Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship
Part I: One sunny afternoon in Santiago
January 15, 2008
After hitching a ride down from the top of Cerro San Cristobal with a very nice German couple in their hired tour car, and stopping to get a glass of fresh orange juice to battle the heat of the afternoon, I went to meet a man named Luis Marquez Valdivia. Luis Marquez works for the nonprofit group Centro Cultural Social y del Medio CEIBO, here referred to as El Ceibo, which is working on neighborhood revitalization and environmental projects in Santiago. The promote awareness and community action surrounding water and air pollution and other projects lowering human environmental impacts. El Ceibo is a non-profit, getting funding through partnerships, private funding and public grants. One of their new projects recently underway is a project called EcoBarrio, a community revitalization project working to promote environmental consciousness and gradual change towards more sustainable living and to be completed by 2010 as the first ecological neighborhood in Chile.
El Ceibo’s EcoBarrio project is set in the neighborhood of 4 Álamos in Maipú, a rapidly growing suburb of Santiago. The community area includes 808 families, totaling around 3500 people involved, which unfortunately borders a heavily polluted, noisy industrial zone. Maipú has a long history of resistance, going back to the final battle in the war for Chilean Independence, which took place there in 1818. Despite the fact that it has tripled in size in the past ten years due to its growing industries and has been swallowed up by the ever-expanding mass that is Santiago, Luis Marquez tells me that Maipú maintains the mentality and spirit of a pueblo. Starting in the 1970s, they maintained a tree planting program themselves that was recently destroyed following a municipal order in 2004. With such rapid change, as well as corruption particularly during the era of Augusto Pinochet, many parts of the neighborhood in the past few decades have experienced social problems, including drugs and crime.
Though El Ceibo was already working for change with the community of 4 Álamos before, an architecture student in the Ecología y Paisajes program at the University Central of Chile, María Inés Díaz, initiated the design for the EcoBarrio in a thesis project in 2006. María Inés, whom I had the pleasure of meeting one sunny afternoon later that week, began the project with extensive research of international urban ecological projects. She defined the foundations for a successful community design project that would enable long-term change and education, leading to something truly sustainable. Throughout her design process, she worked with the community, sharing ideas and receiving feedback, ensuring a mutual understanding and educated design. Her experience reminded me a lot of the work that I did in Santa Barbara on the Blueprint for a Sustainable Goleta Valley Project, but on a smaller scale, so it was really great to see that her project was being successfully implemented following that process. María Inés is applying for a fellowship herself right now, in order to be able to study sustainable water management in Norway next year and bring her knowledge back to the people of Maipú.
After a year in its design stage, the EcoBarrio project began its first stage of development this year. So far El Ceibo and the local community government have been very successful in implementing goals while raising the community awareness and involvement critical for success. When I went to see the project, Luis Marquez and I were met by Mario Iturrieta, the Secretary of El Ceibo, and Ricardo Acuña, the president of the neighborhood association, for a tour. In 4 Álamos I not only saw many ecological design projects being carried out, but a community of people that are proud to help out in changing their living situation. I witnessed neighbors coming to help in a thriving new community garden and greenhouse, with advanced and creative composting and planting systems. I saw a man come and bring his empty bottles to the new community recycling collection. I saw the neighborhood coming out to vote in Santiago’s participative budget process—called “Yo Participo” in the municipality of Maipú—so that their neighborhood project could receive more funding. I also saw signs of poverty and crime, such as the dilapidated buildings covered in graffiti, but the people were obviously ready to change that. The first stage includes an educational arboretum with 35 different species of native trees—which is located in a place that used to be a trash heap—an organic and family run fruit tree plaza, an advanced compost system, photovoltaic powered street lights, and the educational center of El Ceibo.
In the future, María Inés and El Ceibo have some great plans for 4 Álamos. The long-term goal is to move all vehicular activity to the outskirts of the neighborhood, making the small community completely pedestrian-oriented. They are also planning to create more public spaces, including a library, sports field, picnic area, public art space, and walkways lined with herb gardens. María Inés envisions that one day 4 Álamos will be completely self-sufficient, with gardens, education centers, efficiently designed buildings, its own water and electricity, and basic daily services. Luis Marquez and the rest of the volunteers at El Ceibo envision the project becoming a model that can be replicated throughout the city and abroad, changing lives and living environments for the better. The way I see it, these are people who have figured out how to work together combining passion for change with intelligent design to create something that can truly be sustained. In many ways, the EcoBarrio project resonated with me much more than GAIA, despite how much I learned there that I will never forget. Unlike the rural paradise that is GAIA, this project takes an ordinary, real world scenario, full of people and problems and works gradually to find solutions and create change.
At the end of the tour, we went back to the community center, where a group of elderly people from the community was rehearsing for a folk song and dance performance. They welcomed me into the group and performed the national song and dance of Chile, the cueca. They were so happy to share their home with me and it was so wonderful to see the members of the community getting together and being so proud of the place they live.
There actually proved to be many sunny afternoons in Santiago that led to interesting encounters and connections with some great people. My first afternoon in Santiago was spent lounging in the hostel talking with fellow travelers from all over the world, sharing tips, stories and laughs while escaping the heat. After that I went to meet a friend of a girl I knew in Nashville whose name is Sydney. Sydney is from the States but currently living in Santiago and working for a boutique hotel north of here, called the Awasi, the design of which comes from indigenous Tulor homes in the Atacama area with the dual goal of giving tourists an “authentic” cultural experience and demonstrating a more sustainable type of hotel! The hotel uses local construction materials, native species, local produce, and recycles water from irrigation and supports local economies. The next afternoon I spent in the house of Daniela Flisfisch, the first of many young Chilean architects that I would meet in a week. Daniela works on projects that resemble the structures I encountered in GAIA, more natural and sustainable materials, though she also works on community planning projects with the organization “Quiero Mi Barrio” run by a non-profit and facilitated by the Ministry of Living and Urbanism. She shared photos and stories with me of a house-building project that she was a part of near Cerro Negro, in the south of Chile. The client wanted a round wood frame adobe house based off of traditional indigenous designs, which proved to be an interesting design challenge between the scale of the structure and the extreme climate. Daniela had a lot of other contacts for me and she and her sister Claudia will be other great people to keep in touch with.
Yet another afternoon, I went to meet Daniel Vargas Pada, a young architect in Santiago whose name I had received from a Spanish girl I met in a hostel in Lima who had met him in Brazil…which may sound strange, but this is becoming more and more a normal pattern in my travels. It turned out that Daniel and I have very similar ideas and passions about architecture and life in general, and we had a great time talking while he showed me around some more obscure parts of the city. Daniel is currently working on a Cesar Pelli building that is supposed to be the largest in Chile, but also apparently one of the most boring and frustrating projects to work on, so Daniel tries to find time on the side to volunteer on more social projects, like the “Movimiento de Pobladores en Lucha,” an interdisciplinary effort to improve health and quality of life in poor neighborhoods through design and implementation of small scale projects. Daniel and I kept in touch the rest of the week, and he ended up giving me the contacts of several friends, including one who works with the Mapuche! Amidst all of this, I did manage to squeeze in some time to take a Vanderbilt alum up on his offer to go wine tasting at the Undurraga vineyard outside of Santiago which he owns…not a bad addition to the sunny afternoons!
For more of Erin’s Chilean adventures…please read the next upcoming installment “Part II: A quick taste of the Mapuche” and don’t forget to check my website in the next few days for photos: www.vanderbilt.edu/travelfellowship/feeney.