Former Santiago Mayor’s Approach to Equity Through Urban Planning
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From June 26th to 28th 2018, urban transport and development practitioners, activists, and researchers from cities around the world convened in Dar es Salaam for the 3rd annual ITDP Mobilize summit. Themed “Making space for mobility in booming cities,” the event offered attendees a chance to directly experience the new Bus Rapid Transit system along with walking and cycling improvements that made Dar es Salaam the first African city to win the prestigious Sustainable Transport Award in its 14-year history.
The conference program included several plenaries, conversations with change leaders, and break-out sessions that explored a wealth of timely and critical topics from informality to gender, child health, and new mobility innovations in the context of sub-Saharan Africa. Besides considering policy and planning dilemmas and solutions, discussions sometimes turned to questions of politics and governance as in the plenary with Carolina Tohá, the former mayor of Santiago, Chile, moderated by Philipp Rode, Executive Director of LSE Cities.
Presenting on “Sustainable mobility in Santiago,” CT began by highlighting the rapid urbanization and economic growth of Chile, along with escalating social inequalities as indicated by the country’s highest Gini coefficient among OECD countries. Elected mayor of Santiago municipality at the core of the dense capital city region, comprising 35 municipalities and marked by high degrees of class segregation, she pursued active steps to bring about a more equitable society through direct intervention in the public realm. Where low income people in Santiago disproportionately rely on walking and public transit and higher income groups, on private cars, her administration prioritized pedestrians, transit users, and cyclists. The municipality took a four-fold approach:
- The Pedestrian First Plan improved sidewalks and streets for pedestrians— enhancing inclusive accessibility at crossings, repainting lanes and street markings , introducing security cameras, modernizing urban cleaning services, and recovering sidewalk gardens for people in the neighborhoods.
- The Downtown Plan sought to transform the main street by restricting circulation of private cars during the day. In addition to reducing travel times for public transport., the municipality improved public transport stops and designed safe public spaces in the downtown.
- The Pro-bike Plan promoted cycling as a valid means of transport (beyond leisure and sport purposes) by creating a network of interlinked bike lanes that doubled the municipality’s cycle path network and established a public bike share. Adopting the advertisement concession model of public bikeshare, the two most profitable boroughs successfully pushed sponsors to include low-income boroughs from the start.
- The Educational Strategy sought to change cultural paradigms about transport as a fundamental driving force of sustainable mobility. It sought to replace the car as a symbol of success and object of desire with the dream of an integrated city, where intermodality, moderated speeds, inclusion, safety, and empathy prospered. It focused on children, not only as an indicator species for a good city, but also as keystones of societal transformation— teaching them in schools and neighborhoods to be conscientious and proud intermodal citizens. The municipality likewise devised an awareness campaign for adults about coexistence in streets.
Despite resistance and criticism, the necessary policy and planning interventions occurred within a span of four years and drew quick notice. Travel times of public transport reduced by 50 percent in major corridors. Pedestrian circulation doubled. Traffic accidents decreased by 45 percent. Use of cycling increased by more than 300 percent in the municipality. Still, the mayor lost reelection and with the new municipal administration, the momentum for policies slowed. However sustainable mobility is now more embraced across the country. Recently, Congress rejected a bill that would have lowered urban speed limits but had to reverse course when citizens protested. For CT, this demonstrates that the movement towards sustainable mobility requires political transformation in addition to physical and technical solutions. She sought to create a virtuous circle that would foment social equality, fueled by a new, transformative vision for the city and prioritizing children as a way to ensure that the paradigm shift will be a reality.
A Conversation with Carolina Tohá, Former Mayor of Santiago, Chile
Following her presentation, the moderator Philp Rode asked a series of questions about political leadership, cities, and transformative change. Below are snippets from that conversation.
PR: What motivated you in the first place to get into politics? Why did you leave the national level and get into the city level? Why did you run for mayor?
CT: I didn’t get into politics, politics got into my life. We had a military coup. My father was killed. We sought asylum in Mexico. My life was completely determined by politics. When we came back to Chile, I became a leader of students without thinking to become a politician, but a few years later, I was. In my career, I have been in different spaces- governor, congress woman, president of my party, but I wanted to see how policy worked with real people in territories. In the territories, you have the opportunity to see all the policies interacting together with bigger possibility to make change with bigger complexity. Reality is more complicated in the territories than in a ministry, where you see silos- health, education. For a person, in a day, all the policies come together. In a municipality— even though Chile is a centralized country—you can do a lot in reality. You can use different policies, like cooking with different ingredients, but you create. That’s why I decided to go into politics in the municipality.
PR: In Santiago when you rolled out diversity of transport policies, where did you see most complementarity in terms of health and equity?
CT: Transport has the capacity to create strong results in other areas- health, pollution, economic growth, access to opportunities. But the most important thing is the power mobility has to shape public space. I used to think of parks and green areas, but the main public space is the street. Streets are so important to defining a society, the kind of coexistence between people, how the rest are looking to you and how you feel with others. When you are used to thinking of the street as a dangerous place, where others are a risk or problem and you distrust them, you create a relation with society that is very toxic. In an unequal society, you can try to create a different way people relate to each other, to feel safe and empathy with others. I don’t think we were able to reach that objective in Santiago but we were able to show that it is a possibility.
PR: A central idea of the conference is ideas exchange and practice exchange. Which of the cities did you learn from as a mayor in Santiago and which changes were entirely Santiago specific?
CT: From Milano, we learned a holistic approach to transport not just to advance mobility aims but in relation to other issues and where the public and private sector worked together for the city, which had lots of power. In Latin America, we learned from the Brazilian experience—Curitiba, Porto Alegre— about social decision-making, taking priorities and problems of the people into account, how to use mobility as a driver of inclusion. From Bogota and Mexico city, we learned the experiences of municipalities, the importance of political will, the decision to do things even if you find resistance to decisions. You cannot change things without big decisions.
PR: To what extent and how did you use transport to mitigate income inequality in Santiago?
CT: The distribution of space and land is very important. If you are not conscious of how space is used, who has priority in the use of space, who is denied access to space, you can do a lot of injustice. To change the distribution of space is a strong way to confront inequalities and change rules of the game to be more fair.
PR: In trying to influence the culture of mobllity, you not only tried to make people aware of bad and good behavior, but went a step further and tried to shape aspirations. What happens when societies become rich, people have bigger apartments and motorize. How much can these policies make a difference?
CT: Government has to be responsible about messaging. I don’t mean in terms of explicitly saying how one should live. I don’t like that kind of politics. What we have today is the contrary. Governments reproduce things without saying. The symbol of modernization is the highway. Authorities use big empty cars. That is a strong message, and you need to be aware of that, be more responsible about the messages you create. You can reproduce bad messages without being aware of it. We have done this for too long. The main resource is policies, investments, and education. You have the system of education. Never forget that the communicational power of government and politics is a tool that can be used in a different way.
PR: If you were mayor again today, what would you do differently?
CT: I ran for a second term and was defeated. We made important changes but did not win reelection, so clearly there was a problem. What I learned is to decide the periods in which to be evaluated. When you work on a lot of things without a focus on key priorities or clear communication, someone else—most likely your opponent— will decide how to evaluate you. We did a lot of work on mobility, but I’m not sure the ideas behind it—the thinking that went into the proposals and the objectives of changes— were as clearly communicated. A lot of people wondered the reason for so many changes. One has to work on the assumption of not being there in the future and institutionalize changes so that the next administration can’t reverse course so easily.
PR: What are the opportunities for future exchanges between Latin America—the most urbanized continent—and Africa— the least urbanized but not rapidly urbanizing continent— around transport and urban policy? What are commonalities? Where can they help each other?
CT: Cities of the south are operating in a world of global capitalism and urbanization that creates possibilities for growth for the south but doesn’t solve the problem of inequality. Mobility policies in cities could be drivers to confront inequality but we need to connect them with housing and the environment. Africa and South America can exchange experiences, including the many mistakes we made over the years and learned from. For example, cities in Africa might save space for things that are important, because in booming cities, land prices rise fast, and the moment will soon arrive where you can’t decide where people will live or create public spaces and streets. When the city is made by prices, it becomes very segregated, and it’s hard to change. Transport and mobility are strong drivers to work together with the issue. The other thing we learned in Latin America is the importance of participation and decentralization. National governments make big decisions and have resources, but there is a need for a strong view from ground—your own idea of what you want. It’s very hard to know what city or neighborhood needs from top down. Every place is different and reality is complex. The opinion of people is very important. Without that, the city has no sense. We need country-to-country cooperation, but cooperation among cities in different countries with common challenges is most important.
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
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