In this column we discuss why reconstruction closely following three epic events Chile has suffered in the last month – the declaration of instability of the volcanic system in Villarrica, the fire of the Natural Reserve China Muerte in Melipeuco, and the storms, floods and the heavy seas with storm surges in the Atacama Region. Reconstruction should not be temporal or contingent or merely palliative, but the result of the functional association between natural systems and strategic projects that consider the transformation of sites that are urban, complex and relevant.
To date I am sure that everyone has seen the overwhelming images of different sections of Chile submerged under water, mud, smoke and volcanic gases. All testifying to how we are being overtaken in slow motion by a sequence of significant natural disasters.
As of March 3 and in just four weeks, we have had three epic events – the declaration of instability of the volcanic system in Villarrica, the fire of the Dead China Nature Reserve in Melipeuco and the storms, floods and heavy seas in the Atacama Region – that have destroyed homes, routes and roads; that have closed schools and businesses; that have paralyzed public transport; and that they have locked inhabitants in their homes.
To the obvious desperation of the inhabitants clamoring for economic and human help to control, evacuate and/or clear the affected areas, we must add the devastation of the local and central governments, which have had to spend amounts unknown to mobilize military troops, police, forestry and civilians to regulate the evacuation of the population, combat active hazards and begin the work of clearing to start a process of reconstruction, which would imply an equally indeterminate investment.
Given that spending is unavoidable and there is no opinion – verbal or written – that has not voiced the need to transform the National Emergency Office, to strengthen the role of local and State government in the reconstruction phases, to update the mechanisms to define risk areas and, of course, create consultative committees of experts, it seems to me that the crux of the matter is not how to resolve the specific tragedies to which we will always be subjected given our peculiar geographical configuration, but rather how to guide us to confront these situations in a country that has been built without considering the dynamic condition of its territory.
First, we must recognize that this construction should not respond to a particular situation or be contingent or merely palliative, but rather the response should be the result of the functional association between natural systems and strategic projects in a scenario of transforming sites which are urban, complex and relevant. What is required is to articulate how we occupy our territory based on the idea of a process that is open, dynamic, and extended over time and that is more than a purely compositional approximation. To do this, three significant changes are required in the way we confront our territorial condition:
- Identify, describe and interpret pre-existing systems. This means replacing the organization of institutions based on a central office in charge of emergencies with one organized on the basis of the distinction of specific geomorphological configurations. In this sense, it is necessary to overcome the political-administrative divisions and focus on the connectivity, ecological functions and programs of use of such areas as those subject to extensive periods of drought with fine and impermeable soils that are usually affected by landslides and heavy seas or those areas subject to imminent risk in the face of earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, among others. This situation is analogous to what the photographs illustrating this text demonstrate: the registration of one of the ongoing events at the hands of the National Forestry Corporation, which is the closest thing we have to an organization that operates based on geomorphological configurations.
- Reinforce research into patterns of system transformations. This implies the construction of inventories in terms of ecological and economic interests, of demographic changes, of localization of resources and of levels of toxicity, among others, questioning how and why we have arrived at the present state. This would allow a register to be created not only of risk areas, but also of potential sites of intervention and expansion based on the understanding of the interacting forces, and thus revealing how they might develop in the future.
- Change the verb “mitigate” to “anticipate.” If it is possible to understand that territorial occupation is an evolutionary process, then it will also be understood that its design implies anticipating and accommodating growth, evolution and adaptation in the face of unexpected disturbances or new programs of use and events, formulating as a result objectives of transformation. This requires not only mitigation that will only recreate some singular vision for a final preconceived shape.
National “services” or “offices” no longer serve us. Emergency budgets in the face of catastrophes no longer serve us. Urban planning or regulatory plans – as we know them – no longer serve us. We need to understand Chile as a complex project, one that is more than rural and urban, mountain range and sea, pampas and desert: it is the result of the interaction of diverse ecological systems, of infrastructure already built and of a historical and collective memory. We need to understand Chile as a complex project that must be capable of coordinating relations between established and imagined urban future uses, of creating new landscapes where there is no “official space” for it and of constituting models of urbanization and conversion of disused urban ecologies, establishing epistemologically and technically a base structure capable of defining a better logic for transforming urban forms.