July 2011

In Part 1 of Enhancing Community in Chile I discussed the great lack of ‘sence of community’ in the neighborhood I live.  My neighborhood is not unique in this regard.  It is typical throughout Vitacura, Las Condes, & most of the other communes around Santiago. A big barrier (not the only one, but one of the bigger barriers) are the walls and gates fronting the sidewalks and streets in my opinion.  As one walks along the sidewalks in these neighborhoods (as I often do) there is street, sidewalk, 0′ to 8′ of grass/landscaping, and then a 5′ to 8′ high wall or gate that front the individual houses.  There is little opportunity for human contact with those living in the neighborhood unless they too are on the sidewalk, but the normal reaction in this case is no mutual hello.

Understanding the Culture:   I’ve been told by many Chileans that when it comes to social interaction among other Chileans (well those in and around Santiaog) it is an all or nothing relationship.  If you do not know someone many times the choice is to be cold with one another, once you get to know someone you are very close with each other.  In many cases there is no in-between. 

What part does the built environment play?  Could the built environment be an influencer on this all or nothing phenomenon?  I believe it does have influence.  To support this I turn to Jane Jacobs who is regarded as one of the top urban thinkers of the 20th century.  In her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (one of the books she is best known for) she talks about how the built environment can create a ‘togetherness or nothing’ social environment.  Those built environments that tend to create isolated public vs private environments and don’t allow for social interaction to naturally occur tend to have this social environment she found. 

Is there a way to change the built environment in these neighborhoods to foster community?  The overwhelming answer in my opinion is Yes.  The first step in creating a sense of community is to create an environment that allows neighbors and strangers alike to engage one another on a daily basis.  As mentioned earlier this is happening on the sidewalks because of the mixed use area I am in so this is a good start.  But unfortunately this is only occuring between strangers.  So how can we get the neighbors involved?  Well the high front walls/gates to the homes are not helping.  My simplistic but very effective solution would be to lower these walls/gates, make them more transparent, and add a patio with pergola (no basements here) to the front of the house to engage the street, your neighbors, and the strangers walking down the sidewalks.

When I share these ideas with other Chileans they are very hesitate at first.  The high front walls/gates to them create a strong sense of safety and security.  Is it worth losing that ‘percieved’ sense of security to be able to engage more with my neighborhood?  I will try to address this question more in my upcoming blogs whose topics are below:

  • When it comes to safety ‘the eyes have it’.  Walls vs more transparency from front of house to the street.
  • Does fostering a sense of community really matter?
  • How would a front patio help create a sense of community?

As I have mentioned earlier I am currently living in Vitacura, Chile (Vitacura is a city and commune of Chile located in Santiago Province, Santiago Metropolitan Region). Vitacura has a population of 82,000 which is quickly growing and a density of 2900 people per square km.

When we decided to move here we were intentional in finding a place to live that was very walkable.  And that is what we found.  We currently live in a single family home in an area of single family homes (each on a site of about 2500 sf or less) and small parks.  There is a nice grid layout of streets and we are within a 5 minute walk of a major grocery store, bus stop, restaurants, 2 fitness centers, & a school for our kids.  This is possible because we live on the edge of this residential grid 3 blocks from a major (arterial) road that provides all these services.  (To give you the zoning layout here the first block on the major (arterial) road is zoned for up to 7 stories high (depending on the size of the land, the 2nd block in is zoned for up to 5 stories (again depending on size of land – here you see mostly condo bldgs) and 3rd block in and on is zoned for 2 stories residential).

My assumption was with such perceived walkability in this residential area that their would be a great sense of community as well.  This is where I was thrown off.  But after 7 months of now living here I believe I understand why this is so.  The culprit seems to be WALLS. Every individual home, condo/apartment building, & business surrounds itself with walls and gates.  We barely know our neighbors because we never see them.  They drive home, open their gate to their small walled complex, and drive in not to be seen again.

Why the walls/gates?  I am still trying to fully understand this but basically the underlying reason is for safety.  Not only is every property enclosed by walls but as well every window and door is protected by metal bars.  It is not uncommon to see these walls topped off with barbed wire or electrical wires.  Yes, sounds like mini prisons and for sure this is the visual perception.  Does not create a very inviting atmosphere for community. Although from what I have gathered from others here safety has increased greatly over the past several years – though the stigma still sticks.

I would make the agruement, and will write about this soon, that these walls have created a false sense of safety as well have prevented a sense of community to grow and enrich the lives of those who live here.