomas. Y por supuesto, como los nombres reflejan el uso que le daban a las Tomas para competir entre algunas instituciones.

De todas formas, si existían serios detractores. Si promueves la auto-gestión, entonces permites un nivel de autonomía para construir colectivamente un lugar. Y esto afectaba a las inmobiliarias, ya que quedaban al margen del control de  ciertos circuitos del conocimiento y materialidad en el desarrollo urbano. Sobre todo en una época en que miles de pobladores se inscribían para obtener vivienda mediante organizaciones sociales vinculadas a la formación de tomas. Esto remplazaba el proceso habitual de obtener vivienda por medio de rancheríos, obtener un lugar en un cite u alguna otra alternativa donde el estado o sector constructor estaba en control de la mayor parte del proceso de urbanización.

Cabe señalar que, la ausencia de este sector de la construcción puede haber contribuido a la significativa explosión de participación de otras instituciones en el desarrollo urbano. La vinculación de las organizaciones de pobladores no debía responder ni estar supeditada a una constructora en aquel momento de Santiago. Pero la necesidad de legitimar la edificación de una parte de la ciudad y obtener ayuda organizacional requería de apoyo de instituciones “externas”. El resultado fue una serie de asociaciones con una gran gama de organizaciones, como se menciona al principio. Es más, sin esta re-politización (o participación de varios actores) del urbanismo quizás muchos de estas instituciones y actores hubieran quedado al margen de colaborar o encontrar formas de vincularse usando procesos urbanos como medio de comunicación. Consecuentemente, el proceso urbano es fundamental para diversificar los medios a través de los cuales se construyen relaciones humanas (e institucionales). Quizás sea cierto entonces que, el que controla el proceso se hacer ciudad, controla estas relaciones. Relaciones que en muchas ocasiones se reflejan en los nombres de los lugares.

Detengámonos un momento para juntar algunos nombres que se le han dado a sectores pobres en el pasado. Que nos dice el nombre “Rancherío”? Este nombre representa una forma de arrendamiento a familias o grupos pobres de terrenos alrededor de la ciudad. El nombre es bastante despectivo y estaba asociado al lumpen o ladrón o indígena. En cambio “Cite” o “Conventillo” son nombres que intentan imprimirle una identidad “noble” y acorde con una tendencia arquitectónica del momento. Un nombre que en realidad le resultaba interesante mas para la clase media y alta, que a los pobres que tenian que vivir en estas edificaciones. En realidad el nombre era una forma de disfrazar una realidad y un proceso de hacinamiento.

Las tomas fueron también un proceso de institucionalización de la identidad popular. De paso, al formar parte del proceso de “tomarse” un terreno, también se aseguraron de imprimir una identidad más a la ciudad y de permanecer en ella a través de la presencia de la Toma. Consecuentemente, se podría decir que urbanizar es crear (reivindicar, remplazar, mezclar, etc.) identidad.

Finalmente, por efímero que un nombre parezca, su creación refleja una simplificación e interpretacion de una identidad constituida de personas diversas ademas del proceso (muchas veces complejo) que la formo. Por eso es importante no simplificar o reducir esta etapa de Tomas en la historia urbana de Chile a una sola interpretacion. En mi opinion, refleja una reacción creativa a la necesidad de integración social, y como a través del proceso urbano esta necesidad es reconocida. Esta etapa también nos enseña a ser más críticos de las intensiones de las instituciones que participan de la integración urbana. Ya que esta relación poblador-institución refleja que tan “autónomo” o “independiente” puede llegar a ser un movimiento para modificar (o ser dueños de) la trayectoria de su propia historia.

Castillo, Deleuze and self-managed settlements in Chile

Maria Jose Castillo doesn’t really mention Deleuze in her research, but its just so easy to ground this complex theory through her theoretical framework. Her research is really interesting: it’s an innovative approach to heavy issues, managing to bring something new where a lot has been written about it already: self managed settlements (or “informal” settlements) For those interested in Deleuze (and sceptics too) its a good chance to see how a convincing framework might look like… (hmm).

What Castillo does (and here she might agree with me) is examine a bit more closely what “informal” settlements mean in Chile.  She uses Nueva Palena and Alborada settlements to evidences the systematic bias of material and professional assistance to poorer groups. Indeed, taking into account the necessity to adapt the houses provided by the state  to the dwellers’ needs, she approaches their efforts in the following terms: “… the achievements in the field of housing depend less in the solutions provided by the state, and more in the constant will of the urban dwellers to improve every day their built environment. Supporting this tendency should have a direct incidence in the way in which the housing deficit is approached” (p55)

valparaiso and Santiago. Sources: Ossul and Sectra

(Image 1) Valparaiso and Santiago. Sources: Ossul and Sectra

She criticizes the excessive control of knowledge (professional for example) and material (construction materials and technology) resources through the urban development market in Chile today.  As Deleuze & Guattari (1972) would put it: the exclusion of both human and non-human things from specific urban groups and geographies. Besides the state, Castillo also signals the private side of the housing supply. This side of the market places disproportionate conditions to collaborate towards urban integration; whilst keeping high barriers of entrance to the material and non material elements that constitute urban integration. This market structure makes the various ways of assisting self-management less creative, effective and unequal. Some relevant programs and initiatives can be identified in Chile’s urban policy history. But the interruption of the policy evolution and tendency to solve planning with financial instruments (Rodriguez & Sugranyes, 2005) have limited their impacts.

Adapting social capital, form "informal" to "formal"

(Image 2) Formalizing social capital: the Toma de Penalolen before and after

Such unequal planning outcomes is also  evident at a wider city scale. The recent Valparaiso fire, which affected the less resourced groups in the city, is an example. This, without even taking into account the sprawling poorer sectors behind the hillsides of the world heritage site (Image 1). Moreover, Santiago is another example of how its main period of urban growth was solved with a professional (Orellana, 2009: Sectra, 1991) and material polarization (Image 1). The inflexible structure of the so called “market” also makes urban conflicts volatile, harder to mediate, or adjust solutions to place-specific needs, as the case of Toma de Peñalolén shows (Image 2). Finally, Castillo mentions the need to acknowledge the social capital (p51) built in time outside the planning system, or  “informally”. A kind of capital that is both material (built) an non material (networks, relations, collaboration, organization, adaptation, etc). A step forward is a more sincere acknowledgment of the contribution of self-management to adapt built environments, as well as the costs associated to  “carving out”  poorer groups through  planning and markets.

A message to my policy-maker friends:

Nevertheless, It must be said, Chile has decreasing numbers of informal settlement rather than increasing as its Latin American region’s trend shows (UN Habitat, 2003). Since democratization (1989), much of the process of overcoming poverty has been carried out not only through a very present (contrary to absent) state. It is also developed through a heavy-handed presence of the business sector. It may be better described as a “partnership”, “growth machine” or “regime. It is nevertheless  a collaborative arrangement quite efficient in delivering basic services (water, sewage and electricity) in little time, much more than many of its neighboring countries. But this does not mean that the underlying processes which create the conditions for more poverty ceased to exist. Roy (2005) suggests many of these processes have to do with the same institutions that try to “formalize” poverty, who at the end condescendingly blame the poor for not “keeping up”. Indeed, much of those in Toma de Penalolen were living in the social/formal housing sector before joining this social movement. A simple literature review in Chile reveals that Tomas, since the 1900’s onwards, have been the “tip of an iceberg” of urban poverty (de Ramon, 1990). Tomas actually became visible to the mid and high income classes in the 1950s because they formed a social organization able to deviate unstable living condition. A thing that still today a few communities manage to do (deviate externalities) with large scaled events such as the Olympics, or highways, real estate development and so on.

Moreover, there has been so little attention given to a simple question: what circumstances brought you to join the settlement? This is a question I argue the “formal” sector should be consequent with. Nor has power asymmetries among actors involved in “formalization” been a central topic for most of the influential institutions. And in this last point is where the “partnership” between the public institutions and private firms should be placed under scrutiny. I decided to put these two last paragraph because some friends deliver government programs for settlers in Chile and may not agree with my “pessimistic” view. The Concertacion political coalition has done an important job in making Chile more democratic and fairer. But social movements and protest not just in education issues are telling us something, right? Lets just continue being critical, not pessimistic. No offence guys!

Pasando de la ciudad informal a la formal: mas m2 por habitante?

Moving from informality to formality: a fair process?

Interesantes datos de Maria Jose Castillo: compara el urbanismo informal (o de autogestion) y formal (mediante inmobiliarias) en m2 promedios x persona. En esta variable especifica (m2 x persona) da cuenta que hay poblaciones como Alborada que tienen igual o mas m2 que alguien de ingreso medio en Santiago, que obtiene su vivienda “formalmente” Su comparacion apunta a quien decide donde y como se construye en Chile. 

“El promedio de familias es 1,8 familias por lote en Nueva Palena y 1,2 familias por lote en Alborada. El promedio de habitantes por lote es de 5,5 en el primer caso y 4,2 en el segundo. En promedio, las viviendas tienen 81,1 m2 construidos en Nueva Palena (17,2 m2 por habitante) y 83,4 m2 en Alborada (26,5 m2 por habitante). Cabe hacer notar que en Santiago la oferta habitacional de los agentes inmobiliarios en proyectos de vivienda media, de acuerdo a algunos estudios de mercado, es de 15 m2 por persona. La superficie de las viviendas ofrecidas en Santiago para los sectores medios altos, es de 140 m2 máximo para una familia de cinco miembros, lo que da un promedio de 28 m2 por habitante.” (p50)

Graph by author data by Castillos 2005

Graph by author data by Castillos 2005


poblacion Alborada Renca Santiago Fuente Googlemaps

poblacion Alborada Renca Santiago Fuente Googlemaps

poblacion Nueva Palena Penalolen Fuente GoogleMaps

poblacion Nueva Palena Penalolen Fuente GoogleMaps

Santiago Nueva Alborada bottom left

(Santiago) Nueva Palena: abajo a la derecha. Fuente: Googlemaps

Fire in Valparaiso: It’s no coincidence that the poor were the worst affected

Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

Ignacia Ossul: ” In a system where the poor are omitted from the decision making process and access to social rights are regulated largely by market values, it is evident that their ability to choose is constrained by a lack of economic resources and social exclusion.”

The unbuilding of informal Buenos Aires, part 3

The unbuilding of informal Buenos Aires, part 3

What can be learnt from the global south?