Santiago’s Claudio Orrego on fighting urban inequality

Governor Claudio Orrego of the Metropolitan Region of Santiago, Chile. (Orrego Presidente/Wikimedia Commons/cc)

How do you fight urban inequality? Claudio Orrego has some strong feelings about that.

Orrego is governor, or intendente, of the Metropolitan Region of Santiago. It’s a regional body that coordinates the development policies of Chile’s capital city and dozens of other jurisdictions in the Santiago area. Orrego led one of those smaller municipalities, Peñalolén, as mayor for eight years. After standing for election in the 2013 Chilean presidential race (he finished third), Orrego was appointed to his current post by Michelle Bachelet, the person who beat him.

Orrego spoke on a panel on the “inclusive city” at last week’s Chicago Forum on Global Cities. He drew thunderous applause when he said that his challenge as a politician is “to convince the haves that the problems of the have nots are their own problems.” Orrego went on to say that overcoming the historic divide between Santiago’s rich and poor needs to be at the top of the agenda. “If we’re not able to tackle this inequality,” he said, “I think the social unrest, the violence and the crime, and the insecurity of the people will make it a less competitive city worldwide and countrywide.” (Watch a video of the panel below.)

Orrego cited Medellín, Colombia, as a city moving in the right direction. Medellín ended its reign of narcotics-related violence, he said, in part by investing in high-quality transport, libraries and public spaces in the poorest parts of the city — a philosophy Orrego described as seeking “urban justice.”

“They understood this very basic linkage between urbanism and violence,” he said. “By building infrastructure of the best possible quality in the most poor neighborhoods of the city, you’re making a strong political statement.”

I caught up with Orrego for a few minutes after the panel to find out more about Santiago’s approaches. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Christopher Swope: You said earlier that we should replace the term “social justice” with “urban justice.” What do you mean by that?

Claudio Orrego: After so many years of military dictatorships in Latin America, we tend to reduce democracy or human rights just to political rights — to be able to vote, to express yourself.

But to have a real democracy, you need people to think they belong to the same country, that they belong to the same community and they belong to the same city. And that means starting to make more visible what “urban rights” are. We cannot eliminate social inequalities so easily, but urban inequalities — that’s a shortcut.

When you have a big area where you have rich boroughs and poor boroughs, what you’ll see is that disparity and inequality just widen over time. Because the rich neighborhoods will have better investment.

We’re making 11 new parks in Santiago in the poor places, to level up that part of the city. We we’re putting all our money and power as a metropolitan area for those places.

Q: Why parks?

A: We do well for Latin America in terms of the amount of square meters of green areas per inhabitant. But the tyranny of the average is that you have neighborhoods where you have 30 to 40 square meters per inhabitant and others where there’s less than 1 square meter per inhabitant.

So we’re trying to level up. We have a very proactive policy of open spaces that are not left for the local municipality. We will run them. We will make sure that the quality of the park and the safety will be maintained.

Q: You mean the metropolitan government will do that?

A: Absolutely. That’s the only way to make urban justice. The same with transport, the same with environment. Some urban investments require a more general approach, a more general metropolitan governance.

Santiago’s innovation among the Latin American cities is we’re among the first to approach the governance challenge of metropolitan areas. London did it, Rotterdam is trying to do it right now. Barcelona did it. But the new issue of cities is how they govern them. And of course, you cannot limit the transport system from one city to the other — it has to be holistic. It has to be integrated. Both from a payment perspective but modes of transport, bicycles, cars, buses, metro, trains.

We’re in a transitional period in which whatever we do, or not do, in the next few years will really affect the capacity of our city to be not only inclusive but also competitive.

Q: Is Chile a model in terms of how the metropolitan system is set up?

A: No. But we’re working on it. We’re going to be electing our governors — metropolitan governors — in the next year. We’re cherry picking good practices from different places. And we are coordinating the investment of different ministries.

Not only do we have territorial segmentation but also ministerial segmentation. So the minister of housing will build houses, but they will never coordinate with the minister of public works or transport. So now we’re having this holistic approach to neighborhoods — we call it the planes integrales, comprehensive plans for neighborhood development.

Below is the video of the panel, The Inclusive City, courtesty of the Chicago Forum on Global Cities.

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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