The power relations in the Spitalfields market regeneration: An assessment through urban regime theory

By Rodrigo Caimanque


Images Source: and, modified by the author


The present essay attempts to address the power relations among different actors involved in the regeneration of the historic Spitalfields market in London, towards an approach which allows to understand how different groups exert power and influences the decision-making process. These relations are analyzed through the lens of urban regime theory (Stone, 1989, 1993) as a conceptual basis for the case. The Spitalfields regeneration and its evolution from the former wholesale market of fruits and vegetables to the current vibrant and attractive place of London provides a context in which power relations change over time due to different scenarios shaped by major economics constraints. These changes gave ground for a complete reinterpretation of the place transformation. More inclusive process of decision-making, triggered by new community movements in the 1990s. However, under the urban regime theory, the idea of stable and long-term arrangements among dominant stakeholders, shows that the economic growth agenda continued being the key driver of the place regeneration.

The structure of the essay is divided on 4 parts, starting with a brief explanation of the urban regimes and its main features. Following that, it will be explain the historical process of the Spitalfields Market regeneration, to continue then with the discussion around power relations in the process of decision-making. Finally, it is drafted general conclusions.

Urban regimes

The complexity of the urban process under the post-fordist structuration involves, among other factors, complex and narrow relations of actors beyond the role of the state and its different levels in decision-making, where the private sector and the civil society become influential stakeholders. To understand the relationships among these actors, urban politics provides relevant approaches by establishing theoretical frameworks to understand how are positioned and what are their role within the structure of power. The United States has been the ground for relevant and rich theories, such as the growth machine (Molotch, 1976) and the urban regime (Stone, 1989), trying to provide more specific approaches of power and decision-making in relation to urban development processes (Harding, 1996).

The growth machine theory refers to the elite’s influence that exerts pressures for growth modifying the land use with the objective to obtain profit (Molotch, 1976, 1993). The mains actors in a growth coalition are primarily the elite society and entrepreneurs, who sets the agenda for urban development in a determinate locality. The urban regime for its part, understand the process decision-making through informal arrangements between public institutions and the private sector interests, working together in a collaborative manner “in order to make and carry out governing decision” (p 6). Although both the growth machine and the urban regimes establish the coalition configuration as the key driver of change, the first rely almost exclusively in terms of economic development while urban regime goes beyond that (Harding, 1994, cited in Van Ostaaijen, 2013), becoming more appropriate especially in the analysis and applications of cases outside the US.

Urban regimes are based on arrangements from different actors with mutual interest which build coalitions and establish a common agenda (Ward, 1997). These actors must be able to provide the necessary resources (monetary investment, skills, information, etc) to pursue the agenda (Stone, 1993, 2005). When Stone (1989) depicts the actors involved to the governing coalition in the public-private frame, the private interest are not exclusively limited to business. Other groups may be organizations, foundations or communitarian leaders, providing a useful approach to understand power relationships among diverse and heterogeneous actors (Lipietz, 2008).

Through the urban regime focus and under specific socioeconomic arenas, public policies are defined by the following factors “(1) the composition of a community’s governing coalition, (2) the nature of the relationships among members of the governing coalition, and (3) the resources that the members bring to the governing coalition” (Stone, 1993, p 2).

Urban regimes, according to Harding (1996) establish links with pluralism, as a position to understand and establish who are the actors involved in the governing process. Although Stone (1993) recognized that both pluralism and urban regime are based on coalition-building, and states the importance of politics, there are several differences that help to shape the purpose and scope of urban regime. While pluralism gives special importance to the electoral process and democratic control through votes, urban regime transcend the barriers of a particular government cycles, being the regime’s stability in larger periods of time a key factor to its success. From pluralism, decision process “takes shape in the same plane” (Stone, 2005, p. 311) in a system that is open and penetrable. Urban regimes recognizes the multiple levels of political decisions and question the idea of penetrability, especially considering the existence of class and its stratifications that triggers social and economic inequalities (Stone, 2005).

There is a permanent debate on the applicability of the theory in the United Kingdom (and Europe in general), with various attempts to adapt it to this context (Mossenberg & Stoke, 2001). There are also approaches which establish that is not possible to use those theories for being too related to the U.S. reality (Wood, 2004), where the local level decision-making has more autonomous features, in contrast with the UK system with a strong concentration of power in the central government (While et al, 2004). However, the recognition of differences should not deny the existence of “signs of convergence between the two countries” (Harding, 1995, p 47). Indeed, empirical research such as Dowding et al. (1999), applied the urban regime theory at London Boroughs level, which helps to support the analysis of the Spitalfields regeneration.

Moreover, considering urban regimes analysis has been a concept intensely discussed by several authors over time, with different approaches and application to understand it (Van Ostaaijen, 2013), it is clear there is more ground towards new interpretations for particular cases. In fact,  Stone (2005) establishes, in a more recent review of urban regime, an approach which seems more flexible in terms of, for instance, how coalitions work. Within a coalition,  there are no fixed actors, who are basically determined according to the agenda that wants to be addressed, in a problem-solving perspective[1]. Therefore, from a still open debate, the aim of this essay is suggest the existence of some of the elements that might establish a regime coalition in the Spitalfields experience rather than set the process as a literal expression of the theory.

The Spitalfields regeneration

The ward of Spitalfields is located in the fringe of the City of London, specifically in the east boundary of the city, in the Borough of Tower Hamlets. The area has been appointed as one of the most deprived and poorest in London (Fainstein, 1994) but also has been the settlement of successive waves of immigrants for over 300 years (Jacobs, 1999). Currently is a zone characterized for the presence of Bengali people, especially located around the area of Brick Lane street. Within the ward is located the Spitalfields market, the former wholesale place of fruits and vegetables of the East London. It was one of the oldest market in the city becoming a key area for redevelopment since 1986, starting a long process which finished on 2002, though with important effects for both the place and the city at present.

The changes in the Spitalfields market have echoes in the radical transformation of the Greater London in the last 40 years, changing from an economy based in industrialization to a new one related to services (Hammet, 2003).  Forman (1989) argues that despite the proximity of Spitalfields with the city centre of London, there had always been a social barrier between these areas which begun to change with the rise of the speculative model of cities’ development, changing Spitalfields from a non desirable to a profitable area from both public and private interest. In this context, the political alternation of power at national level increased the speed of changes under the conservative period in the 1980s, wherein the market role began to influences the policy-making, affecting the planning system as well (Fainstein 2001, Hammet, 2003).

First stage of regeneration: A physical development approach

The market-led decisions of this period and the high demand for services provoked a sharp increase in needs for new office buildings. Considering the relaxation of the regulatory role of planning, adding the abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986, the central government had enough power to set a pro-growth agenda over local government decisions (Forman, 1989). The interest to redevelop the Spitalfields market lay in needs for growth beyond the city ‘business district’ boundaries. Both the pressure of elite groups and the pro-growth context settled the scenario in which The Corporation of the City of London, owner of the land, issued a tender document to redevelop the market in 1987 (Fainstein, 2001, p 141). Finally the proposal of the Spitalfields development Group (SDG), a consortium of developers, was selected.

The proposal consisted in the removal of the market and the building of a large-scale offices and retail complex. However, during the process of planning permission, pressures for conservationist groups (Spitalfields Historic Building Trust), expressed their concern about the project impact, though still expecting the improvement of the area, surrounded by the Georgian architecture heritage, through the relocation of the market (Jacobs, 1999). The Bengali community and Labour politicians strongly opposed to the proposal considering the consequences associated to the impact of the local economy and gentrification caused by the new use of the area (Fainstein, 1994). As a response of those pressures the project was redesigned, basically calming down the middle- and upper-class concerns about the place ‘aesthetics’. The SDG plans began, and in 1991, the market was finally relocated (the economist, 2001).

The regeneration of the Spitalfields market came into a dynamic of negotiations in which the local government finally agreed with the SDG proposal, in a deal where SDG besides paying the removal of the market, they added the transfers of 127 properties within the site to housing associations, besides resources spending from contributions for charity and job training compromises (Fainstein, 1994).

At that moment, the decision-making process was mainly driven by private interests associated on one hand by middle-class and upper-class groups who made the initial pressure for relocate the market and the redesign of the proposal. On the other hand, the property developers and the land owners which aims were basically to take advantage of the city centre growth phenomenon, becoming the Spitalfields Market in an attractive land to these purposes. In addition, the context provided by the state policies, supporting market interest leaving the local authorities with fewer chances to influence, except for the planning permissions, increased the interest on the land. The civil society had been less relevant despite their opposition to the redevelopment, where the outcomes did not vary in a wide sense from the planned, apart from some social benefits negotiated.

Second stage of regeneration: a social approach? the role of community engagement

The economic downturn in the early 1990s froze the attempts to allocate office and retail projects in the old market site, even when the planning permission were approved in 1992 by the borough Council. Under that context, two main situations occurred (Fainstein, 2001): firstly, the SDG attempted to sell part of the land and with lack of success, hence it was the City of London Corporation which obtained the land, involving significant monetary losses for the consortium. Secondly, the SDG decided to develop part of the remained land within the market with new ‘interim uses’. After that, the original development plan was modified, triggering different configurations of power relations among the involves actors.

According to Fainstein (2001) the absent of any major development gave way to new small scale enterprises which together with regeneration initiatives as City Challenge, and its continuation, the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) through the program Cityside, start to produce changes in the place, beyond the initial physical approach. This kind of investment, based on the Thatcher’s entrepreneurial model (Shaw et al. 2004) provided flexible funding for specific areas through competition for bids. Those initiatives encouraged negotiations among local government, the private sector and communities in local decision-making, working in physical improvements, diversification and skilled development for labor programmes, fostering small business for local communities and promoting attractive places for visitors.

Once the economy gained momentum again, part of the wholesale market had already changed its use, with the allocations stalls for craftsmanship, sports, and ethnic food, filling the land and consolidating the place as “one of the most thriving indoor spaces in London” (The economist, 2001). With this new scenario, the SDG was forced to rethink its development strategy. Considering the popularity of the new use which provided 1000 local jobs, mainly local residents (Fainstein, 2001), the civil society gains enough power even to reach the courts and provoke in 2000 the SDG decision to withdraw the original planning permission for a renewed submission (The Guardian, 2001a).

Finally, after 14 years the SDG new proposal designed by the architect Norman Foster obtained in 2002 the definitive planning permission (BBC, 2003). However, the outcome was totally different from the original design, and the proposal was related towards more discreet offices, and concerns about public spaces with narrow connections to the current market (The Guardian, 2001b). In the new context with the creation of the Greater London Authority (GLA) which also supported the proposal consistent with its aims to set London in a world context (Evening Standard, 2002), Spitalfields and its relation with Brick Lane were consolidated as one of the most thriving leisure hubs of the city.

This second stage of the power relationships changed to the extent that the civil society organized through local coalitions such as Spitalfields Market Under Threat (The independent, 2002) was able to exert pressure over a process mostly dominated by private interest. It seems clear that the broad economic context and the ‘unexpected’ decisions of the landowner triggered the transformation and consolidation in the use of the market. However the community’s capacity to understand the scenario and take the opportunity to become major players was essential to influence in the decision-making process.


As it was explained the Spitalfields market regeneration lay in two stages, split by the economic downturn. In the early period, the power relations identified between elite groups might be identified as a coalition in terms of its composition and agenda setting, which aims were basically growth development. The actors within the governing coalition brought in the resources needed for the agenda fulfillment. The private sector represented in the SDG provides de investment on the land, whilst the local power was represented by the City of London Corporation as owner of the land and the Tower Hamlets Council which despite its poor influence in the process, contributed with resources associated to planning regulation. Other actor that emerged was indirectly the conservationist groups that exerted pressure for develop the land in a ‘more aesthetic way’ to enjoy its potential profitability.

However, unlike the case of the U.S., the strong influence of the national government which sets the rules for a new market-led scenario, is a key factor in the complexity of the decision-making process in Spitalfields, especially in that period where local governments were ‘by-passed’, in order to deliver fast private-led development in UK. This is an important factor to analyze the case through the lens of urban regime, rather than for instance, the growth machine. The growth machine is strongly linked to elite’s pressures at the local level, meanwhile in the Spitalfields case the central government influence must be included to understand the informal arrangements related to the regeneration of the area. Harding (1996) argues that the urban regime it is more flexible and adaptable than growth machine theory to different cross-national contexts, hence the power relationships of Spitalfields under a regime coalition could be fixed in a more accurate manner.

Stone (1993) defines four typologies of regimes: (1) Maintenance Regimes, (2) Development Regimes. (3), Middle class progressive regimes and (4) Regimes devoted to lower class opportunity expansion. Among them,  it could be argue that ‘Development regimes’ has mayor similarities with the case in the first period. This typology is understood as a voluntary process of coalition-building “concerned primarily with changing land use in order to promote growth or counter decline” (p 19), mainly driven by elites isolated from popular control, fostering the change of social and economic patterns within the place.

The second stage, after the economic downturn included a new influential actor, the civil society who despite being fighting to protect the market place in the entire process, the effective influence started to appear in this period. With the renovated market use, sustained in parallel with processes of regeneration based in both physical and social outcomes through state promoted partnerships (City Challenge and the Single Regeneration Budget), the area reached unpredicted strength forcing the private interest to consider seriously the communities’ claims. At this stage,  the coalition tended to change its actors configurations, where positions of empowered organized residents and the consolidation of local commercial stalls alongside with the process of ethnic regeneration in Brick Lane provided a new resource for the coalition: the diversity through the local development of the area.

Aligned with, Ward (1997) provides a pertinent analysis of the link between the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) and the presence of a regime. It is argued the existence of factors that conform a coalition area framed by institutional selective incentives (resources through competition), encouraging actors to be related among them to engage in the decision-making process. The case of Spitalfields reflects how the coalition established a new and ‘feasible’ agenda, another regime feature, under the rules of the state financing programmes. Thus, it seems that the agenda setting through SRB “is feeding into existing arrangement” (Ward, 1997, p 1503) predetermined by the long-term economic growth focus.

From the typologies of regimes, it seems that the ‘development regime continued at that stage, though might be possible to identify partially some features of a ‘middle class progressive regime’, in terms of major involvement of the community (some groups), and also major level of accountability, adding the development regime “the organizational capacity to inform, mobilize, and involve the citizenry” (Stone, 1993, p 20). Nevertheless, from the case of Spitalfields, remain questions about the degree of effective involvement of communities in the coalition, are they effectively included in the governing coalition? Or rather are temporal actors which emerge to face actions against them, for instance from the risk of displacement?


The power relations around the Spitalfields market regeneration provides proximities with the idea of coalition building of urban regimes, through its public-private formal and informal arrangements for growth. The case of Spitalfields showed that although some relevant changes in the configuration of the coalitions, mainly produced by circumstantial economic constraints, the main agenda remained stable across different alternations of power in the government, both local and national level. However, coalitions are developed essentially at the local level, and once the agenda is defined, are flexible in relation with the interested parts as well as the nature of their relations. Hence it might be possible, despite strong national framework influences as in the case of UK, move towards more democratic and participatory arrangements locally.

Urban regimes comes from the base of political economy (Stone, 2005) and according to Fainstein (2001) regime theory is situated as a synthesis of the structuralist and liberal pluralistic understanding of power. Hence, being recognized the control of capital as the key expression of power, it also recognized “the logic (of capitalism) is itself fabricated through human activity, including resistance by other groups to capitalist aims” (Fainstein, 2001, p16)

Resources are relevant to exert power and to have effective representativeness in the coalition, but also reflects an expression of the inequalities in the society. The second stage of the Spitalfields regeneration showed how the part of the community could obtain tools and gain levels of power throughout the process, being at least from a position of resistance, part of the decision-making. This experience provided some evidence about the relevance of community engagement as a manner to move towards more just developments. However, profound political changes and new institutional arrangements, including those related to planning are still needed for build effectively representative coalitions and democratic spaces of decisions.

[1] Problem-solving does not means that urban regime agendas are focused only in short-terms goals. Stone (2005) clarifies from his book in Atlanta’s regime, that what he calls as selective material incentives in the city redevelopment, responds and depends on long-terms objective and agenda setting.


BBC (2003), ‘Spitalfields bows to market pressure’ Available from [accessed 07 January 2011].

Dowding K., Dunleavy P., King D., Margetts H. & Rydin Y.(1999) ‘Regime Politics in London Local Government’, Urban Affairs Review, Vol. 34, No. 4, 515-545.

Evening Standard (2002), ‘Last chance for Spitalfields’ Available from [accessed 07 January 2011].

Fainstein S (1994) ‘Government programs for commercial redevelopment in poor neighborhoods: the cases of Spitalfields in East London and downtown Brooklyn, NY1’, Environment and Planning A, Vol. 26, 215-234.

Fainstein S. (2001), The City Builders: property Development in New York and London, 1980-2000 (second edition), Kansas: University Press.

Forman C. (1989), Spitalfields, a battle for land, London: Hillary Shipman.

Hammet C. (2003), Unequal City: London in the Global arena, London: Routledge.

Harding, A. (1995) ‘Elite Theory and Growth Machines’ from Judge D., Stoker G. & Wolman H.  Theories of Urban Politics, London: Sage, pp. 35-53.

Harding A. (1996) ‘Is There a ‘New Community power’ and Why Should We Need One?’, International Journal of urban and regional Research, Vol. 20, No. 4, 637-655.

Jacobs J.M. (1999) ‘Cultures of the past and urban transformations: the Spitalfields Market redevelopment in East London’ from Anderson K. & Gale F. Cultural Geographies, Australia: Longman, pp 241-261

Lipietz, B. (2008), ‘‘Building an “African World-class” City’: The Politics of World City Making in Johannesburg, South Africa’, PhD Thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London.

Molotch H. (1976) ‘The City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place’, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 82, No. 2 , 309-332

Molotch H. (1993) ‘The Political Economies of Growth Machines’, Journal of Urban Affairs, Vol. 15, No. 1, 29-53

Mossenberg K. & Stoker G. (2001) ‘The Evolution of Urban Regime Theory: The Challenge of Conceptualization’, Urban Affairs Review, Vol. 36, No. 6, 810-835.

Stone C. (1989), Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-1988, Kansas: University Press.

Stone C. (1993) ‘Urban Regimes and the Capacity to Govern:  A Political Economy Approach’, Journal of Urban Affairs, Vol. 15, No. 1, 1-28

Stone C. (2005) Looking Back to Look Forward: Reflections on Urban Regime Analysis´, Urban Affairs Review, Vol. 40, No. 3, 309-341.

The economist (2001), ‘Market forces: Two versions of market economics are at war over the redevelopment of Spitalfields’, Available from [accessed 07 January 2011].

The Guardian (2001a), ‘City comes against market forces: The fight to save London’s Spitalfields market from City developers’, Available from [accessed 07 January 2011].

The Guardian (2001b), ‘Office politics’ Available from [accessed 07 January 2011].

The Independent (2002), ‘Office block to replace section of historic Spitalfields market’ Available from [accessed 07 January 2011].

Van Ostaaijen, J. (2013), ‘From Urban Regime Theory to Regime Analysis, Using Regime Analysis for Local and Regional Research’, Paper presented at the EURA conference in Enschede, the Netherlands, Available from [accessed 16 December 2013].

Ward K. G. (1997), ‘Coalitions in urban regeneration: a regime approach’, Environment and Planning A , Vol. 29, 1493-1506

Wood A. (2004) ‘Domesticating Urban Theory? US Concepts, British Cities and the Limits of Cross-national Applications’, Urban Studies, Vol. 41, No. 11, 2103–2118.

Mapped: Every Protest on the Planet Since 1979 – By J. Dana Stuster | Foreign Policy

Mapped: Every Protest on the Planet Since 1979 – By J. Dana Stuster | Foreign Policy.

“Mapped: Every Protest on the Planet Since 1979

From Cairo to Wall Street to the West Bank, plotting a world of upheaval.


This is what data from a world in turmoil looks like. The Global Database of Events, Language, and Tone (GDELT) tracks news reports and codes them for 58 fields, from where an incident took place to what sort of event it was (these maps look at protests, violence, and changes in military and police posture) to ethnic and religious affiliations, among other categories. The dataset has recorded nearly 250 million events since 1979, according to its website, and is updated daily.

John Beieler, a doctoral candidate at Penn State, has adapted these data into striking maps, like the one above of every protest recorded in GDELT.”

Philosophy of the Possible or Utopianism in the 21st Century Urbanism

By Anna Koledova

‘If I could wish for something, I would wish for neither wealth nor power, but the passion of possibility; I would wish only for an eye which eternally young, eternally burns with longing to see possibility’.

(Søren Kierkegaard, 1849)


Historically, the search for a model of a good city has been a quest, equivalent to the search of a precious object or knowledge of a venerated narrative (Hall, 2002). Due to a significant contextual influence of actual difficulties of the city, those of economics, sociology and politics, it is problematic to assume that such models existed unaltered through time and space. Yet, paradoxically, as Amin states (2006, p. 1010) the history of practical efforts to enhance the experience of city’s inhabitants ‘has also been influenced by universalistic imaginaries of the good life, with cities placed at the very heart of the various projections on offer’.

It is important to remember that a good city debate is by all means a debate about utopia or ‘no place’, which in turn always implies an ideological dimension of looking at and of portraying the city form. Thus, city planners such as Howard, Haussmann, Le Corbusier, were pushing radicalism in addressing the evils of Victorian cities. Utopian vision of modernist planners, often underpinned by shire environmental determinism and associated with the belief that society was not riven by contradictions, argued that a good, clean city could make a better society  (Fishman, 1982, Beauregard, 1996, Hall, 2002). Such urban imaginations, however, proved to be problematic when realising ideas into brick and mortar. London, Paris, Barcelona, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia have all undergone significant urban interventions and transformations, which left cities as symbolic, highly expressive of power and status places, yet depressingly incapable to serve all wider social purposes (Hall, 2002).

Today, it can be argued, planning practitioners conceive their duty more modestly. Fainstain (1997) believes that the concept of visionary leaders imposing their perspectives on the urban populace is in disrepute, whereas the notion of an identifiable model of a good city meets skepticism. Hence, the aim of creating a good city over the last decades ‘has been content with theorising itself unencumbered by the economic and political realities of the global capitalist system and has been self-referential within a singularly contained mainstream ideology’ (Banerjee and Sideris, 2011, 57). Along this line, Amin (2006) suggests that utopia has lost its gist, appeal and organising force, as meanings of the good city shift to immediate, temporary, private and hedonistic projects.

There has been an extensive academic debate on the topic of utopian thought and its role in the creation of modern day urban landscapes. The 20th century in particular saw many negative depictions of the good city, including Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. On the contrary, academics like D.Harvey, H. Lefebvre, J. Jacobs, L. Sandercock, D. Pinder and others believe, although there can be no one good or neutral city like those imagined in the past and driven by totalitarian practices, ideals of processes and objectives can determine fair and flexible practice in generating urban change. Drawing on the example of London and two of its urban narratives, this essay discusses whether utopia as a process in contrast to utopia as standardized urbanism can be seen as a germane approach to raising questions about cities and their development.

Got an idea? Got IKEA.

Urban development of London and its East End has been under considerations of politicians, academics and city’s populace over the last few years. Olympic Games of 2012 have definitely assisted in pulling the trigger in the process of this urban change, especially for the Stratford area. Millions of pounds have been invested into several large-scale interventions dedicated to expansion and renewal of local transport infrastructure, public realm, housing stock etc. The case of Strand East or IKEA city, urban planning project launched by Swedish home-furniture giants, is of the particular interest to this paper.

The idea of the project, said the head of the LandProp (a real estate subsidiary of the Inter Ikea Group) is to bring a very Scandinavian model of urban design and ‘managed living’ to turn the ‘post-industrial wasteland surrounded by goods-shipping canals and highway ramps’ into a flourishing neighbourhood titled Strand East (the, 2012). This IKEA city will boast ‘480,000 square feet of office space, yoga studios, a crèche, a Marriott hotel and shops’ all these on the 26 acres of land acquired by Landprop in 2009 (independent,, 2012). By the plan, 1,200 residential units are very much family size as well as price orientated, cars will be kept off interior streets in the underground parking garage, leaving only bus lanes and accessible pedestrian walkways cutting across neighbourhood, which will also enjoy numerous squares and public spaces. ‘The whole thing is designed to create the sense of felicity and discovery you get when wandering around a historic European neighbourhood’ (, 2012).

anna 1

(, 2012)

anna 2


Although, it seems like a better urban design than most of the centrally planned neighbourhoods that have infected British cities for the last 60 years, the IKEA city does pose some questions as a modern-day urban planning project. Firstly, the IKEA Empire encompasses more than 300 furniture stores in 27 different countries. Swedish brand’s furniture designs are known and appreciated by various consumer groups mainly for three outstanding features: pleasant appearance, simple to assemble and bargain price. When interviewed, developers of the IKEA city repeatedly state:

‘this place will not be an Ikea. There will not be Poäng armchairs adorning the living rooms and Billy bookcases covering the walls. The houses will not require Allen keys to assemble. Meatballs in lingonberry sauce will not be served at the restaurants’.

Nevertheless, all those wanna be’s Strand East’s residents will be offered three possible types of interior design for their new apartment along with vouchers for IKEA stores. In this respect, it can be argued, although IKEA might dominate the way people furnish their homes, it can be problematic when the brand comes to design the whole district. While interior design is private-urban design should remain a strong public component that claims to have an unalienated collective right to make the city (Harvey 2000, 2012; Jacobs 1989; Sorkin 1991; Soja 2000). Also, the concept of a ‘sense of place’ as characteristic of a good city often emerges from an experiential appreciation of the uniqueness and distinctive feeling of a particular place, one connected to history, culture and locality (Hall, 2002) something that even the best creative minds behind IKEA city project can hardly provide.

Secondly, the IKEA city is not only a private urban development project but also an all-rental private neighbourhood, which is run and overseen by a company that will supposedly impose an artificial order of selecting those who gets to become a resident as well as limit and control the rights of the community to adapt the neighbourhood according to their needs. This brings us back to the critic of the utopian urbanism that in Pinder’s (2000) opinion, while opens up possibility of improvement in what is known, simultaneously attacks the dynamic of change to a single outcome. At a larger scale according to Amin (2006), today, place urbanization is labeled with homogenization, referring to ‘the imprint of globalization that duplicates urban experiences in different places.

Thus, while utopic representation remains within dominant values and ideologies it still fails to offer a mode of critique, ‘it takes status of myth or collective fantasy’  (Marin, 1990) and creates a plausible environment for conjoining of technologic creativity, commodity culture and endless capital accumulation (Harvey, 2000). It can be suggested that the IKEA city project, which is by all means a nowadays utopian urbanism might on the first sight constitute a model of a good city. However, it still lacks a vision of urban and social future of East London as those who will practically fill it with meaning can imagine it; it counteracts the cynicism of urban form and attend purely utilitarian or materialistic regime (Liscombe, 2006). Harvey (2000, p.406) describes it as ‘politics of contempt and neglect’ that is moving nowadays planning.

Warehouse Culture. Hackney Wick, Fish Island case.

To the West of the Olympics’ Site is located the area of Hackney Wick, Fish Island. In the beginning of the 20th century HWFI was a hub for diverse industrial activity including food processing, importing and processing of raw materials and engineering works. During the war, part of HWFI suffered severe bomb damage, which led to extensive residential housing clearance and further development as predominantly industrial zone (, 2012). The latter, defines much of HWFI character today with a mix of industrial buildings, ‘ranging from two and three-storey brick warehouses and factories dating from the 19th century, to more recent post-war buildings of up to 6-9 storeys, including factories, mix-use buildings, storage and distribution units’ (FIAAP, Tower Hamlets, 2012). Currently, residential population is very small (approximately 800 people) party due to the industrial character but also because planning policies have restricted residential development except a limited number of live/work blocks. The existing residents are relatively young with 40% aged between 25-49. (FIAAP, Tower Hamlets,2012).

What about HWFI that is of the essence for this particular paper is the radically different mode of development that has brought about seemingly successful urban change in this area. Although, lacking planning in its conventional manifestation and led by a pioneer community of young creative practitioners, local urban living in simple terms is based on ‘recycling’ of already existing structures no longer suitable for modern requirements. Individuals are taking advantage and re-using fragments of former factories and industrial warehouses as living-working spaces designing them exclusively up to their taste, needs and lifestyles. Research undertaken by the London Development Agency (LDA) identified over 600 live/work studios and small businesses across Hackney Wick and Fish Island area; occupiers include designers, media practitioners, artists, galleries and a variety of supporting businesses from printers to financial consultants (FIAAP, Tower Hamlets, 2012). Also, a number of buildings are transformed into multifunctional cultural platforms accommodating church services, community festivals, licensed music events and theatre performances what invites people from the neighbouring areas and from other parts of London into HWFI.

anna 3

(, 2011)

anna 4

(, 2011)

A few years of existence and bottom up growth have gained HWFI district a substantial level of attention within official planning institutions and received practical support from economically powerful development agencies. Thus, in 2010, Thames Gateway Development Corporation (LTGDC) has published a report identifying that although HWFI is showing a high potential to become a successful creative hub in this far off part of East London its growth is presented as dependent on a set of basic and then more advanced ‘hygiene factors’ ranging from intermediate public realm (connectivity and porosity of the area) to improvements to on going affordability and security of tenure for creative businesses (LTGDC, 2010).

A model of HWFI’s creative neighbourhood was not so much as a goal of urban development (initially at least) has been generated by pluralistic imaginations and practices of its residents. Academics such as Jane Jacobs 1989, Michael Sorkin 1991, Edward Soja 2000 and Leonie Sandercock 2003, supported such alternative interpretation of a Good City, one that can grow out of local climate, custom and culture, one that is discovered instead of imposed condition of civic life. The ability to envision a transformative potential of the physical landscape of HWFI and its future has interrogated the status quo of modern-day urban living and efforts of town planning. The greatest lesson one needs to learn from utopian thought in creating cities of the 21st century, as suggested by a number of academics and this particular paper is the on-going questioning of our assumptions about urban futures.

Philosophy of the possible.

Calvino (1979, cited in Pinder 2002, 232) urged, ’cities like dreams are made of desires and fears’. In fact, the discourse of how the cities are imaged and how these imaginations come about in reality is crucial for understanding how cities are thought, conceived and lived. Hence, what is happening in modern day urbanism according to Harvey (2000), is that much of the creative urban thinking concentrates on how to escape from urban ills and from the so-called conditions of ‘otherness’ in order to protect those with money, whilst the capacity to imagine and conceptualise social transformation and different urban futures is itself thrown in doubt. Jane Jacobs, also castigated planners for attempt to impose an artificial order, as if ‘a city is a recalcitrant child who must be forced to obey those who think they know better’ (cited in Alexious, 2006, 5).

In course of this paper we have looked at the urban narratives of IKEA city and HWFI creative district in dialog. It is clear that both of narratives have a particular utopian dimension to them, although epicentres of analysis vary. Ikea city project offers us a model of a good neighbourhood as it is portrayed and in this case literally pre fabricated by a private development agency. Despite the intentions of developers to include considerations of the significance of history of the area, its local identity, environmental concerns and issues of affordability in the master planning it is done in a fixed way like there is one defined solution to a problem. It can be argued, that IKEA city just as almost any other example of modern urbanism takes form of an utopian degeneration, a project that does not radiate a transformative move but takes the status of a myth, of a collective fantasy (Pinder, 2000). Such projects of spectacular architectural entertainment and fantasy spaces that are ordered secured and controlled, as Harvey (2000, 168) points to in his sharp criticism are substances of ‘developers utopia’.

Therefore, in the times when urban experiences and representations have been colonised by private concerns – progressive utopia, one that has more to do with becoming rather than with achieving and being, is scarcely in demand (Scherpe, 1992). Utopia in this case should be understood as a social project concerned with living together and celebrating difference in the urban landscape, where the agency of the possibility to portray city in a desired way is distributed in a more equal manner among various stockholders inhabiting this city. To put it simple, planning practices should consider modes of social interchange that recognise difference and resist suppression by one other group (Jane Jacob, 1989; Sandercock, 2003; Liscombe, 2004). For Healey (2003, 110) planners should evaluate planning practices according to normative concepts of the just city. Although, it is argued, concepts of the ‘good’ and the ‘just’ are themselves constructed in a dialog of knowledge and power, the processes of articulating values and the manner in which these might become embedded in established discourses and practices of urbanism are important. In addition, process should not be understood merely as an ultimate outcome, but equally have process results.

The case of HWFI’s creative district discussed earlier serves an example of a collective action in attempt of transforming a derelict area into a new functional space through preservation of its existing physical landscape. The interplay of industrial past and the continuation of a creative productionist character of the area today reproduces its historical narrative and by doing so preserves local identity so much important for the sustainability of an urban landscape. Along this lines, when thinking about architecture, urbanization and utopia Yona Friedman (2007,203) stated that city’s architecture is a continues process with no terminal phase where details are of a special importance for the daily life. However one cannot always plan details and that for every domain. ‘We plan too much. Reality is in state of equilibrium.’ In this way, he believes that architecture should not be rooted, as we are incapable of predicting how it is going to be used, its evolution.

The vision of possibility of the industrial ruins points to the anticipatory moment in thinking about conventional urban living of its inhabitants. Such an alternative way of envisioning a model for a good city has trigged a reaction within conventional development agencies; it has attracted their minds in a way what could be done further to help HWFI to thrive into a creative hub of East London. As suggested by Sandercock (2003), working towards more creative and sustaining cities, we need some new models of planning system, which expands the language of planning beyond instrumental rationality and the system world; one that speaks about negotiating, hope, organizing fear, mediating memory and daring to break rules as well as developing the habits of critical and analytical mind.

There is a certain danger in longing for one model of a good city because it will be constrained by the frames of a moment in time and its context. Nevertheless, conceptualizing utopianism as transformative in its intentions one which accepts the contestation and anticipation in the production of space as in need of acknowledgement rather than something to be hidden plays a significant role in the questions about cities and what they might become (Sandercock, 1998, Pinder, 2002).



A Commentary by Mark Purcell: Seeking Democracy

A Commentary by Mark Purcell: Seeking Democracy

We share some reflections about the recent events in Turkey and how this processes could be interpreted from a democratic analysis. The highlighted scholar Mark Purcell is the author of this post in the blog:

Mark Purcell is a professor in the Department of Urban Design & Planning at the University of Washington where he studies urban politics, political theory, social movements, and democracy.  He is the author of Recapturing Democracy (2008) and the recently published The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy (2013). Here he presents how his work on democracy connects to the events in Turkey and elsewhere. We plan other commentaries in the coming days on these recent events, following from our Virtual Theme Issue on Turkey last week. –Eds.

Seeking Democracy

I think and write a lot about democracy, but I find relating this work to contemporary events like the those in Turkey to be a real challenge.  I do not want to colonize the events by interpreting them as nothing more than confirmation of theoretical arguments I have made previously.  But I also want to say that it is possible to see in those events—at times, and here and there—a strong resonance with democracy as I understand it.  To do that, I begin by affirming that there are multiple desires, agendas, forces, and people involved in shaping the events in Turkey.  These desires interrelate in complex ways, and so it is not possible to characterize these events generally, to reduce them to one guiding logic, like religion or ethnicity or environmentalism or authoritarianism.  As a result I will not make statements like “everyone thinks the protests are about X, but really they are about Y.”  That’s imperious.  Such events are unavoidably about X and Y, they are always the result of a tangled mass of desires and actors.  This is true in Turkey just as it was true in Egypt and Tunisia and Spain and Greece and Occupy and so on.  So I will not offer any comprehensive statements that try to characterize the political soul of the events.  I think the only thing I can do honestly is to pick out some political desires that I think are at work in Turkey, desires that are of particular interest to me because they resonate with a larger project that I believe in: to nurture and spread a political vision and practice of democracy.  And so I write not so much to enlighten you about what’s going on in Turkey, but to present a vision of politics that I hope you’ll find compelling, maybe even to the point you’ll join me in spreading the word.


Democracy means that people manage their affairs for themselves.  Its etymology bears this out: people (dêmos) retain for themselves their own power (kratos) to create new things in the world.  The dêmos acts together to make decisions for themselves.  In democracy, people do not yield their power to an entity outside themselves.  This means that members of a political community do not yield political control to a party or to a State.  It means that participants in an economy do not yield control over money to banks, or control over production to those who own the means of that production.  It means workers do not yield control over their struggle to unions.  What yielding control in this way does is to produce oligarchy, a community in which a few rule the many.  All States are oligarchies, whether they be liberal-democratic, autocratic, or otherwise, because they set aside a few State officials to rule the rest.

But the objection comes rapidly: surely we don’t want a life in which everyone together makes every decision for themselves.  It would be overwhelming, inefficient, exhausting.  This objection is not wrong.  And so we must think of democracy not as an end state that we hope to reach one day.  It is not a stable polity at the end of history.  It is, rather, a horizon.  It is not a community called “democracy” but a process of becoming democratic.  We should think of democracy as a perpetual struggle to increasingly retain for ourselves the power and responsibility of making decisions.  This is just what Lefebvre is saying when he writes that “democracy is nothing other than the struggle for democracy”(2009, p. 61).

So, a perpetual struggle to become democratic.  Such a struggle necessarily implies also a process of popular activation, of people becoming awake and alive and engaged in the world.  Again, we should not imagine here an end-state in which everyone is fully activated.  It is rather a struggle we could call becoming active, a struggle to progressively take onto our own shoulders the work of governing our affairs ourselves.  Taking the perspective of becoming active helps obviate one of the classic objections to democracy, one that goes all the way back to Plato, which is that people are incompetent, they are not capable of managing their affairs for themselves.  Becoming active suggests that people are neither fundamentally capable nor incapable of democracy.  Rather it is a question of their practicing democracy, a question of whether or not they have had the opportunity to gain the experience and skills necessary to govern themselves.  In this way, democracy is a matter also of growing up, a matter of becoming adult, of acquiring, through extensive practice, the competence and confidence that comes with managing oneself.

Of course democracy is never a solitary enterprise.  When people become democratic, active, and adult, they must always do so in common, in a community with others.  And so it is critical to understand what a properly democratic community is like.  Clearly that question is too enormous to fully address here, but let me just say briefly that I conceptualize democratic community, with Deleuze and Guattari (1987), as a rhizomatic network.  That is, democratic communities bring together a multitude of individuals who connect horizontally with multiple peers.  They do not rely on a few vital connections to hierarchical superiors (as in an arboreal system), rather they they establish many inessential, superficial connections with equals.  Each connection is inessential and impermanent.  Flexibility and adaptability are the key to thriving, and so effective members of such networks tend to be promiscuous in their connections.  For Deleuze and Guattari, a rhizomaticnetwork is also acentered or distributed, which means each peer has roughly the same number of connections as all the others.  No one part of the network occupies a more central position than any other.  Or rather, such centers of coordination do emerge, but they should not be permanent.  When centrality emerges and operates for a time, it should always fall back into the distributed rhizomatic network.

One last thing: we can think this vision of democracy spatially through Lefebvre’s work.  In The Urban Revolution (2003) he argues that the struggle to manage our own affairs for ourselves, what he calls the struggle for autogestion, must necessarily involve struggle by urban inhabitants to manage the production of urban space.  The city we inhabit today, the neoliberal city, is a classic oligarchy in which an elite few state experts and corporate managers manage urban space for everyone else.  Democracy, for Lefebvre, necessarily involves a struggle by the inhabitants and users of space to move beyond this urban oligarchy, beyond the city of capitalism and the State, and toward an urban democracy in which inhabitants produce and manage urban space for themselves.


So it is perhaps not hard to see how events in Turkey can be seen to resonate with this vision.  Clearly the State and business interests have been pursuing a sweeping agenda of urban transformation in Turkey that involves both commercial and infrastructure development.  The initial resistance to the redevelopment of Gezi Park was clearly inspired by a concern for physical and ecological outcomes like the loss of trees and open space.  But we can also see in those actions a desire to no longer be excluded, a desire among inhabitants to participate in decisions that produce urban space.  The attempt to site yet another shopping mall in place of one of the few remaining open and green spaces in the city made it apparent to many that those who live in and use the space of the city are not calling the shots.  And it showed that those who are calling the shots have a different interest in the city than inhabitants do.  So part of what we might choose to see in the struggle forGezi Park, it seems to me, is a desire among inhabitants to no longer have Istanbul produced for them, but to produce it themselves.  And the Erdogan government’s unapologetically autocratic style helps here to awaken and energize this desire.

We can see something similar, I think, in the much-reported act of protesters cleaning the streets once they have been able to successfully seize and hold a space.  Some have read this act as an attempt by protesters to show that they are not hooligans (as Erdogan claims), as an attempt to make clear that they are mature liberal-democratic citizens—responsible adults rather than misbehaving children.  Certainly this is part of what is going on: it is a way for people to communicate to the oligarchs that the people are capable and should be trusted with making decisions.[1]  At the same time though, we could read this act as an expression of people’s desire to begin the project of actually managing urban space for themselves. We might see it as people experimenting with autogestion, trying it out, seeing what its freedom and responsibility feels like, and testing themselves to see if they are up to the task.  We might see it as not only the desire to demonstrate to the Statethat we are capable, but also a desire to show ourselves that we can do it.  And as we do it, as we engage in acts of self-management like cleaning the streets, or distributing food, or arranging for medical care, all of which has been going on inTaksim Square—and went on also in Tunis, Cairo, Madrid, Athens, New York, etc.—we begin to realize that we are in fact capable, that what we perhaps thought was impossible is perfectly possible.

Along these lines we should also remember the popular assemblies in Tahrir, Puerta del Sol, Syntagma, Zuccotti, and elsewhere that were a more explicit declaration by people that they wanted to manage their affairs for themselves.  As the first declaration[2] issued by the People’s Assembly of Syntagma Square in Athens put it:

For a long time decisions have been made for us, without consulting us.  We…have come to Syntagma Square…because we know that the solutions to our problems can only be provided by us.  We call all residents of Athens…and all of society to fill the public squares and to take their lives into their own hands.  In these public squares we will shape our claims and our demands together.

While similar assemblies may or may not become common in Turkey, there is very clearly much of the same dissatisfaction with government there, and in this case it is particularly focused on the figure of Erdogan.  Much of this dissatisfaction flows from his penchant for autocratic majoritarianism, and so for those who oppose him there is certainly something like a classically Lockean desire for a better governmental structure to contain that majoritarianism, to make sure his electoral success does not augment his prerogative to the point of tyranny.  This is of course the interpreation that the Western press relishes.  And that Lockeanism no doubt exists.  But again, we might also choose to see, in the mass of desires being articulated and enacted bodily in the streets of Turkish cities, a more basic desire among some participants to do things for themselves.  A desire to cease relying on a father figure, on an expert, on an elected government; a desire to rely on themselves instead.  A desire to take up the freedom and responsibility—and joy—of democracy.

One last point bears mentioning.  Many have emphasized that the actions in Turkey have taken place mostly without union or party leadership, that large and diverse groups have been able to act, often effectively, without organized leaders. Much is made, for example, of the crowd in Gezi Park singing to drown out a speech by the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) (e.g. Cassano, 2013).  For its part, the government claims the opposite, that the CHP is entirely behind the protests.  Still others emphasize instead that the current explosion is the pay-off for years of patient and committed organizing by environmental, community, and labor activists.  Here again, rather than argue over what is reallygoing on, we can choose instead simply to pay attention to the fact that some people have created rhizomatic networks, at least to some degree.  We can notice that there have been experiments, both intentional and not, with horizontal structures. We can observe that established unions and parties were once again not the driving force of the actions.[3]  We need to carefully examine what these experiments with rhizomatic community produced, what they felt like, what successes and failures they had, and what lessons they learned.


Again, I am not saying that the desires I have been drawing attention to in this article are more fundamental than other desires to understanding the events in Turkey.  They may even be less important, more marginal, even unconscious.  I am only claiming that the desires I have articulated are at work in Turkey.  Some inhabitants do desire to manage urban space themselves and to connect with others in rhizomatic networks.  Of course at the same time they also desire other things—secularism, liberal democracy, nationalism, political Islam, justice for ethnic minorities, respect for the LGBT community, etc.  They may or may not desire those other things more than they desire democracy.[4]  And so my claim is only that the desire for democracy—real democracy—exists in the bodies and minds of people on the streets today in Turkey.  I think that claim immediately proposes a certain political praxis: when we encounter something like the current situation in Turkey, we should be intentional about seeking the desire for democracy.  We should learn to recognize it when we see it, pay careful attention to its texture, narrate it critically and yet supportively, augment its flow by connecting it with other such desires, allow it to flourish according to its own will, and help it proliferate everywhere.  We find ourselves in an era when democratic desire seems to be sprouting, and exploding, in city after city, all over the world.  We have no need for a vanguard to activate the people, no need to invent or bring to life the desire for democracy.  It already exists; it is already everywhere.  It is already growing according to its own inner drives.  Our role, I think, the role of everyone, is to look for it, to know it when we see it, to sing it, and to help it grow on its own terms.

Works Cited

Cassano, J. (2013) The Right to the City Movement and the Turkish Summer.  Jadaliyya, June 1.

Deleuze and Guattari (1987 [1980]) A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. B. Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lefebvre, H. (2003 [1970]) The Urban Revolution. Trans. R. Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lefebvre, H. (2009) State, Space, World: Selected Essays. Edited by N. Brenner and S. Elden. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[1]    This was true in Tahrir Square as well: Mubarak never tired of claiming that Egyptians would descend into chaos without his firm hand, and protesters’ caring for the square was a way to show Mubarak that he had underestimated them.

[3]    Unions were similarly late to the party in Spain, Greece, and the Occupy movement.

[4]    And of course those other desires can also, at times, interweave with or reinforce the desire for democracy.


Governmental role in reconstruction: A Comparison of post-earthquake in 1985 and 2010 in Chile

by Francisco Vergara


The context is a study of government actions in response to catastrophic earthquakes, particularly referring to reconstruction plans. The approach is based on a comparison between two seismic events in Chile: the first was on March 3rd,1985 during the dictatorship of the General Augusto Pinochet, and the second was on February 27th, 2010 during the last week of Michelle Bachelet’s government at the beginning of Sebastián Piñera’s administration. The aim is the role of the government as a manager of the postdisaster recovery process, focusing on the reconstruction strategies and policies adopted, primarily during the first year after the catastrophe, and interpret which are the political implications of these plans.

This essay tries to clarify if Chilean government has a policy for post disaster, or if the reaction is just in the hands of the current administration, which deals with the catastrophe in their own way. Furthermore, the study of these two cases, which occurred 25 years apart under two different governments with similar political goals, allows for critical analysis about the readiness of the state in order to respond effectively in case of an earthquake.

Chile is the most seismic country in the world (ECLAC, 2010) due mainly to its location along the “ring of fire” in the Pacific Ocean, an area of intense volcanic and earthquake activity. Every day of the year there is a seism topping 4.0 on the Richter scale in some place within Chile. The country is located on the boundary of the Nazca and South American tectonic plates. Consequently, there have been 13 earthquakes since 1971 with magnitude greater than 7.0 on the Richter scale, which qualifies as mega-seismic events. This phenomenon allows for interesting research to be conducted of the actions that the Chilean government has implemented in order to deal with this seismic condition.

It is interesting to examine how a neoliberal country in the global south faces these events. Since 1983, Chile uses the market to deal with the necessities of people, including social housing and essential infrastructure (MAYOL, A., 2012). The state shifted from being a developer of public buildings and social housing, to being a facilitator of projects to the private sector, detaching from its responsibilities a guarantee of quality. This change leads to an interesting analysis of the government role in dealing with catastrophic events. The predominance of the market as a producer of built environment was tested with these earthquakes. The capacity to respond and particularly the role of the government in the management of the private sector responsibility before a national crisis like a mega seismic event is of importance and critical to postdisaster policies.

This paper looks at this role through the scope of the two disasters and then reflects on how the Chilean government should deal with earthquakes in the future, in the view of preparation of fast and efficient response to catastrophes. This paper is not looking to analyse the specificity of each decision from each administration after the earthquakes, or criticise the technicality of the plans; the idea is a critical perspective about the attitude assumed and strategic actions developed by each government with similar contexts.

Facts and context about the earthquakes

The earthquake of March 3rd, 1985 had a magnitude of 7.8 Mw according to the Seismological Service of Chile. The epicentre was located on the coast approximately 20 km west of the town of Algarrobo. The quake lasted about 2 minutes. The regions most severely affected by the earthquake were O’higgins, Valparaiso, and the Metropolitan area of Santiago, covering a surface of 22.500 km2. According to Consolidate Report No. 1 dated September 2009, issued by the National Office of Emergencies (ONEMI), the death toll stands at 177. This report states that 142,498 houses were severely damaged and 75,724 destroyed. The loss in infrastructure was valued at about US$1.639 millions of dollars (ONEMI, 2009).

The earthquake of February 27th 2010 had a magnitude of 8.8 Mw according to the United States Geological Service. The epicentre was located on the coast, nearly 8 km to the west of Curanipe. This earthquake lasted about 160 seconds. The regions most severely affected by the earthquake were O’higgins, Valparaiso, the Metropolitan area of Santiago, Maule, Concepcion and the Araucanía, distributed across 98.100 km2. The Situation Report No. 6 dated March 2010, issued by the United Nation Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), put the death toll at 507 with about 370,000 houses severely damaged, many of which were destroyed (ECLAC, 2010). The amount of loss in infrastructure was about US$24 billion. Both quakes were long in time length, and with a longer frequency time of the undulant movement, the destruction of built structures without proper design becomes hard to prevent.

Other relevant factors are the quality of the new buildings. Many damaged ones were built after than Directive 433 of 1966, which regulates construction to ensure quakes resistance up to the magnitude of 9.5 Richter. In addition, the neoliberalization of the production of infrastructure and buildings reduced the capacity of the government to supervise and ensure the accomplishment of that directive. This situation meant that several new buildings were not up to code and were also damaged during both earthquakes.

The media reaction permits one to understand the impact of these events in the life of the Chileans, particularly the central zone. In a centralized country like Chile, if some hazard strikes Santiago, the rest of the country starts to fail. The press notes of each event related scenarios of desolation and crisis, reflecting on the fragility of life in a country used to be hit by this type of undesired situations. In some way, that fragility expressed by the press should be discussed with the government strength and readiness. That is the moment where people need their leaders to demonstrate their integrity and strength.

In the media, Pinochet’s government talked about promises of reconstruction without an institutional framework or even a plan to support the speeches. He created ‘aldeas’ (small villages) with temporary shelters and slowly made the earthquake topic disappear from the media, in order to turn back to calm and resume the government. In contrast, the Piñera’s administration and the way how they dealt with the reconstruction appears almost every day in the media. The problem is that many of that information comes from official sources, which have a distortion of the reality of the people whose houses were destroyed. Therefore, what appears in the media have no direct relation with the life of the people in shelters, producing confusion and undermining the credibility of the government.

Titular de El Mercurio Sismo Grado 8 Muerte y Destruccion

Image 1: The main newspaper of Chile the day after the earthquake of 1985, in this cover page entitled: Death and Destruction. (FORAL, W., 2010)

LA tercera terremoto y tsunami enlutan a Chile en el Bicentenario

Image 2: The newspaper of Chile 2010 entitled in: Earthquake and Tsunami put in mourning Chile on the bicentenary year (FORAL, W., 2010)

Government reaction after the tragedy

It is true that an earthquake is a huge tragedy for a country, and ensuring the welfare of the victims suffering effects of the tragedies is necessary for the state. The institutions are obliged to manage this chaotic scenario, and must prove how prepared they are to act.

“The reconstructions are opportunities for institutional learning” (VALENZUELA, N., 2012). In this line, the role of the government to respond efficiently to the problems of the society faces an interesting test how to put into practice their post-disaster strategies. Considering that Chile is the most seismic country in the world, one would hope that the state has a pertinent action plan.

About opportunities to encourage the presence of the government with the people, there are examples of evident contradiction. “Pinochet ignored the significant of the damages caused by the seism of 1985, gave scarce help to affected and did not stimulate research about the causes that triggered the fail or total collapse of the structures” (LAWNER, M., 2011).

The truth is that, in 1985, the application of the seismic norm for the building was in the hands of the private actors, and not regulated by the government (Ley General de Urbanismo y Construcciones, 2012). That was the cause why several buildings built in the last 2 years collapsed during the quake. Even worse, the government did not analyse the origin of the problem. It was a group of scholars at the engineering Department of the Universidad de Chile who critically and technically analysed the causes and then upgraded the Directive 433, about seismic resistance structures, from their own initiative.

Compared to the weak reaction of Pinochet in 1985, the recently elected president Sebastian Piñera, understood the situation of the earthquake of 2010 as a highly valuable opportunity to show the capacity of his new government. With a political team formed by several collaborators of Pinochet in the 80s, it seems they learned from their experience in 1985. Under the promise of the reconstruction completion by 2014, they began to create public-private alliances to accelerate the process of temporary shelter delivery within the first 3 months after the disaster, and then the reconstruction of definitive houses within the next 4 years.

Unexpectedly, however, the popularity of Piñera decreased progressively during his first two years of government as well as his credibility. The promise of government excellence in its ability to finish the reconstruction in four years (as Piñera declared in public (CHARPENTIER, D., 2010)) raised the expectations of the people, which then in turn fell into restlessness because the definitive houses in many cases were just a promised and not delivered.

One point of comparison that reveals the way to proceed is the financial strategy of recovery plans. The Pinochet government based the 70% of the total invested funding of the reconstruction process on international donations with just 12% of government contribution (ONEMI, 2009). The reconstruction process in Piñera’s administration is funding 100% with government fiscal contribution (MINISTERIO DE DESARROLLO Y PROTECCION SOCIAL, 2010).

The principal difference in the financing decisions between one administration and the other is that Pinochet did not change any law. Even he did not created particular economic tools to deal with the reconstruction. Piñera, however, changed the tax rates on different products and activities, modified the Copper Reserved Law to get money from the mining exploitation, and created the Reconstruction Fund to receive donations and manage the costs of reconstruction.






USD 34.000.000


12 %

USD 50.000.000

Chilean Companies

18 %

USD 200.000.000

International Donations

70 %


USD 19.000.0000.000


100 %

Table 1: Funds to finance the reconstruction process. Based on ONEMI, 2009 and MINISTERIO DE DESARROLLO Y PROTECCION SOCIAL, 2010.

The aim of this essay is not to analyse the financial strategy of each government, but these are demonstrations of completely different post-disaster policies. They also indicate the contradicting roles in responsibility assumed by the different governments of Pinochet and Piñera. However, in both cases these strategies were temporary.

Perhaps the widest difference between one process and the other is in the planning of the post-disaster recovery. This topic is hard to compare because Piñera’s administration has an extensive plan of reconstruction addressing many issues to resolve, from technical analysis of the problems to a reformulation of the regulatory plans for each city. On the other hand, Pinochet’s administration only produced a list of priorities and aims without even a mention about the issues of housing. This issue was in private actors hands, and the government did not get involved in it, taking distance from the problem.

However, a common lack among the two processes of reconstruction, is that none considered the creation of a technical body able to coordinate different ministries in case of emergencies to replace the weak and questioned ONEMI (National Emergency Office). There is a lack of the institutional frameworks in Chile, considering the number of hazards that occur each year. Therefore, it is necessary to have an institutional mechanism of response.

Effects and consequences

With the earthquake of 1985, for the first time since 1929, several new buildings were destroyed. The state control over the building processes was abolished to facilitate the investment of private actors in the city. Consequently, the application of Directive 433 was just a criterion, which not all builders were considering. This lack of control was evident after the seismic event.

On the contrary, in the earthquake of 2010 most of the newer buildings had a better reaction, avoiding collapse saving many lives. Even, the collapse of the Alto Rio building in Concepción, cost the life of 8 people despite being full of families, resting that early Saturday morning.


Image 3: Alto Rio Building.

Before the earthquake of 2010 and after. (HUALCHASQUI, 2010)

Because Pinochet’s administration ignoring the impact of the earthquake, offering scarce help and assistance to victims, the people started to create organizations. These were far from the government and in many cases were hidden from the public institutions. This process was assisted by different NGOs whose aims were related to human rights. After years, and with the necessity of shelter, the Chileans were starting to reorganize socially in order to achieve their goals. Probably, the seed of the dictatorship’s defeat in 1988’s plebiscite was planted from the indifference of the government in the face of the people’s needs in crisis times. In particular, due to the lack of post-disaster relief, this was unexpected considering a military administration.

In this topic, the reaction of Piñera’s administration was completely different. It is noteworthy though that he had an advantage: the earthquake occurred 6 days before he assumed the presidency, which was a proper time to get to the head of the country with a contingency plan. The public-private alliance to manage the reconstruction and accelerate the arrival of help to people was fundamental. Just in few days, they proposed a Reconstruction Plan with short, middle and long-term measures. The reaction was quick, and due to chaos in the streets of the central cities of the country the plan received widespread political and social support.

Nevertheless, Piñera’s plan was still a reaction instead a policy of post-disaster actions. The measures in the matter of reconstruction in Chile depend on the current administration and not on a law or an established policy. It is not wrong to say that the reconstruction in Chile is the product of improvisation and the skills of each administration.

Data on the relationship between megaseism events, and political administrations, show that in the 20th century every time one of these destructive events occurred, the current political alliance in charge of the presidency lost the next election. The only exception was with the earthquake of Chillan in 1939, when Chilean president Pedro Aguirre Cerda created institutional changes in order to face the problem almost immediately after the earthquake. This made the people thinks that the government was prepared to handle a catastrophe (LAGOS, R., 2011). For this occasion, even the famous architect, Le Corbusier, offered a reconstruction plan to Chillan, which at the end was declined by the Aguirre Cerda’s administration, preferring a more local strategy (MIRANDA, R., 2010).

If the historical pattern continues along this tendency, it is logical to think on the possibility of a second period of administration headed by the right-wing parties close to Piñera’s government. This considering that despite some problems, mistakes and media confusion; the reconstruction has been correct within an improvisational framework, which the Chilean institutional system offers.


After reviewing the government reactions and decisions in the last two earthquakes in the central zone of Chile, there are some observations and findings about the processes of reconstruction useful in discussing possible policies and institutional frameworks.

Seems to be evident that the role of the Chilean government in the management of disasters is fundamental. This concern should be institutionalized through an agency with the political and technical power to handle disasters. That means that this institution must be able to make management calls and drive reactions whether to tsunamis, volcanic activity, floods, drought, quakes, etc. The ONEMI has shown evident incapacity to address solutions and always depends on the other ministries to make decisions. Nowadays this is just an informational bureau about the situations instead of planning resilient cities.

Furthermore, the government reaction should not depend of the current administration. The decisions and actions must be driven by technical knowledge and not by political convenience. The presence of a procedure to manage disasters and post-disaster situations is urgent. Improvisation should not be allowed in the most seismic country in the world.

The deregulation of the building processes, particularly referring to the private realm should be reviewed and improved. It should not be a possibility that the application of the structural norms is just in hands of the private sector and it is controlled by the same private sector. One of the only ways to lower the fatalities in cases of earthquakes to zero is by increasing the control measures in planning, designing and building, and developing research supported with government funds, in order to avoid biased processes of product-promotion or structural techniques. In a highly seismic country like Chile, the role of the planners, urban designers, architects, and structural engineers is fundamental in order to save lives.

It is clear that the technical skill of the government has been improved since 1985. At the end of this essay, the analysis of both cases is clear and it is demonstrated the incapacity of Pinochet’s government to deal with the crisis. On the other hand, after 25 years, the responses and post-disasters plans are still dependant on the current administration. There is no post-disaster policy. When a natural disaster occurs, the destiny of Chileans is in hands of the ability of each President to make decisions and act properly.

To summarize, the idea of reconstruction as opportunities for institutional learning must be looked also as opportunities to prove institutional effectiveness and readiness. If the political world and governments continue experimenting with people’s lives in order to learn how to react, improvising creative and quick solutions instead of depending on a qualified technical institution, with power to rule decisions in crisis moments, the only consequence of that will be an eternal process of post-disaster institutional chaos, instead a proper reaction.