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Environmental Studies

Curauma Mega-Project: Urban Development in Chile — A Semester Abroad

April 16, 2012

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Valparaiso, Chile

April 16, 2012

During the fall 2011 semester, I studied abroad in Valparaiso, a small city in Chile on the Pacific coast. From the preliminary research I conducted on Chilean urbanism before arriving in the country, there appeared to be a great deal of excitement surrounding growth in Curauma, a small private mega-project planned for a total population of 200,000 residents comprised mostly of gated community developments along with shopping malls, industrial estates, and business parks. Urban geographers in Chile say it manifests the newest form of urban development in Latin America. As one of the most economically developed countries in Latin America, Chile acts as a test model for development in other countries including Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. Thus, the success of Curauma has encouraged mega-projects to spread regionally as a new growth phenomenon. Considering the larger implications, of this trend, I wonder how this trend represents progress in development. As it is marketed as a viable form of growth on large scales, what does this type of homogenized urban development imply for consumption?

My initial independent project plan was to investigate the sustainability of this development model as Curuama showcases the regional trend throughout Latin America. When in Chile, however, I encountered bureaucratic obstacles with architect and project directors at the real estate company Curauma S.A. My research was also complicated by logistics like restricted mobility due to the national student uprising strikes during 4 of my nearly 6-month stay. The strikes involved weekly marches in Valpariso (when citizens reclaimed their right to the city by protesting the government’s refusal to negotiate state-subsidized public education), which often ended in violent insurgence, tear gas, and police blockades among other chaos in the city. Although it was difficult to collect qualitative data on the status of the project development in Curauma, the interviews were crucial in uncovering the social dimensions of structural and environmental changes in the area.

The edge of Curauma is visible on the way to Santiago from Valparaiso on highway 68. The image zooms by: a quick glimpse pristine identical houses ordered in rows along with evidence of construction and plots of raw dirt embedded within an otherwise forested area. The anomaly of this standardized housing development starkly contrasts the vibrant spontaneity and density of urbanism in Valparaiso. This controlled suburban pattern of development marks a clear visible change in the region’s urbanization. To an outsider like me, Curauma resembles an American suburb with its gated communities, shopping malls, industrial estates, and business park. It is this outlandish image of standardized architecture that is confusing as it is projected, aiming to represent ‘modern’ and ‘urban’ developments for ‘improved quality of life.’ As this suburban homogeneity infiltrates the Chilean landscape in, the built environment shifts, structuring different lifestyles, which inevitably causes significant consequences to social organization.

In the way of qualitative primary research, I conducted five interviews in Chile about Curauma’s development. First, I interviewed with Roberto Barria, the director of the Program of Recuperation and Urban Development, in Valparaiso to discuss the challenges of urban growth and renewal in the city in the context of preserving the World Heritage sites. Next, I interviewed Miguel Dueñas, chief urban architect at the Municipality of Valparaiso, to investigate the relationship of the city with the neighboring mega-project development in Curauma. Subsequently, I met with a project engineer from the Curauma mega-project development firm. Finally, I was able to interview two urban Geography professors in Santiago, Pablo Mansilla Quiñones (U Academia de Humanismo Cristiano) and Rodrigo Hidalgo (U Catolica) who have written extensively on current urban development trends and resulting social exclusion in Chile. Additionally, I collected real estate development propaganda, which marketed ideas of progress through development.  I examined the local newspaper produced for the community in Curauma, flyers made by the different real estate companies, and billboards provided interesting information about the image of the development, selling a natural setting and improved quality of life from a proximity to nature.

I translated all data collected in Chile so that it could be incorporated into my project. A summary of findings is available through the SGE website under the project record: “Contested Models of Urban Development in Curauma, Chile.” Moving beyond the independent project research work, however, I am currently in the final stages of writing a thesis through the department of Sociology and Anthropology on the social and cultural implications of the urban development in Curauma as it has been influenced by the American dream of suburbia in the US, which represents a trend of expanding urbanization throughout the developing world.

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