At the time of Salvador Allende’s election victory on 4 September 1970, Chile was experiencing accelerated urbanisation that was deeply unequal. Confronting the housing deficit, and providing access to urban services and facilities would be one of the challenges of Allende’s Popular government. With creativity and involvement of the people, President Allende tackled innovatively the same kind of problems that we still face today.
Salvador Allende and his Chilean path to democratic socialism featured a 40-measure programme, the mobilisation of a generation of new innovative professionals and workers committed to transformation – and it enjoyed the admiration and collaboration of a generation of the world’s left. The combination of popular wisdom and technical innovation pushed Allende from the 36.6 per cent that initially supported him to 44.2 per cent shortly before his ouster. Halfway through his mandate, there was an unprecedented explosion of creativity and popular energy, the echoes of which persist in Chile to this day.
Democratic and pluralistic leadership, as well as his ability to listen, were the hallmarks of the comrade president for the benefit of the effectiveness and creativity of his government.
Today they would call it ‘effective horizontal leadership’. This was well embodied by the team formed by the prime minister Héctor Cortez – himself an experienced construction worker –, and by the architect Miguel Lawner, who together were responsible for implementing Allende’s programme in the urban and housing sphere.
Chile at that time was a country in the process of modernisation, undergoing accelerated urbanisation, with 8.8 million inhabitants, 75 percent of them living in cities and 27 percent concentrated in the capital. In other words, it was a deconcentrated territory and a more homogeneously inhabited one, but with low rates of human development.
Shortly before Allende’s election victory, the Ministry of Housing and Urbanism had been created (1965), as had the first Metropolitan Plan of Santiago and various public entities to implement social housing policies. But construction was stagnant due to a lack of public land and a still developing incipient industry.
The infrastructure networks did not cover all parts of the working classes equally, accumulating a housing deficit of 600,000 homes as a result of rural-city migrations. These migrations had generated land seizures in the urban peripheries, with settlements emerging like callampas-mushrooms in the forest after the rains.
The Allende government programme recognised this with five concrete measures, seeking to fully address the challenges: “Carry out the remodelling of cities and neighbourhoods, with the aim of preventing the expulsion of modest groups to the periphery, guaranteeing the interests of the inhabitants of these remodelled sectors, like small businessmen who work there, ensuring 10 per cent of occupants in their future location”.
To achieve its objectives, numerous real estate projects were launched to relocate these popular camps. A Russian-inspired industrial prefabrication system was installed that reinvigorated the nascent public and private industrial production – a unique experience in Chile’s history. The so-called ‘operación sitio’ was also deployed to regularise land tenure and access to the network of basic infrastructures such as water, electricity, and sewerage. But this was just the beginning!
Large remodelling projects were expanded to densify the country’s urban centres with the participation of the residents. ¡Vamos para Arriba! (Let’s go up!) was the most innovative of the socialist government’s initiatives to incorporate the working classes into well-located vertical neighbourhood dynamics. According to the 1970 census, only 7 percent of households lived in apartments in the capital Santiago de Chile, while today they represent 17.5 per cent. At the end of 1972, the country had exhausted the available construction materials and reached a historic peak in the construction of houses, which would only be resumed two decades later by the democratic governments.
Today, that political programme is still in force, having been transformed into a public policy of the state – a step undertaken by the coalition governments led by the socialist President Michelle Bachelet. However, Chile’s cities are the most unequal among the OECD countries, with Santiago in a prominent position. This is due to the neoliberal interventions of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that ousted Allende in a coup in 1973 and that liberalised the ownership of urban land, pushed settlers towards the periphery and subsidised the offer, generating a large speculative real estate industry.
The entire world today faces similar challenges, but of different proportions. High levels of socio-spatial segregation, a housing deficit in the main capitals of the world, providing houses for tourists, but not for residents. A socialist city agenda cannot avoid conflictual topics such as setting rental prices, or establishing quotas to control the speculative phenomena of global capitalism, the environmental effects on cities, the living conditions of its inhabitants, the governance of speculative processes and the increase of sustainable urban density.
The coronavirus pandemic threatens the idea of the concentration and density of cities right across the world, reminding us that the consumption of natural soil, as well as the unlimited growth of city-regions fed by the investment market, are an environmental danger that puts our survival at risk. A parsimonious use of land and natural resources requires strong governing, both of cities and global capitalism. These were already great challenges for Latin America in the 1970s, and Salvador Allende knew how to meet them.