Environment & Urbanization

World leading environmental and urban studies journal

Urban Design under Neoliberalism: Theorising from Santiago, Chile

Francisco Vergara Perucich




Urban Design under Neoliberalism demonstrates how urban design practice in Santiago, Chile is characterized by neoliberal strategies. It argues that urban design has been transformed by neoliberalism and its ethos has changed from designing good cities to reflecting capitalist profit-oriented objectives. Consequently, contemporary urban design benefits a select few at the expense of creating better spaces for the majority. Ultimately, the book argues that urban design under neoliberalism ought to be rejected. It highlights the contradictions that occupy the practice, theory and ethics of neoliberal urban design, and reveals the importance of urban practices in the revolution from capitalism. The book draws on Marxist-inspired scholarship, particularly on the work of Henri Lefebvre and his methodologies for critically diagnosing urban realities.

In Chapter 4, the author, Francisco Vergara-Perucich, examines three urban strategies that guided Santiago’s spatial transformation: social housing policies, the real estate business and public-private partnerships. The examination of these strategies reveals how capitalist profit maximization and trickle-down theories of social development were adopted and institutionalized by the Chilean state. Social housing policies to address the housing deficit in the 1990s engaged the private sector in public-private partnerships to expand the supply of housing. However, the construction of housing by the private sector – using public funds – failed to address the quality of urban space. “Despite the accelerated production of housing, inequality on spatial outcomes increased” (page 71); people owned their houses but lived in precarious neighbourhoods, lacked connectivity to urban centres, facilities and services, and suffered from a clear ghettoization of their social spaces. Vergara-Perucich argues that instead of addressing public interests, social housing policies contributed to the goal of reproducing capitalist modes of production by increasing the importance of urban development as an economic activity, increasing private property, and strengthening the importance of financial agents and banks in the production of space.

However, the neoliberalization of urban design has triggered contestation from local communities, academics and practitioners. Transformative urban practices have emerged to provide alternative pathways for the city, including “constructing collective housing, questioning the city by occupying public spaces, visualising problems as a consequence of the neoliberalisation of spaces, and seeking institutional responses” (page 83). The experience of UKAMAU, a group of neighbours from the Estación Central area, exemplifies a successful case of bottom-up struggle with regard to social housing. UKAMAU organized in 1987 to protest against the state over their rights to adequate housing. In 2011, through a collective effort with an influential architect and architecture students, UKAMAU succeeded in negotiating with the state to design, plan and construct their own collective housing in downtown Santiago. This represents an example of how grassroots struggle can progress towards the subversion of urban design under neoliberalism.


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Further reading:

Dockemdorr, Eduardo, Alfredo Rodríguez and Lucy Winchester (2000), “Santiago de Chile: metropolization, globalization and inequity”, Environment and Urbanization Vol 12, No 1, pages 171¬–183, available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/095624780001200112.

Lefebvre, Henri (2003), The Urban Revolution, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Vergara-Perucich, José-Francisco and Martín Arias-Loyola (2019), “Bread for advancing the right to the city: academia, grassroots groups and the first cooperative bakery in a Chilean informal settlement”, Environment and Urbanization, available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956247819866156.


Book note prepared by Kate Goh

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