A Planning Visit to Chile

By Jeffrey Soule, FAICP
APA Director of Outreach and International Programs

The mayor of Valdivia, Chile, Omar Sabat, has been on the job less than a year and has great plans for his city.

I was joined in a recent visit to this south-central Chilean city by Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, FAICP, along with Roberto Moris, the deputy dean of urbanism at the Catholic University of Chile, Santiago.

Valdivia is best known as the site of a 1960 earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded. Today, Valdivia is growing and has a variety of concerns: economic strategy, environmental protection, historic conservation, and neighborhood development and services. In cooperation with the Ministry of Urban Development, we held several meetings and a community workshop to hear ideas and make some comments based on our experience in other cities.

While we could hardly be considered knowledgeable on the specifics of Valdivia, Mayor Becker and I were able to demonstrate that many cities, including Salt Lake City, share similar issues. We discussed the importance of using local universities as a resource in identifying the baseline data and then assisting in the analysis of options as well as playing the role of the third party institution to host citizen events. Public participation is one of the things that interested Mayor Sabat a great deal.

wetland in Chile

After the earthquake, land subsidence created a series of unique wetlands throughout the city, which could be part of a connected open space system serving the needs of the communities along the way, while also serving as critical green infrastructure to manage Valdivia's nearly 90 annual inches of rainfall.

In Santiago, we were joined by planning expert William Siembieda, AICP, professor of city and regional planning at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Siembieda has many areas of expertise but foremost for Chile is his experience in disaster impact mitigation and recovery.

After an assortment of conversations, presentations, and discussions with students, faculty, and officials in Santiago, our main event was a day-long workshop for mayors and senior staff. The program was designed to encourage conversation on urban issues based on presentations by the mayors. Becker, Siembieda, Moris, and I each made brief presentations to provide context for the mayors and further stimulate the discussion.

Leaders from the major central city districts of Ricoleto, Providencia, Santiago, and Independencia — along with the peripheral city of La Florida — each made presentations. The main issues were governance structure, lack of financial tools, how to balance local and regional planning roles and citizen participation. The issue of land use and jobs-housing imbalance was also raised, especially as so many trips are generated by the lack of proximity to both jobs and services such as schools and health care. A video available online shows how local activism is growing on biking and environmental issues:

Everyone agreed that grassroots organizations and community leadership was driving change in the region. The visit coincided with the Catholic University's approval for a new undergraduate planning program, which Professor Siembieda reviewed and made suggestions on during his last trip. This is an amazing and excellent step in South America to recognize planning as a distinct discipline.

Finally, a coalition of academics, practitioners and interested individuals are organizing a planning association to exchange information and promote all aspect of city planning drawing on the wide range of disciplines and interests in the topic. At the meeting, I offered the experience of the American Planning Association in serving these same interests and our willingness to support the group with information and encouragement.

The Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) was launched in 2009 by President Obama at the Summit of the Americas. It is designed to share expertise and ideas that can help us all improve quality of life while reducing our climate impact. APA has received funding under ECPA for technical assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean. Jeff Soule, FAICP, was named an ECPA Fellow by Hillary Clinton in 2010.

Images: Top—Valdivia's wetlands offer stormwater storage in the guise of an attractive neighborhood amenity; Bottom—Professor William Siembieda, Mayor Ralph Becker, and Deputy Dean Roberto Moris answer questions at the mayors' forum.