New Urbanism in Chile

Photo Credit: [click here for source]

The following pictures show the transformation from late 1800’s to today of a 1/4 mile section (part of the Alameda de las Delicias) of  the 8 mile long Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins in Santiago, Chile.  The Avenue dates back to the founding of Santiago in 1541 and was later named after the Liberator of Chile, Bernardo O’Higgins. It was and still is the ‘Main Street’ of Santiago. In the 1820’s a section of the Avenue (about 1 mile in length) received a major face lift. This section was called the Alameda de las Delicias. Translated means ‘The delightful Poplar Grove’.  It was called such because 4 rows of poplar trees brought from Mendoza, Argentina lined the edges of a grand pedestrian promenade. For much of the 19th century the Alameda de las Delicias was the place to see and to be seen for the Chilean Elite. 

Photo Credit: [click here for source]

Fast forward 100 years and we see that this section of the avenue is still full of life. The photo above from 1925 and the photo below from 1930 (click on the photo for a larger version) speak for themselves.  The public realm that encompasses everything between the faces of the buildings on either side of the avenue strikes the right balance in creating a great space. Let’s walk through it from the outside in. The buildings ranged from one to four stories high and lined up with one another which created for a pleasant pedestrian experience as one walked down the sidewalk. Each building had its own look and style. The first levels addressed the street with appropriately scaled, unique, and beautiful storefronts/office fronts.  One can only imagine that the upper floors were a mix of residences and offices.  The sidewalks along the buildings were wide allowing plenty of room for pedestrians as well as shops and cafes to spill out onto.

Parallel Parking was available on both sides of the 3 lane wide one way streets.  This parking helped to create a safety barrier between auto and pedestrian. The Iglesia de San Francisco (completed in 1613) created a terminated vista along one side of the avenue adding interest and highlighting this beautiful historic church (labeled as #1 on photos). On either side of the promenade we also see electric trolley lines adding to the variety of transportation available at that time.  The way the streets and trolleys are distributed across the public realm allows for a heavy flow of traffic without sacrificing the comfort and safety of the pedestrian.

And truly the highlight of this avenue is its wide promenade, still maintaining the 4 rows of poplars on either side as it did 100 years earlier. And spread throughout the promenade as a sign of civic pride are several national monuments/statues.

Click photo above for larger image –Photo Credit: [click here for source] 

Now fast forward 20 more years to 1950 and we see a major transformation.  One that accommodates for more auto traffic and parking and less for the pedestrian. The wide promenade with its 4 rows of poplars have disappeared and have been replaced with a much narrower green area which contains no sidewalks for pedestrians only crosswalks. The one way streets on either side have gone from 3 lanes with parallel parking on both sides to a 3-4 lanes with parallel parking on the building side only with additional perpendicular parking closer into the buildings.  The electric trolleys are gone  giving over to the more popular use of autos and buses.  And several of the older 2 to 4 story buildings are gone as well and replaced with much taller buildings.

Photo Credit: [click here for source]

Now lets fast forward to today. The green space in the center has been further narrowed as well as fenced in with low metal fencing in some places to keep pedestrians out. The traffic lanes have expanded to 5 lanes on each one way street. And all the parking along the streets has been eliminated as they are now accommodated within underground parking garages throughout the area. The metro de Santiago was started in the 1970’s with one of its first underground lines now traveling under the Alameda de las Delicias. 

By this time most of the original low-lying buildings featured in the 1925 photo have been replaced with taller/wider buildings. I’ve highlighted 2 of the buildings throughout these photos that have survived the wave of changes. They are (1) Iglesia de San Francisco mentioned earlier and (2) Casa Central de la Universidad de Chile built in 1872.  And although not as easily approachable by pedestrians the national monuments/statues have also survived the wave of changes.

Photo Credit: [click here for source]

But it’s not all bad news.  We have been looking at just the first quarter-mile of the Alameda de las Delicias.  Now let’s step back another 3 quarters of a mile and look at what is left today of the remaining Alameda. At the top of the photo you can see the 2 surviving buildings I’ve been pointing out on each photo and as we move down the photo you can see the promenade starts taking shape again, narrow at first then widens back out as you continue down the Alameda. 

Photo Credit: [click here for source]

I must end by reflecting back on the 1930’s photo of the Alameda. What an incredible photo! This is what many Main Streets today strive for in order to become a ‘Complete Street‘ once again.  All the elements were there. With some slight adjustments the same Avenue of the 1930’s could again be the place to be seen and to see today (see photo below).

Here are my thoughts on those adjustments. For sure today a lot more traffic needs to flow through this Avenue, not just by auto but also by bus, metro, bike, and pedestrian. So I would first remove the parallel parking along the promenade and convert that lane to a dedicated bus lane (A) which is in line with the rest of the city that has recently created dedicated bus lanes throughout. Next I would remove the electric trolley. It hurts to say that but I would only do that because there is a high capacity underground metro line (B) that serves that purpose. And in place of the trolley lines I would create dedicated bicycle lanes (C). I would connect these bicycle lanes to the ever growing bicycle lanes being created throughout the city as well as develop a much needed network of bike sharing stations.

Now let’s go back to the street edges. I would keep the parallel parking along the sidewalks. This would accomplish 3 things; keep cars from driving to fast, help the businesses along the avenue to attract more costumers, and it provides a safety barrier for pedestrians utilizing the sidewalks. The final thing I would do is to encourage the businesses and shops at the first level to once again engage the avenue by creating appropriately scaled, welcoming, and interesting storefronts to draw in and retain the people (D).

The story and history of the transformation of Santiago’s ‘Main Street’, once a celebrated place but now more of a transportation corridor, is a much too common theme for many of our ‘Main Streets’.  Let’s reverse the thinking before it’s too late and we lose the ability to salvage what remains of these once celebrated ‘Main Streets’ and start transforming them back into places we can again enjoy and be proud to call our ‘Main Street’.


A question generated from my previous Post ‘Some thoughts on what it means to live in a New Urbanism Environment’  

As I have mentioned before I am currently living in Santiago, Chile and have found to date very few interested in the principles of New Urbanism.  And have been discouraged with all the development happening here not to see New Urbanism principles integrated but rather our USA type zoning and sprawl methods.

So I was encouraged to see in the TED video (by Hazel Borys) from my last post at 11:57 into the video a google map with a solo little yellow google map marker located in Chile marking one of the places around the world where form based codes are in the works.

Now my question is what city is this in Chile? The marker indicates a city in northern Chile.  This map appears to be part of the Code Study recently developed by Hazel Borys & Emily Talen.  To see if I could find out what city this was I went to the Code Study itself online.  But could not find it.  So I will now give a shot at sending an e-mail to both Hazel Borys & Emily Talen and see if I get a response . . .

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.