Citizens as Problem Solvers in Santiago

By Javier Vergara Petrescu

Santiago de Chile is thriving, but like many urban centers in South America, vibrancy and innovation have yet to affect a status-quo of car-centric mobility.

Since 1997, Chile, along with Russia, has had the highest rate of traffic deaths of the 35 member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. In Santiago, the private car remains the most desired transportation mode. Highway investments go hand in hand with the number of traffic fatalities.

Yet, a phenomenon has emerged from inside the city — small, collective actions to make streets safer — driven directly by Santiago’s citizens. Often called “tactical urbanism,” these are simple, low-cost street interventions, generally built from household materials by untrained citizens, that challenge the car-centric culture that has dominated Santiago for decades.

Remarkably, as these small actions bloom around the city, Santiago’s street culture is beginning to shift away from more dangerous forms of mobility. This seismic shift is less a byproduct of the house paint and wood pallets that residents are using to slow traffic, and more a result of participatory and collective action required for tactical urbanism, and the social cohesion and public awareness that occurs when hundreds of Santiaguinos gather to reclaim their streets.

Participatory Tactics

In 2014, activists in Santiago created six small temporary public plazas in locations known for speeding in the neighborhood of Providencia Municipality, creating a traffic calming zone (called 30 kph zones in Chile) that reduced car speeds by 40% and made illegal parking more difficult by design.

However, the plazas and their remarkable effect on safety are less notable than how they came about: instead of the typical traffic calming approach managed by the local government, this was a bottom-up experimental action that invited citizens to participate in the design, construction, and assessment of an “experimental traffic calming zone.”

For average citizens, this participatory tactic was an invitation to be part of something tangible and fun. The potential to shift car culture increases exponentially when we begin with participation, in this case triggering a positive perception of a place, a sense of pride, and community trust.

After the experiment, 85% of residents acknowledged greater pride in their neighborhood simply because they had contributed to safer streets. This project fostered greater social cohesion, resulting in the setup of a neighborhood group committed to monitoring the changes and decisions adopted to improve quality of life. In 2016, a permanent traffic calming zone was adopted. Here tactical urbanism did more than test possible design solutions; it created the needed social unity, bringing people together to promote a safer community.

Personal Experience

In 2016, an important downtown avenue in Santiago was transformed from a car-filled street to a people-oriented space, collectively built by 150 volunteers, activists, and community organizations, supported by the Municipality of Santiago, the Chilean Ministries of Transportation and Environment, and financed by international cooperation programs between the United Kingdom and Chile. The intervention consisted of painting surface pavement with giant blue dots, aimed to blur car lanes and pedestrian spaces, transforming the surface, forcing speed reduction, and inviting citizens to negotiate the use of this space through face-to-face encounters.

The experiment created a public interactive illustration of an idea that is otherwise difficult to visualize, demonstrating how a shared street actually works, and allowing average citizens to experience the benefits firsthand. These tangible tactics allowed people to participate in a truly safer street — with dramatically reduced car speeds (from 50 to 10 kmh). Cars, cyclists, and pedestrians shared a common space with zero traffic crashes.

The action invited new directions for public policy discussions, including critiques of the car-dominated streetscape, that were not previously part of public conversations in transport planning. Before, the concept of “shared streets” did not exist in Chile. But after citizens personally experienced a shared street, over 75% supported a permanent conversion. Moreover, after the experimental action, permanent bicycle infrastructure was built to connect existing lanes that were isolated from a comprehensive grid, creating safe conditions for people to commute by bicycle in downtown Santiago.

Experimental Bike Lanes

Evidence-based planning methods have seen success in Santiago as well. Through the experimental tactics bootstrapped by NGOs and progressive local governments, decision-makers have been exposed to the benefits of testing bike lanes and corresponding signage as a tool for incorporating safe spaces for cycling in the city.

One example is the Experimental Bike Lane Project tested in Providencia en Santiago in 2015 and 2016. The tactic here was for activists to trace their own bike paths on public streets that have enough space to prioritize cycling. These D.I.Y. bike lanes allowed the very cyclists who took to the new lanes in droves to prove assumptions about the actual demand for these alternatives, as well as the design of the route and the need for infrastructure.

For example, the Experimental Bike Lane Project along Avenida Eliodoro Yanez was conceived as a joint initiative between the Municipality of Providencia and Ciudad Emergente to carry out an agile prototyping exercise for cycling infrastructure. Incorporating city officials in the experiment meant that when the lanes succeeded, they were more likely to be installed permanently, and city officials saw a demonstration of the ease of developing infrastructure for non-motorized transport.

Testing infrastructure before investing in resources and creating interactions that spark inclusive debates (which allow us to consider distinct stakeholders, record points of view, and raise a variety of arguments in public), is an effective alternate way for authorities to make decisions about the city. It’s also effective at convincing reticent officials to try something new. This evidence-based planning grants the legitimacy required for the actual implementation of the projects, but also allows citizens the enriching experience of collectively addressing issues relevant to the community. These instances of citizen participation create a link between institutions and individuals whose value cannot be overstated.

The Experimental Bike Lane Project is an example of short-term tactical urbanism that allowed us to gather valuable information that contributes to an enriched (and heated) debate about the long-term process of changing the city. Activists and municipalities worked together, avoiding costly implementations of unsuitable infrastructure and allowing the development of strategies that place citizens at the center of public policy design.

A Virtuous Cycle

From participating in collective traffic calming actions to painting experimental bike lanes for safer cycling, the people of Santiago are shifting from passive spectators to proactive problem-solvers. Each of these actions is a virtuous cycle; citizens engage in collective action, making them prouder and more connected residents of the city, and thus more eager to improve the safety of its streets.

Each of these actions is a virtuous cycle; citizens engage in collective action, making them prouder and more connected residents of the city, and thus more eager to improve the safety of its streets.

In Santiago, these low-cost creative experiments on public streets have effectively fostered a social cohesion that is leading culture change. As pedagogical experiences, tactical urbanism test cases are creating a public understanding of, and respect for, transportation policymaking. While time will tell the long-term effectiveness of these short-term actions, tactical urbanism remains a powerful method to create civic awareness and community unity. When coupled with political will, even small-scale, low-cost experiments can cement into permanent changes, advancing safer streets, reducing traffic casualties, and creating more people-centered cities.

[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2017.]

Javier Vergara Petrescu is a co-founder and the CEO of Ciudad Emergente. He specializes in combining social innovation, participation, and technology to improve the quality of life in cities. He has worked on several tactical urbanism projects in Europe, Latin America and North America. In 2006, he was voted one of the 100 Young Leaders of Chile and in 2010 his work was published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He is currently a professor of tactical urbanism at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and has been a guest lecturer at Columbia University and the Latin GSD of Harvard University.



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