Monocle 24: Santiago struggles with abandoned airport

Listen here, piece starts at 01:44. On Monocle radio, you get the audio and the full show about empty urban spaces. Here, as a special bonus for visitors of this site, you get the slide show of pictures I took during the reporting, along with the original radio script. Enjoy.

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INTRO:             0:50

The city of Santiago, Chile has 6 million residents, mostly living in single-family homes that are packed one after another, block after block. Every year, developers knock down more of them to erect 18-storey tower blocks. They even complain that the city is “running out of land,” as they exhaust the supply of large parcels within the urban boundary.

But there is one big hole in the urban fabric. Just minutes from the city’s crowded central plaza, there are 250 hectares of vacant land. That’s a kilometer wide and two-and-a-half kilometers long. If it had developed like the rest of the city, it would have thousands of residents. But a fight between the central government, neighbors and a couple of the world’s richest families have left this land almost completely empty. Steven Bodzin reports.


AMBI1 Birds squawking, truck horns in the distance (1076.wav from 0:01), then keep under

NARR1:             0:17

I feel like I’m out in the country. The sun is blazing down, birds are chirping. I’m standing next to a fence protected by old-fashioned concertina wire. In the distance, I see a highway where trucks roar by. I’m hundreds of meters from the nearest street, and I see no one.

AMBI1 UP with truck horn from 1076.wav 0:13, then continue under            0:02

NARR2:             0:11

But in fact I’m just four miles from the center of the one of the biggest cities in South America. I’m not far from factories and neighbourhoods. This is the former Cerrillos airfield.

fade to AMBI2, airplane passing overhead (1077.wav). Give a second or two of motor noise without ambi, then down & under            0:02

NARR3:             0:18

A small plane passes a thousand feet overhead. Just eight years ago, planes like it — and also fighter jets and 727s — took off and landed here.

This was once Chile’s first international airport. It was closed in 2006, and since then, development has been stalled.

Bring up AMBI3-Mayor’s office             0:01

ACT:             0:08

Este espacio es visto más bien como ajeno de la vida comunitaria.

NARR4:             0:05

Mayor Arturo Aguirre says locals feel disconnected from the former airfield.


Es un espacio que está muy abandonado, muy sucio.             0:05

BRING UP VOICEOVER Y acá, señalemos que salvos a algunos eventos musicales, y otros que esporadicamente se realizen, no cuenta con una politica de comunicaciones, invitando la comunidad a participar o disfrutar al parque.

VOICEOVER:             0:11

It’s a space that’s totally abandoned, very dirty. Other than a few musical events, they have no communications to invite the public to come use the park. There’s no program of activities for the community.

Bring up AMBI4 – sound of birds & gravel under bike wheels (tape 1080)            0:02

Fade out AMBI3

NARR5:             0:23

Sure enough, biking from one end of the former airfield to the other on a Wednesday afternoon, I find only about a dozen visitors enjoying this 50-hectare park. Police officers are practicing driving skills outside a crumbling hangar. I had a hard time even finding my way into the park. The entire site is fenced off from the adjacent avenues, and there is just one small, unmarked entrance.

AMBI4 down & out

Fade in AMBI5: air museum            0:02

NARR6:             0:09

Along with the park and an office building for the air force, the only other attraction in the former airfield is Chile’s air and space museum.

AMBI up to hear kids’ voices at 1078.wav 2:00

NARR7:             0:10

In this vast warehouse, I see only two families. We visitors are outnumbered by the caretakers and docents, who eagerly share tales of this airport’s illustrious past.

AMBI5 down & out


For that story, I track down Oscar Avendaño, a former air force flight instructor who worked out of Los Cerrillos for more than 50 years.

AMBI6 Avendaño roomtone up & under

ACT: IN: 6:15 OUT: 6:20            0:05

The idea of Mr. Guggenheim was to help developing civil aviation.


Did you catch that? The airport was a gift from Daniel Guggenheim. As in, the Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao. Back in 1929, Guggenheim owned nitrate and copper mines in Chile. He donated 500 thousand dollars to the Chilean state to support civil aviation. The government bought this airfield and a couple planes.

ACT:     0:05

At that time, it was far from Santiago city, so conditions were absolutely good for development.


Over the years, international airlines arrived with DC-3s. The Chilean air force based its Hawker Hunter fighter jets and its transport group here. But the city grew around Cerrillos. Developers grew hungry for the nearby parcels, where airport approach rules limited buildings to just two stories. President Ricardo Lagos decided to redevelop the site.

ACT IN:            0:25

We never believed that Cerrillos would be closed. For us it was, how can you tell, how can I say? For us it was, emotionally, it was a very big strike.

AMBI 6 down & out to 0.1 seconds silence

AMBI7: Bresciani courtyard, up strong 1 second, then under

ACT:            0:10

That land was in the middle of the city. so there was a huge opportunity to recover the area for the city. (tough cut – fade it)

NARR11:             0:12

Luis Eduardo Bresciani spent 10 years in charge of urban development in Chile’s housing ministry. In that job, he was supposed to help oversee the redevelopment of Los Cerrillos.

ACT:           0:27

Transforming former airport into a park,  new kind of neighborhoods, mixed uses, and of course the idea to inclusionary housing, in order to have space, to have room for low income families, who, which at that time were unable to get land in the city.

NARR12:             0:17

President Lagos had the idea of converting the site into new neighborhoods with a mix of affordable housing and upscale apartments, new stores, clinics, schools, streets and plazas. The site was even going to house an official Presidential residence. But the work was slowed by a series of conflicts. The first was with pilots.

ACT:             0:33

There are different players here. One is the struggle or the difference between the pilots and the government over what is the role of this piece of land in the city.

The pilots want a private club for them, just in the middle of the city because it is very well located. They don’t want an airport very far from the city. But they are just a few pilots, so this piece of land is more important for the development of the city rather than for a group of pilots.

NARR13:             0:14

The pilots weren’t just any club. Many are ex-military. Others are among the country’s richest men. They are accustomed to getting their way. As if they weren’t big enough opponents, next came the small-government contingent.

ACT:            0:24

There is also a political struggle over the role of the public sector in the city. If the public sector should have investment and designing and working on the neighborhood, rather than just regulation, just to, being in charge of giving some rules and giving the power to the private sector.

NARR14:             0:33

To satisfy fiscal conservatives, the government promised to pay for new streets and plazas by selling off land to developers. The pilots said no. Remember that the airport was purchased with money Daniel Guggenheim had earmarked for aviation? The pilots sued. In January of this year, the pilots won their case. Any money the government receives from selling off land at Cerrillos has to be spent on civil aviation. So what now?

AMBI6: Juan Zuñiga’s house

NARR15:             0:15

Juan Zuñiga is head of the neighborhood association across the street from Los Cerrillos. Sitting in his house a block from the airfield, I ask him what would be his ideal use for this abandoned land.

IN:             0:17

ACT: tendría, areas verdes. es fundamental. porque hoy en día no tenemos ni un sector donde uno puede salir a una plaza, los abuelitos con sus nietos, no tienen por donde salir. no tienen.

VOICEOVER: (start AFTER his hemming & hawing)             0:11

To have green space. That’s fundamental. Because today we don’t have a single place where one can go out to a plaza, grandparents with grandkids, they don’t have anywhere to go. Nothing.

NARR15:             0:20

His call for parks and plazas lines up with what the government planned for the site years ago. But what’s remarkable is his hesitation before answering. It’s almost like nobody ever asked him. And in fact, that’s exactly the case. Bresciani, the planner, says that the government had no system for citizen input when this project got going.

AMBI down & out


Mayor Aguirre says it’s time for that to change.

ACT: IN:12:11 OUT:12:46            0:35

Yo soy partidario que debemos hacer un proyecto socialmente harmonico con el entorno.  Un proyecto que sea hermoso, porque la gente humilde también merece vivir en lugares hermosos. Viable, de punto de vista financiero, y participativo. Estos proyectos gigantes deben hacerse con la comunidad y no contra la comunidad.

VOICEOVER:             0:20

My position is that we have to build a project that’s socially harmonious with its environment. A project that’s beautiful, because humble people also deserve to live in beautiful places. Viable, from a financial perspective. And partipatory. These gigantic projects should be built with the community and not against the community.

NARR17:              0:25

Nothing’s going to happen until next presidential administration, which starts in February. But even an enthusiastic new president won’t have time to finish this project. Bresciani says Private partners need to know that four years later, they won’t face another sudden change in plans. If Chile wants planned urban development, it needs to give the government new powers.

AMBI: Bresciani courtyard again

ACT: IN:24:08 OUT: 24:52            0:42

We need to create strong regional agencies for urban development with more tools, integrated tools, the ability to combine, to put together  tools for transportation, for urban development, for housing, for public parks, for health and education facilities. Without those tools and those powers you are going to be unable to really design and create a mixed and integrated area of the city. So  in my point of view that’s the main goal for the next years.

NARR18:             0:05

That’s a big order. For now, the old Cerrillos airport will remain empty. For Monocle, in Santiago, this is Steven Bodzin.

AMBI out


About Steven Bodzin

Steven Bodzin is a reporter. He blogged when he was a freelancer.

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