Following the delivery of the report Land Policy for Social Integration of the National Urban Development Council, it is worth asking whether instead of curbing instances in which land speculation can contribute to generating emblematic and memorable public use of property, it would not be more relevant to devote some time to defining the urban project at the hands of private parties as a possibility to articulate relationships between infrastructure, program and imagined urban futures and as a possible solution to problems defined as public.
The Land Policy for Social Integration report of the National Urban Development Council proposes twenty measures framed in three definitions: a new regulatory framework for social integration and urban equity, a new role of the State in the regeneration of segregated cities, and a new role of civil society in the construction of the city. However, the public coverage of the report focused on one specific part of the proposal: the periodic update of property values when the State develops a public work nearby, so as to recover the surplus value resulting from public investment, control real estate speculation, and circumvent taxes on land with urban “potential” (1).
(1) Specifically it states: “It is proposed to periodically update the appraisal of the properties according to their development potential, so that the State can recover part of the capital gains created by the State’s investment projects, regulatory changes and the contributions of society, directing these funds to the improvement of the standards of urban quality for the community.” Such a proposal is established in the framework of Measure 3: “Eliminate territorial tax exemptions that affect urban equity, encourage speculation and reduce the municipal funding necessary to raise urban development standards.” CNDU, Propuestas para una Política de Suelo para la Integración Social Urbana (Proposals for a Land Policy for Urban Social Integration) May 2015, p.14.
The real speculators – those of the economy and urban planning – have raised their voices to accuse and criticize the unconstitutionality perceived in the free transaction, their anxiety about control over the land market, and obscurantism around the destiny of the funds collected as a result. With this they have not only ignored the remaining measures but have avoided addressing what is, in my opinion, the heart of the matter: where is the discussion about the design of specific urban projects to access social integration? And, when did we decide that speculation was the wrong mechanism for urban renewal and regeneration?
As provocative as these questions may be, it is not a minor issue to consider the role that the same typologies of public projects listed by the CNDU – parks, public transport works and social facilities – have historically exerted to position the city as a competitive urban center, that is democratic and capable of offering urban solutions to improve the quality of life of workers and immigrants. Without going any further, the acquisition in 1853 of 311 hectares around the construction site of the Croton water reserve in Manhattan, along with the adoption of legislation to prohibit animal slaughter and bone boiler industries on the site, allowed that by 1857 that area of New York was transformed. The area was dispossessed of illegal inhabitants for the development of clearing, leveling and drainage operations on a swampy land plagued with rocky outcrops of slate stone. What would eventually be configured as the iconic Central Park was a naive project that, protected by its status as a provider of public health, sought to position the park as an oasis in the middle of a gray, smoky city. But it was so much more as an urban operation and one that was real estate conscious and used elements active until today, which sought to increase the surplus value of the land around its perimeter and which would eventually allow the recovery − and what a recovery it was − of the investment of those same who had sold poor land at a ridiculous price.
In the same terms, the construction of the so-called Emerald Necklace of the city of Boston, which extends between the Boston Commons and Franklin Park − implied the definition of a regional system infrastructure for sanitary improvement that from 1878 they would help define a bay that until then operated as wastewater for the residents. In the case of New York, the resulting river infrastructure, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted based on a sequence of habitats, including an artificial wetland, flooding grasslands, lagoons and meandering rivers, parkways and parks, anticipated by more than a century the introduction of ecological planning and the restoration of disused urban sites as key themes in the landscape project. Also in the case of New York, this initiative ensured the expansion of a city constrained to a peninsula, while increasing the value of surrounding properties.
Santiago was not so far behind when considering iconic projects. For example, in 1841, the Government acquired a 23-hectare plot of land to create the Quinta Normal of Agriculture. Here they established a site for acclimatization of species and teaching agricultural techniques that would eventually reach 132 hectares in size and become a model for planning and organization of open spaces in the central valley. However, as of 1927, when agriculture ceased to be a key to the national economy, all the cultivated properties of the Quinta were ceded to public institutions (the Ministries of the Navy, Defense and Foreign Affairs, the universities of Chile and Technical School of the State, the National Board of Children and the Housing Fund, among others), which in turn sold the lands freely ceded, so that today some would recognize this space as a park reduced to an area of 37 hectares.
Then, instead of curbing instances in which land speculation can contribute to generating emblematic and memorable public use of property, perhaps it would be more relevant to devote some time to defining the urban project in private hands as a possibility to articulate relationships between infrastructure, program and imagined urban futures and as a possible solution to problems defined as public. This will require more than rules and laws; good design is needed.
(2) In “Sección Santiago,” El Mercurio de Valparaíso (January 17, 1870), p.2.