The contested space in Santiago: Clash between citizens and government within the civic district

by Francisco Vergara


It is well understood that good city is a place where citizenship, state and private world are represented, and coexisting in harmony and build successful relationships looking for general good. For Ash Amin, the good city is achieved when the urban order permits to enhance the human experience (Amin 2006). In this essay, it will be use the idea of ‘good city’ as a democratic space, which through conflicts can change the balance between government, citizens and private realm, to produce new space meanings. From this definition, appears an initial question that can launch other inquiries: How the conflict can improve the city in order to generate democratic spaces designed to receive a claiming citizenship? Find the answer is not a central topic for this essay, nevertheless here is explored a path to deepen the idea of democratic space towards produce better cities.

This essay presents a critical view about Santiago city’s actual state, after a series of manifestations and social revolts leaded by university students from 2011 that aspire to create a good society, generating structural changes to a political system and economic model. The street is seen as a space of protest and representation for citizenship, allowing understanding the importance of public space in support of civic development for a nation. It will be expose how political violence had changed the civic space of Santiago in three occasions. It concludes with a hypothesis towards a good city that embraces citizens participation in urban transformations.

The street as a space for protest and expression

“The street is dead. The discovery has coincided with frantic attempts at resuscitation. Public art is everywhere -as if two deaths make a life. Pedestrinization- intended to preserve – merely channels the flow of thus doomed to destroy the object of their intended reverence with their feet” (Koolhaas 1995)

Some years ago, Rem Koolhaas stated publicly that the street was death, and with that he announced the decadence of public space in neoliberal city. In this realm, it is impossible to do avoid Santiago as an emblematic case, wherein the street was dying but suddenly has risen as a consequence of people’s discontent with the residing economic model. This manifestation of discontent has two extremes; on one hand the citizens demanding rights and on the other hand the government defending actual institution mechanism.

When the government demonstrates incapacity to react to what citizen’s claiming as proper, it is the citizenship as a collective body, which will self appropriate those necessities. The last year has seen take ownership of the streets, to claim for better management of natural resources, better education, for respect for sexual minorities, and better work rights, among other reasons. This has resulted in marches and protests, which have become a traditional act in Santiago (Almost folkloric)

“The demonstrations have open in the last two years a dialogue. Chile seems to be about to a process of democratic deepening that arisen from the citizens, of which the city can be part, whether giving space to this dialogue, as well facing on a transformation process by itself.” (Cociña In press)

From a theorist point of view, David Harvey says “The Street is a public space that has historically often been transformed by social action into the common of a revolutionary movement, as well as into a site of bloody suppression. There is always struggle over how the production of and access to public space and public goods is to be regulated, by whom, and in whose interests” (Harvey 2011); from this idea, we can infer that public space is defined by the manner how the users activate it. Protest has been one way in which human activity transform these spaces into a culture symbol. The public space becomes a cultural record, one in which a society is built through popular claims. The public space is alive when society is angry or happy, and in other words, the public space is loaded with meaning when it is massively occupied.

“It is about the recognition of conflict as constitutive of the social condition, and the naming of the spatiality that can become without being grounded in universalising notions of the social (in the sense of community, unity or cohesion) and a singular notion of the people” (Swyngedouw 2011)

Chileans for years lived their cities in a commercial way, moving their public life from parks and plazas close to their neighbourhood, to shopping malls; so new needs appeared linked to leisure. In fact, families began to depend of spending access and goods acquisition, a materialist life conception. Nevertheless, this conditions are changing, shifting towards the public life again. “The market, scenario that for long decades was a space of analgesia and depoliticization, becomes a conflict scenario. The symbol, principal actor of this play, is the Shopping Mall, get in conflict with society in an evident irony. The Chilean society was surrendered to Shopping Malls the evil was the symbol of development. Suddenly they criticize that Shopping Malls are too big and disrespectful with the environment. That used to be what they loved years ago that they came to put a foot over whole the city what marked whole his erotic, the strength of his power” (Mayol 2012)

The street began to resume their empowerment over private space, once again with protest and the discontent becoming powerful engines of urban changes and thus is how the modern history of the cities has showed.

The violence and urban transformations

To the historian Gabriel Salazar (2011), the violence had produced real changes in Chile, which when reviewing the history seems to be indisputable: “any time that citizenship has manifested with sovereignty outbursts the response had been, initially by police then systematically using Inner Security Laws, taking a repressive attitude which is a provocation by itself, and that produce a clash”. As a result of these clashes, diverse historical situations have marked deep changes on the manner in which the city in Chile is understood. For Tschumi (1982) “There is no architecture without action, no architecture without events, no architecture without program. By extension, there is no architecture without violence”. The violence in architecture can be physical, conceptual or ephemeral, and these kinds of actions together with a socio-political component can bring like consequence, symbolic urban transformations. Historically, it is possible to review diverse projects of high world impact that have exposed how violence, in different ways, produces spatial changes in cities. For example, between 1852 and 1870 the Paris transformations, headed by Napoleon III and under the address of Haussmann, were achieved because of physical violence from authorities. This result in wiping out the original trace of the city to generate a harmonic relationship between civic space and built environment, manifested in the gentrification of the downtown, expelling people to the periphery of the city (Saalman 1971). Another example of how violent acts changed the configuration of the city occurred in Berlin: after the wall demolition, disappeared social, economical and political divisions between Eastern Germany and Western Germany, to start a process of reunification, where the Postdamer Platz is nowadays an emblematic case. On the other hand, the city of Medellin in Colombia has been a worldwide example about how to recover public spaces in a city that were previously ruled by the drug cartels in the 1980s and 1990s. (Brand 2011)

There is a link between social processes that generate violence and urban transformations. The social unrest is an indicator of possible and relevant urban changes and in this sense is an exciting review what has happened in Santiago of Chile between 2011 and 2012. For Salazar (2011), “the violence begins with denying the law, but the execution on physical violence depends of the circumstances and in Chile that should not be disparaged. A social-citizenship movement that want to change the Constitution of the State through a peaceful way can not forget the existence of an army, which is not democratic, that never had been democratic and that in their history has always repressed social manifestations in a violent manner”.

In 2011 Chilean citizenship began to awake and protest against many social injustices, which were arming for decades. The lethargy produced after years of intimidation, and repressive dictatorship has finished, and the street is once again a means to express discontent: Marches against hydroelectric projects and energy from coal projects, because the citizens want no more environment destruction to justify a production to enrich just 5% of population. Marches have also appeared to defend sexual rights because citizens are tired of discriminatory behaviours; the education, of course, was the central topic of the marches, bringing to the streets more than 100.000 people for each march.

This, added to the political representation crisis, inasmuch as citizens do not believe in representative institutions and are looking for new choices towards a democratic civil society. The national poll from “Centro de Estudios Publicos” (Public Studies Centre) in august of 2012, states that the 78% of Chileans consider that the economic situation is from mediocre to bad. A 60% do not feel identified with any parties; an 83% of the population consider that democracy is from regular to very bad, and only a 6% of the people trust in parties, whom finally govern.

There is an evident tension between civil society and government that shakes the city comprehension in order to find new manners to produce representative spaces, and refund what is a good city for Chileans today; achieving thus what democratic citizenship wish for their future.

Three spatial transformations in three historic moments

During the republican history of Chile, diverse violent facts triggered relevant social changes. Following these situations, the idea of good city could be discussed and resignified, starting by understand the importance of conflict in order to generate the conditions of good cities. Three historic study cases now will be presented. These had consequently resulted in spatial transformations about the meaning of the civic district of Santiago. The analysis of these facts can help to define the guidelines to design democratic spaces to a XXI century’s Santiago.

1. Massacre of Workers Insurance Building: Civic District of Santiago

In the ends of 1937, saw a dispute arising to define the future president. Gustavo Ross, who also was the Treasury Minister, at that time appeared to have the position of advantage. Far in the polls was Pedro Aguirre Cerda, from the Radical Party, characterized in those years for progressive ideas and with a strong social compromise. In 1937, the Public Works Ministry was preparing the construction of civic district of Santiago, to highlight La Moneda as main government building of Chile. On September 4th of 1938, a students group from the National Socialists Party undertook an occupation of a governmental building close to La Moneda to protest against the government of Alessandri. The government reacted with excessive violence through the police. Once the students were surrendered, the police killed 59 students. With this massacre, the citizenship lost his trust in Alessandri and for extension in Ross, his golden boy. Finally, the president elected was Pedro Aguirre Cerda, and began the radical governments era, and is this new president who inaugurated this new civic district. Paradoxically, the first huge civic act occurred in this renewed area was precisely the funeral of Pedro Aguirre Cerda, who died while he was president. The violence against students not only have changed the political history of Chile, but also it changed the meaning of this plaza because the president Aguirre Cerda was quite close to people, and he was a wise politician. Hence, in the moment when he inaugurates this space people make a connection between the space and the beloved president. On the other hand, the final years of Alessandri government made him more distant to the people, and this project in particular was heavily criticised. Everything changed with the massacre for Alessandri, for Aguirre Cerda and to the civic district too because the meaning of the civic district was further related to the beloved president Pedro Aguirre Cerda, rather than the reticent relationship between citizens and Alessandri, as a consequence, this first civic space of Santiago had popular affection.

The good city should have a strong link with how the government manage his projects and policies. However, a problem could appear if the government decisions are taken from a populist will. This is dangerous because if they only think to be kind with people, and as a consequence they break the balance with the private realm, the government will face new and complex problems[1].

Barrio civico La moneda bombardeada

2. Coup: Bombardment of La Moneda

In 1973, the government of Salvador Allende was facing strong criticism from the opposition, and on September 11th, the military forces commanded by Augusto Pinochet did a coup, in which they moved the army troops towards the government palace to take it. This fact had a climax when two airplanes form Air Force bombard La Moneda, destroying some parts of the building. This act of high violence was symbolic again; the republic that had been developed during the preceding decades was destroyed by a dictatorship that abolished the institutionalism, installing a politic model based on the market (Klein 2008). This destruction represents the way in which the dictatorship worked: Destroy the preexistence and install as fast as possible a new society model based on capitalism. Until today, Chilean society should fight against this model that has shown to generate huge inequities and tension between people. The bombing of the central building of the country is a way to establish a hierarchy, with an army controlling civil society and democracy.

It is worth made the question: Is it possible to create a good city during a dictatorship? To answer this question is fundamental understand that a good city is far of a controlled space, it should be a place for diversity.


plaza de la ciudadania

3. The return to democracy: Citizenship Square

This case is interesting because the design of a space supposedly representative pushed by the government, the citizenship react trying to appropriate this space and strangely the government react repressing their civic expressions.

In the process of democratic transition, during the government of Ricardo Lagos (2012), two significant public works to the citizenship were realized: the first was that La Moneda palace opened the doors again and thus became in a building where Chileans could feel free to pass and use because belonged to all of them. The other work was the Citizenship Square that should be a place where people could make meetings in a civic atmosphere. Nevertheless the problem arose when the political authority and the square’s design itself did not work as citizenship space. On the contrary, any possible demonstration in the square unleashes a troop of police to preserve the security of La Moneda. During Michelle Bachelet government, authorities installed a fence to separate La Moneda from the square, and during the Government of Sebastian Piñera the open doors of La Moneda were closed again. Even though, this case does not have a direct violence to change the spatiality, has a fear to the violence, a fear among compatriots and this fear represented through the fence and closing doors is a mode of violence too because it splits two components of a good city, the civil society and the government. Apparently a good city cannot be developed without participatory processes.

ciudad tomada

Towards a Democratic Santiago

The manifestations that surrounded the palace of La Moneda in the last year generated high impacts. The discontent from citizens over the political realm was showed by polls and public marches in streets, pushing the relationship between civil society and government towards a critical point; “from the coup the dictatorship split the state from the citizenship, removing his trait of social sensibility and empowering the trait of the market, whereby the citizenship began to consort between them and with that began a unique citizenship culture, a participatory and local culture” (Salazar 2011). Nowadays, a citizenship critic of in which the country is addressed, claim for cities able to interpret a new manner to understand the civic, integrating, participating, activating, contesting.

To establish a hypothesis with audacity, the spatial configuration of Santiago should be developed through a citizen consultation in order to reveal what Chileans want from their capital city. This consultation should consider an information campaign in television, radios, newspapers, schools, universities in order to educate citizenship about the manner to transform cities. The aim of this campaign is create a critical civic body to make conscious decisions about their city development. The government should do a public competition where the final decision about the winner of the planning and urban design process will be selected by experts and citizenship in an open vote, which should be free and inclusive.

The relationship between government, citizens and their conflicts can help to produce a new methodology towards a democratic city, reaching to achieve representative spaces, starting with the comprehension of conflicts as a source of urban design guidelines.

It has been reviewd that violence generates changes in the meaning of spaces within cities. Therefore, the social tension in Santiago could be a positive quality if the government find the way to address this opportunity. Maybe the first step to avoid violent social conflicts is stopping reactions based on repression and more violence. Perhaps they can start with listening what people want and then start to change the city, not backwards, in order to install a democratic urban development.


Amin, A. 2006. ‘The Good City’. Urban Studies. Vol 43. No. 5/6: Pp. 1009-1023.

Brand, P., Davila, J. 2011. ‘Mobility innovation at the urban margins’. City: Analysis of urban trends culture, theory, policy, action. Vol 15. No. 6: P. 647.

Cociña, C. (In press). ‘”Cinco escenas y un relato: profundizacion democrática en la ciudad de los consensos”. Revista Materia. Escuela de Arquitectura Universidad San Sebastian: Santiago. (Accepted for publication November 2012).

Harvey, D. 2011. Rebel Cities. 1st Edition. Verso: New York – London.

Klein, N. 2008. The shock doctrine. Penguin Press: London.

Koolhaas, R. 1995. S, M, L & XL. 1st Edition. Monacelli Press: New York.

Lagos, R. 2012. The southern tiger. 1st Edition. Palgrave Macmillan: New York.

Lefebvre, H. 2012. The production of space. 32th Edition. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford.

Mayol, A. 2012. El derrumbe del modelo. 1st Edition. LOM Ediciones: Santiago.

Saalman, H. 1971. Haussmann: Paris transformed. 1st Edition. George Braziller: New York.


Salazar, G. 2011. “La Entrevista de Tomas Moschiatti”. [Online]. Available: [ 4 August 2011].

Swyngedouw, E. 2011. Designing the Post-Political City and Insurgent Polis. 1st Edition. Bedford Press: London.

Tschumi, B. 1982. Architecture & Disjunction. 1st Edition. MIT Press Ltd.: Massachusetts.

[1] NOTE: One of the examples that shown what happen when government breaks the balance between citizenship and private realm occurred during the Salvador Allende presidency, when the entrepreneurs saw how his profits were falling before economic changes driven by the president.  These break of balance finished with the putsch leaded by Pinochet and with the instauration of the neo-liberal model in Chile.


9 thoughts on “The contested space in Santiago: Clash between citizens and government within the civic district

  1. Pingback: The contested space in Santiago: Clash between citizens and government within the civic district | foucauldian rhythm

  2. I liked your review a lot! Congrats for it my friend!

    A comment… In 2012, Lagos was not the President…

    It should be pointed out that Santiago itself is a “living” demonstration of inequality; where the poorest people live as far as possible of republican downtown.

    Cheers! (y q el Alce te acompañe 😉

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