Santiago, the capital of Chile, has been building new housing so fast that it is one of the most affordable capitals in South America. This despite a copper boom that has flooded the country with cash.
Chile is also a place that is desperately short on trust. The OECD group of 34 advanced economies publishes surveys about levels of trust in its member countries. Chile places last. Across all countries surveyed, 59 percent of people said that other people should generally be trusted. In Mexico, which has one of the lowest rankings, 26 percent of people say that. But in Chile, that figure drops to 13 percent. Only 1 in every 8 people agree that most people should be trusted.
So what happens when you combine high-speed real estate development with an untrusting populace? Our correspondent Steven Bodzin talked to geographer Michael Lukas at the University of Chile about the growth of gated communities.
LUKAS: All over the place in latin america gated communities are booming now, but they do have a certain history. They just didn’t pop up in the 90s. but go back to the 20s and 30s, where the first integrated um urbanist projects were built up, real estate projects for the upper classes. Maybe in the 50s 60s in argentina they appeared um country clubs it is called, something similar happened here as well.
And then there was a boom of gated comms as like a real estate product from the 90s on.
The form changed as well. Where before it were smaller projects, like for some like 5, up to 10 units or something, they grew bigger over time until the early 2000s when um whole like satellite cities or gated towns or fenced cities, there are loads of names around for this phenomenon
M24: To understand, you said five to 10 units, up to cities. What are we talking about, how many units? How many people?
LUKAS: before the smaller projects were just like houses without any kind of service delivery, then projects slowly got bigger up to like 50 houses but still without any kind of service provision. Today we’re talking about projects up to like 70, up to 100,000 people. That come with schools and universities and all kinds of facilities and amenities like golf clubs, polo clubs, artificial lagoons, um, so, uh, very much following the North American model of the master planned community, the New Urbanist master planned community.
Before urbanization on the urban fringe was not possible, it was excluded b/c the vision for Santiago was to uh get to a compact city that would be um, well, more lively, more less contaminated, etc., and in 1997 there was this shift when this model or this vision of Santiago would change completely.
M24: What’s the social context that pushes people toward this new form of towns, gated communities, rather than the traditional Santiago model of the traditional compact city?
LUKAS: In my opinion, this boom of gated living, which can be observed from the 90s on, has to do with the dictatorship and repression and violence and as well just fear of the other um, what is a general issue in Chilean society
M24: How does living in a place like this help people cope with this fear or distrust, or is it just a sales point? Do the same issues just pop up again?
LUKAS: I don’t believe that it helps to overcome fear. More the opposite effect. If people from different social groups exclude themselves from what was known as a more open society or of the public, it leads to more fear, to more distrust, to less interaction. In the end, the interaction, or seeing the other, seeing like he’s like, not maybe the evil, is leading to social cohesion, in ideal terms, but at least to some kind of trust in society at a general level. And to this, gated comms are not contributing.
M24: But why do you need the gates?
LUKAS: One is the distrust, the lack of trust, or um the fear for the other, of the other. What is very strong in Chile, and this has to do with the dictatorship that just ended in the 1990s, so if you consider that gating became an issue in the 90s, it was only some few years after the dictatorship came down. And the dictatorship ended with a stark feeling of distrust all over the place, between social classes, in different groups, different political groups, the right wing vs the concertación or left wing, so there were gaps all over the place. And I think this translated into this desire to protect oneself from this chaotic society what Chile still was at that point.
M24: Is there any hope for Chile to move to a more trusting society through urbanism?
LUKAS: Since I use positive thinking I say yes it is, for sure it is. This is the other interesting issue about Santiago. On the one hand it’s very fast forward the neoliberalization of urban development, the privatization of urban planning, ever bigger private projects on the outskirts, what we’re talking about, the orientation towards inwards, toward private realms. In terms of living in these gated communities. But there’s like a waking of civil society as well that you can observe here.
All this is very much connected to a new culture of mobility, very much based in the bicycle. There is bicycle lanes popping up, several organizations dedicated to bike issues, cycling issues, every weekend at least one tour where they invite free, people to go around the city to historic neighborhoods or to green spaces that are rarely known or just drive around big avenues and they invite to get new and different access. These movements are socially mixed. You can’t identify them as clear class projects