Urban Areas

Chile Table of Contents

Since the 1930s, the majority of Chileans has lived in urban areas (defined as agglomerations of more than 2,000 inhabitants). This reflects a demographic trend of migration from rural areas that began early, according to developing world and Latin American standards. The urban population was estimated to be 86 percent of the total in 1991. A perhaps better indicator of the degree of urbanization of a country is the extent to which the population lives in agglomerations of more than 20,000. According to the 1982 census, there were fifty-one cities and towns in Chile with more than 20,000 inhabitants, and their combined population represented 65.6 percent of the total. This percentage shows that Chile is very definitely an urban country. There has continued to be a significant internal migration of the population, although mostly from one urban center to another. The 1982 census showed that a significant 8.6 percent of the population had moved to the province of current residence during the previous five years.

Central Chile is the site of the oldest urban centers, many of which were founded by the Spanish in the mid-sixteenth century. Most of the older cities are next to rivers in areas of rich soil. Santiago, founded in 1541, is typical of this pattern of settlement in a prime agricultural area. Little did its founders know that city streets and houses would occupy so much of the Santiago Valley's fertile soil in the twentieth century. Santiago was designated from its founding as the capital city of the new colony, and it has been the seat of the Chilean government ever since. Other cities, such as Valparaíso, founded in 1536, served as ports. The city of Concepción--founded in 1550 in what is now Penco and moved a bit inland to its present location in 1754--served as the center of a wheat-growing area, as a port for the southern part of the Central Valley, and as a military base on the Araucanian frontier.

Despite being continually populated for more than four centuries, Chilean cities have--unlike Lima or Cartagena, for instance--few architectural monuments from the past. This is explained in part by the poverty of the country in colonial times but also by the devastating action of the frequent earthquakes. Following the usual Spanish colonial practice, Chilean cities were planned with a central plaza surrounded by a grid of streets forming square blocks. The plazas invariably were the site of both municipal or regional government buildings and churches.

Communications between urban centers were facilitated during the colonial period by the relative proximity to the ocean of even the most Andean of locations. Except for cities in the Central Valley, between Santiago and Chillán, ocean transportation and shipping were vital to the north-south movement of people and goods until the building of railroads from the second half of the nineteenth century until the first decades of the twentieth century. Even then, the railroads only served the central and southern parts of the country to Puerto Montt, leaving sea-lanes as the main links to the extreme north and south.

The most significant feature of the development of urban centers in Chile has been the imbalance represented by the growth of Santiago, which has far exceeded that of other cities. According to the 1992 census figures, the Metropolitan Region of Santiago had about 5,170,300 inhabitants, a total equal to about 39 percent of the Chilean population. In 1865, with a population of about 115,400, Santiago was the residence of only 6.3 percent of the nation's inhabitants. From about 1885 onward, the capital city grew at a rate between about 30 percent and 50 percent every ten to twelve years. The 1992 census figure showed a slight moderation of this pace, which was, nonetheless, at 3.3 percent per year significantly higher than the average national population increase.

Santiago's population growth occurred mainly as a result of migration from rural areas and provincial urban centers. Almost 30 percent of the population of the capital in 1970 was born in areas of Chile other than Santiago, a percentage that has probably not changed much since. The only other areas of the country that have greatly increased their population in recent years are the extreme south and the extreme north. This growth has resulted from internal migration prompted by economic expansion associated with fishing and mining. However, given the much smaller populations in those areas to begin with, the fact that between 30 percent and 40 percent of their inhabitants were born elsewhere does not signify much in terms of the absolute numbers of people migrating.

Santiago is not only the seat of the national government (except for the National Congress, hereafter Congress, now located in Valparaíso) but also the nation's main financial and commercial center, the most important location for educational, cultural, and scientific institutions, and the leading city for manufacturing in terms of the total volume of production. Although sprawling Santiago has continued to absorb formerly prime agricultural areas, there are sections of town where wineries still cultivate grapes.

Historically, Santiago has been the main area of residence for the nation's wealthiest citizens, even for those with property elsewhere in the country. Unlike other Chilean cities, Santiago has always had an extensive upper- and upper-middle class residential area. Originally near the main plaza in the center of town, this area developed toward the south and west at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. Although neighborhoods in these areas retained some samples of the architecture of that period, by the 1990s they were occupied mainly by lower-middle-class residents. Beginning in the 1930s, Santiago's upper-class residents moved east of the center of town, toward the Andes. This transition was accompanied by an increase in the commercial use of downtown as larger and larger buildings were constructed and the public transportation system was enhanced. As use of the automobile became more common, the upper-class and upper-middle-class residential areas expanded farther up the foothills of the Andes. This process of suburbanization, complete with shopping malls and supermarkets with large parking lots, also has led to the development of new and faster roads to the center of the city and to the principal airport. New bus lines also were established to serve the suburbs. All of this increased motor- vehicle traffic in the Santiago Valley, whose surrounding mountains trap particulate matter, generating levels of air pollution that are among the worst in the world. In the early 1990s, emergency restrictions on the use of motor vehicles have become a routine feature of the city's life during all but the summer months, when there is more wind and the thermal inversion that traps the dirty air in the colder months no longer prevents its venting.

The large number of people migrating to Santiago and, to a lesser extent, to other major cities, led to a severe shortage of housing, especially of affordable housing for low-income people. Estimates in 1990 were that the nation as a whole needed a million more housing units to accommodate all those living in crowded conditions with relatives or friends, those with housing in poor condition, or those living in emergency housing. Since the 1960s, extensive portions of the Santiago area, especially to the south, east, and north of the center, had been occupied by people who built precarious makeshift housing on lots that were often used illegally. As these areas aged, the municipal authorities extended city services to them and tried to redesign, where need be, their haphazard layout. Moreover, many people--about 28,000 between 1979 and 1984--were moved out of illegal settlements by the authorities and into low-income housing. The result was a further expansion of urbanization and an increase in the distances that people had to travel to work, look for work, or attend school. Nonetheless, by 1990 virtually all of the poorer areas of Santiago had access to electricity, running water, refuse collection, and sewerage. In fact, the country's urban population as a whole had good access to city services. By 1987, 98 percent of the population in towns and cities had running water (the great majority in their homes), 98 percent had garbage collection, and 79 percent had sewer connections.

The segregation within Chilean cities by income level has made residential areas very different from one another. In Santiago, where the differences are more sharply drawn than elsewhere, some neighborhoods are worlds apart. The upper-class areas in the eastern foothills of the Andes offer comfortable houses with neat, fenced-in gardens, or spacious apartments in sometimes attractively designed buildings, all on tree-lined streets. Restaurants, supermarkets, shopping malls, boutiques, bookstores, cinemas, and theaters add to the appeal of what is a very comfortable urban life. The area is well connected by public transportation, including the major east-west line of an excellent subway and its feeder buses. The best hospitals and clinics are within easy reach, as are the best private schools.

The poor areas of the city are not as well served. There are few supermarkets, and the usually poorly stocked corner groceries often sell their goods at higher prices. Some streets are not paved, and this, together with the lack of grass cover in the open spaces, creates dusty conditions during much of the year. Trees have been planted extensively in Santiago's poorer areas since the 1960s, but many streets are still devoid of them. Getting to the city center and to clinics and hospitals is more difficult for residents of the poorer areas. However, access to preprimary schooling and to sport facilities, especially to soccer fields, has expanded significantly since the early 1970s. Except for some very plain-looking buildings with apartments for low-income families, most housing consists of one floor. The poorest houses are made of a variety of materials, including pine boards and cardboard. Houses are generally built with brick and poured-concrete braces, and most poor people eventually try to build with such materials as well. As communities begun by land-squatters have become more settled, it has been possible to see the gradual transformation of squatter construction.

Chilean cities commonly contain relatively large housing developments (poblaciones), including multifamily units, single-family units, or a combination of the two. Many of these developments were constructed with loans made available to enterprises, pension funds, or savings and loan associations by the state for their employees or affiliates, usually at subsidized rates (especially before the military government). Consequently, they are often occupied by people who have the same place of employment or who belong to a specific occupational category. Such housing would not be available as easily to large numbers of people were it not for the special financial arrangements worked out for the group. Transportation to and from work was often arranged by employers. One unintended consequence of this pattern of urbanization was that it contributed to the overall segregation of housing in Chile by income level or occupation.

However, in part because of this pattern, Chile had a large proportion of homeowners. About 60 percent of housing units were owned by their occupants. As the housing developments aged and many of the original occupants sold their houses and moved elsewhere, the developments became more socially heterogeneous. People also began to modify and remodel their houses; and new corner groceries, hairstyling salons, tailor shops, schools, churches, and other establishments emerged, giving the developments a more settled, urban look.

Because of a lack of jobs in the formal economy, many people need to make a living selling odds and ends on the streets. These people have not been counted as unemployed in official statistics because they are engaged in income-producing activities. During the military regime, the authorities attempted to organize this form of commerce by licensing stalls on the sidewalks of designated streets and by prohibiting sales elsewhere. However, there was greater demand for such stalls than there were available spaces, and they could not be erected in the most important commercial streets. Hence, many people defied the regulations and attempted to sell their goods where these activities were prohibited, risking confiscation of their wares by the police. The Aylwin government continued the policy in slightly modified form.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress