Public space for engagement in Chile

Plazas bolsillo (pocket plazas) in Santiago are popping up all over as a result of a public-private partnership between the municipality and the metro (privatised). They are only meant to be a temporary use of space in the city that would otherwise remain unused, abandoned and wasted (for example, old parking lots) [1] [3]. There are, apparently, up to 400 or more hectares of unused spaces in Santiago.

Plazas bolsillo are designed as ‘socio-activators’ [1] to integrate community and ‘construir ciudad’ – build city. Six principles guide their design: (1) Recuperation, (2) Collaboration, (3) Art and culture, (4) Improvement of quality of life, (5) Transition and (6) Use of public spaces.

The aim in their design, fall along the lines of participatory urban planning and design. The experience in Santiago has shown that the more plazas that pop up in the city, which are covered in the media, the more they become known by people living in different neighbourhoods. The initiative has triggered intrigue and some associations are beginning to approach the organisers so that similar spaces might be built in their own neighbourhoods. Nonetheless, the initiative did begin as a ‘top-down’ model in the sense that the first 9 have been designed by the “dirección de arquitectura” (department of architecture) and the intention is that the following ones will be designed by the regional government with the participation of different actors. Actors that have been identified as crucial to the process include neighbourhood associations, regional governmental bodies, associations and the private sector. This movement is being led by a specific group of people with particular ideas about public space.

I found myself in one of these plazas bolsillo when visiting Santiago. There were different activities taking place, music, food trucks, playground and I also notices an urban vegetable garden that belongs to the neighbours or rather, the community of neighbours. I’d be curious to know who is using these spaces and what is meant by ‘social activation’, also, who defines what this means and what does ‘social activation‘ mean for knowledge building in the city? And vice versa?

Drawing on the purpose of, knowledge building refers to giving a collective meaning to experiences that are brought together from people participating in thinking about the city and acting on the city.

Exploring the meaning of “Social Activation”

The Plazas Bolsillo discussed in multiple articles in the media with reference to being a platform for social interaction for developing culture and identity [3]; a part of the ‘imaginary of public space’ [2] where activities that respond to different audiences are to take place. These include live music, information stands, educational workshops, performances and mural paintings [3].  At this point, social activation seems to relate mainly to the promotion of cultural vibrance and diversity, and these pocket plazas are therefore a place where cultural activities can take place. While the ‘social’ aspect is clear, it is the notion of ‘activation’ that I am more curious about. What activates and why? And who?

In search of food for thought I came across this article that brings the pocket plazas into a context of the roles and interactions between different actors in the city at different scales of the city [2]. A clear message from Fernando Perera (representative of Miraflores Municipality, Lima, Peru) was that for citizens at a local level, to be able to influence decisions and see their influence on decisions made about the city, they need to have a ‘vision of the city’. The will for a change in the city is not enough, it is also important for citizens to have a plan on how this change will be part of a bigger picture and contribute to the broader common good. Because “the municipality can also not allow that spaces in the city become invaded in a lawless way” (translated from source [2]).  However, a second clear message from this same article is that municipalities should also not wait for citizens and civil society to bring all the initiatives and ideas to the table, they must also promote and make decisions on how these spaces should be transformed. “It’s a joint work, but the planning in its essence corresponds to local governments” (translated from source [2]). From local governments, once again, the will is not enough, there also needs to be constance, follow-up and effective management, it reminds us with reference to the project Barriopolis in Tepito, Mexico City. This reminds us what ‘activation’ is or should be – ideally:

Activation materialises when spaces – and opportunities – in the city push (all) actors to fulfil their roles more effectively, actively and transparently across scales and geographies of the city.

The article goes on to point out that actually, many local governments face obstacles in carrying out their roles effectively because there are not regional plans and therefore their proposals can often be met with stagnation and little funding; but also, citizens face obstacles when local governments have little interest in meeting their demands and promoting active participation in ‘city building’. This can lead to tiredness from those that live in the city, disbelief in local governments and disengagement with the meaning of ‘building city’ and exercising our right to the city.

If we are to take Fernando Perera’s claims to heart, this implies that activation requires not only the will of the different actors of the city but also the knowledge and understanding about what is city, what is required to build a holistic vision of a city and most importantly, what is the right to the city and how can it be exercised.

Knowledge building for social activation?

An initiative in Antofagasta, Chile, goes right to the heart of building this understanding. This initiative is interesting for me as I question how building knowledge can be the starting point for activating (or involving) the different actors of the city? – rather than the result of involving them. The initiative in Antofagasta, which is today being referred to as the ‘mini-diplomado’ (mini-diploma) for the Know Your City program also presents interesting comparison to that of the Plazas Bolsillo. While I understand plazas bolsillo as an intervention in the space of the city integrated into a wider and longer-term plan so activate and build experiences and therefore knowledge; I understand the ‘mini-diplomado’ as an intervention to build knowledge about making city,  which can then activate different actors in the city to intervene in planning decisions and therefore shape the city.

Antofagasta is also particularly interesting because it was historically a key city for social movements and unions. They were silenced by the acts of the dictatorship and most union leaders were executed. This has left a population in the city that, in the words of a local, accept the reality they live in. A reality that at first glance is one of a fair amount of poverty and struggle for a large section of city dwellers, despite the fact that Antofagasta has a similar richness to some countries in Europe [4]. In reality, the city of Antofagasta faces many social, economic and environmental challenges. These include very high levels of pollution, severe income inequalities, precarious land and home ownership and more generally what local academics are calling an ‘urban crisis’ [4]. Informal settlements are a characteristic of this city and while policies and programs defined by local governments exist, there is no law that is specifically designed to meet this challenge [4].

“To break with this situation of inertia, there are two existing pathways that converge, that of information and that of action, which can be developed from the critical and transformative agenda of the right to the city”.

– p.13 Translated from source [4]

One definition of the ‘right to the city’ is: “The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” [5]

[To read more about the Right to the City and its origin see “Le Droit a la Ville”, Henri Lefebvre, 1968]

The case of the Mini-Diplomado in Antofagasta echoes Perera’s discussion (mentioned earlier) on the need for a ‘vision of the city’ among local groups that seek to influence the building and transformation of the city. The starting point for this initiative is to build on the mulitple constitutional, protective and normative rights that Chilean individuals have – in theory – by law. These include, the right to property, the right to a basic standard of living (including basic nutrition, medical assistance, services and shelter), the right to protection from racial and gender discrimination. These, and Chile’s role in international conventions and agreements such as the New Urban Agenda, the protection of migrant and worker groups and others, all provide a rich platform on which to build an understanding of this concept.

“Unlike other social policies, the right to the city cannot only be resolved with vouchers n’or the private promotions, a different focus is required, one that is more solidary and better informed that could withhold international scrutiny”

– translated from source [6].

With this vision, the mini-diploma is a series of lectures provided directly from university professors to informal settlers, to build a collective understanding of the right to the city – and its materialisation through solidarity, well informed individuals and collective action. These lectures have triggered a series of actions from the students of the mini diploma, including a start-up bread-making business. It has also triggered interest from national and international academia, the media and other surrounding neighbourhoods.

Could this process also be understood as social activation? It’s important to point out that both teachers and students are experimenting with this model and it continues to be a learning process. However, this experience is a demonstration that using knowledge building as a starting point can trigger a domino effect of actions from local, regional and international actors. The initiative has at least struck curiosity from different actors at different scales of the city. Today, academics from Santiago are travelling to Antofagasta wanting to link up with the local university and the learning community. I’m left wondering how these actions are seen by local governments and the influence that this learning community could have on future policies, programs and planning of Antofagasta’s continued growth? These are questions that will remain to be answered as this is a fairly new initiative. However, it’s clear that knowledge building as a starting point has triggered actions and reactions that may be conducive to bridging gaps between scales of the city that have for some time now, deepened the inequalities experienced in Antofagasta.

“Information is also a source of transformation, as is action”

– F.Vergara Perucich, translated from source [4]

The right to a home

Video taken from source [7]


  1. Nuevas Experiencias en Generación de Espacios Públicos, Plazas Publicas de Bolsillo, Región Metropolitana de Santiago, Chile y Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, Argentina [Accessed 15.11.2018]
  2. Las intervenciones del espacio publico requieren mas que buena voluntad, Habitat y Desarollo Urbano, LA Network, August 2018 [Accessed 15.11.2018]
  3. Inaguran, “Esquina, tu plaza”, Sur Actual, October 2017 [Accessed 15.11.2018]
  4. El Derecho a la Ciudad Desde los Arenales, Mini-Diplomado: Urbanismo y Derecho a la Ciudad, Francisco Vergara Perucich, Know Your City SDI 2018
  5. The Right to the City, Chapter 1, David Harvey, 2008 [Accessed 19.11.2018]
  6. Columna: El Derecho a La Ciudad en Antofagasta, Francisco Vergara Perucich, REGIONALISTA [Accessed 24.11.2018]
  7. Antofagasta: Hoy a las 10:30 horas sera la marcha por el derecho a la vivienda, editor general, 2018, REGIONALISTA,  [Accessed 24.11.2018]

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