urban studies

Housing crisis, or distribution crisis?


The media is just flooded with news regarding the housing crisis. It’s in every newspaper, every day, and the (only) message we receive is a need to build more housing. But it takes just a small sticker to appreciate the problem differently. The amount of empty housing  highlighted in this sticker contradicts significantly with the data provided by various public and private institutions. It suggests a redistribution crisis rather than a housing one. And the solution may not lead to perpetuate public-private-Partnerships or growth regimes to “fix” the scarcity of dwellings. Indeed, it is relevant to be a bit more aware to how media guides the discussions regarding housing infrastructure. For it is no coincidence solutions are skewed towards conservative economics or neo-classical solutions. [Although I have not verified the source of the sticker’s data] citizens will always benefit from the inclusion of different perspectives,  for it helps us decide better what position to take in an issue which involves an important public spending and policy orientation.

Mas vivienda o mas equidad en la redistribución de recursos?

Para los que leemos y vemos los medios de UK habitualmente, sabemos que la escasez de vivienda en Londres es noticia diaria. Gran parte de la discusión eventualmente termina en sugerencias como construcción de más viviendas; la urgencia de by-pasear la normativa existente para conseguir espacio “extra” de ciudad; o a lo más hacer notar que faltan viviendas con mas piezas, de tipo familiar. Creo que lo mas inclusivo de los medios es reconocer que hay un proceso de desplazamiento o expulsión de los que ganan menos fuera de los centros con mayor empleo, en particular de Londres. Pero poca iniciativa existe para introducir en al discusión aproximaciones mas progresistas para entender el panorama de la vivienda de forma mas amplia.

Y es por eso que este sticker, que descubrí en el Centro de Londres pegado a un poste, resulta relevante porque nos da otra mirada al mismo problema. Más que seguir pensado en construir, expandir y densificar en el nombre del crecimiento económico, porque no redistribuir los recursos que ya existen como parte importante de la solución? Creo que hay una mirada tan sesgada de los medios que no es casualidad y hay que tener cuidado de tragársela acá en UK. Creo que es importante valorar esta mirara que propone este sticker  “fuera de la caja” (out of the box), que permite dar con conclusiones un poco mas sensatas para un problema de todos. Gracias http://www.afed.org.uk/

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: webuchile.cl

Cite or Conventillo. Source: webuchile.cl

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.

The unbuilding of informal Buenos Aires, part 3

The unbuilding of informal Buenos Aires, part 3

What can be learnt from the global south?

Unearthing Regime Analysis

Interestingly, an “old” theory comes into light when it is about evaluating collaborative aspects of regeneration projects. Along with other notions, such Growth Machines, and the notions of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), Apparatus, Assemblage analysis, R.A., bargaining power concept to name a few, still provides an attractive framework for researchers such as Rodrigo Caimanque.

These theories and concepts have helped urban studies to understand who is behind the production of policies. And using it allows to understand how the nature of collaboration relates to the outcome of the city.  Although R.A. does have assumptions, such as the division of power and resources among two strong players (public entities and private elites), it still proves to be a useful “key” which allow understanding more clearly the democracy and power complexities around place making (or space making).

Urban governance has still a wide space for further research. Indeed, the issues regarding how places are structured; how consensus is obtained; what allows / restricts groups from achieving a wider change around them, still form relevant issues in social science.  And developing urban governance theory can aid in understanding these structural questions.

Have a look at his article:



Fiebre en la Ciudad

balham health centre

Ayer mi hijo de un año tuvo fiebre. Volaba sobre 38. Estábamos preocupados y con poco tiempo que perder.  Una opinión de un doctor era necesaria.

Pero viviendo en un lugar que no llega a ser del todo familiar no es tan sencillo. Vivo en Londres sin auto, ajustado de plata, y  todavía no entiendo del todo cómo funciona el sistema de salud.  Finalmente llevamos al peque al hospital del barrio y un especialista nos dio la receta y dosis necesaria. El peque está bien y nosotros ya con ganas de pegarnos una siesta descomunal.

En realidad la clave de nuestra tranquilidad fue tener el pequeño centro de salud en nuestro barrio. Es más, es la cantidad de servicios y la calidad de ella que nos dio a nosotros, que vivimos más apretados acá en el Reino Unido, tranquilidad. Si no me equivoco, esto se llama calidad de vida.

Pensando en mi otra ciudad, Santiago, sé que es conocida por tener áreas con poca infra pública para la salud. Y la que hay no siempre tiene una gran gama de servicios y tratamiento disponibles. Creo que después de experiencias como la mía se me hace cada vez más difícil entender la falta de compromiso tanto del sector privado como del público para abastecer a lo que impacta tan fuerte en la calidad de vida. Realmente este aspecto le da sentido a los temas de “Well Being” y “Health” que tanto se habla hoy en día. Esta idea de estar esperando a que el sector privado comience a encontrar rentable un sector de bajos recursos es como tratar de encajar una pieza de lego cuadrada sobre una redonda… (Me refiero a que no encajan). Tal como vamos, polarizando los ingresos, no creo que es el consumidor del sur y oeste de Santiago se conviertan en grupos atractivos para inversión privada de un momento a otro.

Si bien vivo como clase media-alta en Chile, no es así en Londres. Y tener acceso a buena salud simplemente nos cambia la vida. Es pasar por la urgencia de encontrar una opinión de calidad, que no te genere crisis financiera, que entiendan mis problemas de transporte las que me renuevan mis “votos” por un sistema diferente de distribución de recursos en Chile.

Courtesy of Duncan Crary

Hecho de menos este tipo de análisis en el desarrollo urbano. Un análisis que provenga a partir de vivir en la ciudad y de experimentar como funciona en realidad.  Es mas bien una perspectiva como el del ventanal, mas que “top-down” como dicen por aca (mapa de Santiago).  Sin tener nada en contra de este plano, pero me cuesta ver los problemas que pasamos para obtener cosas si no nos ponemos en un plano mas a “nivel de suelo”.

La ciudad es diversidad, y lo duro comienza porque se vive muy distinto dependiendo de que familia provengas, de cuanto ganes, de quien conozcas. Es esta manera de estar permanentemente tratando distinto al “otro” la que veo reflejado en el desarrollo urbano, por mucha norma que sigamos produciendo para regularla. De la misma manera que llegue a Londres en búsqueda de un grado más competitivo educacional (que claramente me dejara en una elite, lo se)  a esta ciudad (y Santiago) gente también llega para encontrar estabilidad y certeza. Y siento que producimos una ciudad donde muchos simplemente se “pierden” buscando estas dos cosas tan elementales. Por eso me hace sentido que Friedmann (2010)  compare la urbe con un laberinto. Al menos para algunos lo es.

labyrinth image Courtesy of Google Images

Does the “right to the city” make sense?

“right to the city” documentaries

Have a look at this trailer. It’s a movie that will be shown soon at Ritzy, Brixton. I believe it proves the notion is applicable and pertinent. More importantly, it should transcend in how we perceive and produce a city.

Some parts of the documentary can also be seen here:


(Un) even urban development after the Chilean earthquake


source: DiarioUChile

source: DiarioUChile

Hugo Romero, recently given a national prize in geography for his contributions to research, remarked on the unsolved issues regarding urban development after the earthquake. He firstly signals the lack of information which may help evaluate more precisely the extent of the segregation pattern. Nevertheless, Hugo leaves clear such catastrophic events can also exacerbate already divided or segregated cities. link

Looking back to go forward: Latin American Gentrification?

shattered glass

Reviewed: 08/11/2013. Image2: The city as a shattered mirror of styles. Courtesy of 123RF. Retrived from www.123rf.com/ 25/10/2013.

In  two recent articles, Francisco Sabatini (2007) and Francisca Ward (2012)  mention that Santiago serves as a good example of what they consider Latin American gentrification. Both authors separately claim this entails a form of expanding the city which historically does not involve displacement of lower income groups by higher income ones. Various aspects are positive regarding this perspective about how gentrification and city expansion relate. Firstly, there is an attempt in finding a new form of gentrification which takes into account the processes of a particular city within a specific region. Secondly, it is an alternative reading of the consequences of horizontal urban development, looking at how social relations are affected during the city’s transition from a city to a mega city. Much of Santiago has actually been developed in the last 70 years, which makes the city relatively “young”. During this period of expansion (and still expanding but at a lower rate today),  Sabatini et al.’s identifies no significant gentrification process at a city scale. Thirdly, it offers a well studied phenomena at a city scale, built over evidence-based data which covers much (if not all) the metropolitan area.

Although the title of the original article alludes to history, the theory sidesteps various issues. This article will look at three. Firstly, Sabatini et al’s theory implies imagining a city where higher income groups expand in areas which were not used by lower income groups previously. And a valley of Santiago, which is vast, without relevant previous history of occupancy. Nevertheless, this could be answered by including a commonly known event of Santiago’s history: the program Operacion Sitio (Garces, 2002). Operacion Sitio was developed during the Allende’s presidency. It is a program based in the popular practices of squattering and building self made housing (today known as informal settlements or Tomas). Although the program is a form of political propaganda, it allowed poorer sectors of society to “occupy” a variety of areas in the valley. The provided areas or sitios (plots of land drawn on the ground for each family) covered most sectors of the valley of Santiago. Some of them in the north and east, areas which today are occupied by the wealthiest groups. 

Eventually, most of the north and east sitios were evicted during the Pinochet Regime. Among the range of strategies, probably the most known one is Programa de viviendas básicas de erradicación de campamentos. This eviction program served both as a repressive and dispersal mechanism which left the previously occupied lands north and east of Santiago available for real estate firms. Pobladores were evicted in general to the south and west of the Valley. The evicted areas were eventually developed by through the Chilean PPP model, which allowed a flexible and segregationist form of catering income groups. The evicted areas were provided to (and still is) the mid and high income groups predominantly. Therefore, the supply side of the urban expansion and policy environment are significant variables to associate gentrification and urban expansion.

Additionally, projects which came after the pobladores’ eviction such as the Benjamin Vicuhna Mackena  (BVM) provide a different reading to the inner-city shaping process. The BVM suggests a relevant re-ordering of social relations based on strategic inner city physical transformations. This re-organization of space and uses undermine a simplistic view of significant past displacements in Santiago. It also evidences the active role of the state to set the basis of how the spatial structure of social relations are to develop in the next decades.

I we look even further back in history, de Ramon (1991) shows the displacement of the urban poor between center an periphery has been going on for a while in Santiago. Santiago in the 1900’s was formed of a center and a few surrounding towns. By that time a significant number of poorer urban groups  were been displaced from periphery to central areas, due to rising land prices in the surrounding towns (Providencia, Nunoa and Las Condes for example). The conventillo/cite legacy is an evidence of this displacement in Santiago Centro. By the way, the cites were built through the real estate firms sector of the time, based on financial programs designed by the state to “improve living conditions”of the poor. Eventually, in the 1920s and 30s, most of the Conventillo enclosures of poor would be bulldozed by the state, obliging those living in them to once again look for shelter in the peripheries. It was by 1950s that land take overs or “Tomas” alarmed the elite mid and high income groups, due to its level of social organization and resistance to evictions.

The trigger of these house-centered social movements were a mix of class and state led displacements, which left with little chance to live either in central or periphery areas. Such displacements will continue in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s with a varying degree of acknowledgment by elites and the state in the struggle to live in the city. It was really during Allende that location and particpative aspects changed radicalley, but came back to almost null participation during the dictatorship.

Still today, the remaining Conventillos are slowly displaced by urban regeneration, as well as the young professionals seeking trendy parts of central Santiago to live in. state-led programs will continue to be a relevant variable to explain location outcomes of the poor urban groups; not just through an effect of seeking low rent sectors due to rising land prices. All these historical accounts make it hard to separate in Chile a pure class displacement from institutional displacement, specially when the state forms a class in itself. We could even classify most of the state interventions in the last century as: (2) assisting the accommodation of displacement, (2) initiating the displacement; (3) or a mix of both.

Secondly, the first point is useful to highlight that cities are a significant part of how we build and perceive a common history which shapes the identity of urban dwellers. Changing the perception of how the city was developed justifies how ongoing processes treat different groups in society. There are various dangers to generalizing a city’s history as Sabatini et al’s et al’s article provides. It does not consider the city as a multiplicity of agendas and actors (Mcfarlane, 2011), which do not necessarily agree upon an agenda, and sometimes just have to “go along” (Holman, 2007) with one. History shows the city as a site of social tensions and political disputes. A city where various mechanisms and systems (not necessarily based on land markets) operate to solve differences among urban dwellers; not necessarily in participation or democratic terms, even during democracy. Santiago, far from being a unitary element, is formed by different styles of urbanization, like a shattered mirror, representing different interests and forms of city building. Many identities within the same entity.

Thirdly, a non-conflictive city is a reading of the city that Sabatini et al’s article suggests. But this reading is relative if we consider the wide range of displacements programs that have structured Santiago. Indeed, the city is also about how one group perceives the “other” and they do about it. Therefore, the “otherness” as Harvey mentions (1996) should be subject of inquiry too. In this sense, the perception of a conflict-less expansion of a city may make sense to some groups, think tanks and policy makers. But taking into account the previous examples it does not represent the experience nor the collective memory of all Santiaguinos.

Sabatini et al’s discussion could, for example, take a direction towards understanding how much has government-led displacement shapes Latin American cities. The answer may lie in Lopez and Shin’s (ongoing) research regarding gentrification in Latin America. Other aspects that could be included (or not-excluded) in the perception of how Latin American cities develop is find out why inner city migration exists. This issue may carry us to question how involved should a government be in gentrification. And how much should be decided by the supply-side of the housing industry (both public and private sectors), as suggested by Lopez (2011). Lopez suggests that who structures local markets and how matters in gentrification, specially in central Santiago. As much as Sabatini et al. suggest the expansion of the city has more to do with a general demand-side or social force driven gentrification, avoiding the variable of supply -side or public-private partnership could mislead us from a relevant underpinning factors of gentrification in this city.

Finally,  what is proposed in this article is that focusing on process, as Sabatini et al does, is crucial to understand and evaluate the outcome of the city. Nonetheless, how the concept used to analyze the processes is carved out should be looked at more in detail. As it is defined, it also interprets the type of events that are observed. If gentrification is defined differently, or linked to a broader processes, such as displacement processes in general, a wider range of events may emerge in the study of urban development. Events such as the ones provided in this article. They may not even be labeled just as gentrification: forced eviction, forms of enclosure, dispersal tactics and repression. Recognizing them does provide a different insight on the observed process: urban expansion. Therefore there is a discretionary element to how theory is carved out that should not be missed.

This article proposes that the issue brought by Sabatini et al. has an alternative approach to generalize about cities. Lopez & Shin’s research propose one, which is extensive and covers many cities within a region. Comparative work is a key aspect. This research suggests that history is relevant, but how events are selected to build generalizations should also form part of research. It is after all a process of conceptualizing the “other”. The issue here is making a general reading of the city which does not support the process of excluding through discourse the multiplicity of urban experiences in Santiago. Although this informal article and Sabatini et al’s published article use similar periods of time, the conclusion of the displacement processes in Santiago are significantly different. Looking back can provide an understanding how the social relations are set out in territory today. But to go forward researchers should include (at least) what are the limitations in how data is selected and generalizations built.