doi 10.4067/S0718-83582014000200001


Population under attack, urban disputes and possible scenarios: The production of the city from the periphery


Juan Carlos Skewes 1

1 Chile. BA in Anthropology, University of Chile. PhD, University of Minnesota. Anthropology Program Director, Alberto Hurtado University.


The far-reaching changes of urban spaces, mainly driven by the dynamics of the real estate market, have reshaped the wounds of a society that still lies prostrate an ocean of inequality. Private investments in building projects, road works and the expansion of urban transport networks, among others, have forced new models of habitability between the cities excluded, the quasi-citizens of the periphery who do not always correspond to the margins of the metropolis.

The contribution of Carlos de Mattos, Luis Fuentes and Felipe Link provides the framework for addressing the issues of a city that maintains albeit to a lesser extent and despite the recovery of central areas, a tendency to territorial expansion and dispersion. In terms of socio-demographic aspects, there are aspects that stand out in the inner city such as its verticalization—associated with an increase in the number of young residents without children—and a growing proportion of extra-metropolitan migrants in the central area of the city. On the other hand, it was also noted that peripheries are home to growing families, thus “reinforcing the unequal urban development patterns, which already concentrate both sides of social hierarchy”.

As the city changes its form, so do the faces of exclusion and the different ways to address this issue. In this sense research on the habitability of the city on the part of vulnerable residents reveals a mixed sense of frustration and hope. After all non-viable populations are more permanent and resilient than those who coined such a concept. The methodological challenge is to show what is suspiciously convenient to hide from view: strategies that turn the city into an inhabitable place for those who have, silently, earned the right to live in such a space.

Clearly it is not easy to create a proper habitat within the urban space. More than diagnosing poverty there is the need for an exercise of revelation. How is it possible to inhabit a hostile place? How was this achieved? How did people manage to settle against the backdrop of investments and financial speculation? How do they get by in a strange and different country? Exploring these questions is part of this revelation exercise and the answers obtained will provide a series of lessons on habitability.

This issue of Revista INVI provides clues that deserve investigation. On the one hand, there is the dialogue on public policy and the production ability of residential habitat on the part of dwellers over the course of history. Maria Jose Castillo after identifying the evolution of such a capacity proposes its inclusion in the design of housing policies that regard individuals as an object rather than a subject within the city-making process. As this paper proposes, women, youth and children (actors suffering from the effects of double and triple exclusions) are essential for the production of housing in peripheries. This leading role requires a political space to dispute the housing management and the concept of city that is at stake under State-run models.

The steady development of the real estate industry in relation to for- profit construction, especially when it comes to urban renewal, has triggered the forced movement of local populations as the result of the increase in the value of land. This has created new confrontations between the contradicting conceptions of conceiving and inhabiting a city. Gentrification, as discussed by Paula Luciana Boldrini and Matilde Malizia, is not a process without cost, much less for dwellers of deteriorated areas that capital tries to recover for financial speculation purposes. The comparative approach reveals the pathway of gentrification and the key role of local organizations and their mobilization against real estate firms. This paper also identifies some saturation points within the gentrification process that warn of the abandonment resulting from the lack of financial revenue.

The remodeling of the central zones of the city finds an interesting counterpart in the migratory processes that drive people from other countries to find a central and highly connected residency near the workplace. According to the research conducted by Margarit Segura and Karina Bijit Abde, the arrival of international population in urban zones of the city has two faces: the prejudice and xenophobia-driven fear of local neighbors to the presence of foreigners and the revitalizing role played by immigrants within the neighborhood context. The challenge posed by the presence of immigrants is the construction of a democratic and pluralist society and as this paper suggests there is a long way to go in terms of intercultural coexistence.

It is worth stopping to reflect on local dynamics as they represent a radically different alternative to the proposal made by real estate firms. The business organization of new residents is based on family work at a scale that does not involve the forced displacement of local neighbors. The city, thanks to these new dwellers, becomes multicultural, enriched by the other inhabiting methods and the full range of opportunities involved. This is in contrast to the constant monotony of high-rise buildings and the commodification of services on the part of fast food, pharmaceutical or fitness companies.

The contribution of Marco Pais Neves dos Santos coincides with a response to the challenges posed by the coexistence of populations from different cultures within the city. This paper deals with the case of immigrants living in the periphery of Lisbon. Returnees from former Portuguese colonies in Africa and citizens from these territories occupy areas regarded by public opinion as focal points for social uprising where crime, drugs and violence rule. However, there is a light of hope in these territories, that is to say, a chance to exercise citizenship. To do so, the Youth Mill Cultural Association (ACMJ) promotes sustainability within neighborhoods in order to break the stigmas surrounding this area. This Association operates by appealing to initiatives related to cross-cultural communication, dialogue, the stimulus to the masculine and feminine dimensions of each person, respect for diversity and the promotion of solidarity, among others. According to this paper, habitability, citizenship and the transformation of the city are not limited to design or infrastructural problems; rather, it is the establishment of forms of life that tighten different types of materialities to concentrate decent housing within the urban space.

The city is a political construct. The work of associations such as the ACMJ involves positioning, mediation, and negotiation exercises with a considerable number of interests that converge in each sector of the city. Such an accumulated force defies the hierarchies imposed by the submission of habitat to the land market. In this sense, habitat, or at least the popular habitat, is a right and not a commodity. Resilience and the constant refoundation of peripheries on the part of non-State or non-corporate agents reveal an obstinate city-making process that is not correlated with the interests that govern it.

Despite the optimism of this statement, the mere occupation of land does not represent a transforming process. The proliferation of peripheries are taking advantage of it as a resource by such diverging interests as political or drug trafficking cartels. In this sense, peri-urban populations are used for interests that transcend them. Here the subject of policy becomes a necessity but not the only way in which to build a democratic city.

The presence of an ideology, a project or an organization is not enough to promote transformative processes. These aspects claim their embodiment in spaces of life that ensure their usefulness and permanence. Old anthropologies about marginalized people are consistent with the approaches of the contributions offered in this issue: if there is no trust the whole construction becomes useless—this can be said at social as much as material level. This is the suggestion of Neves dos Santos.

This issue of Revista INVI invites us to reflect critically not only on the location of dwellers within the city, but also on the different ways to build these themes. This collection of contributions includes some concerning linguistic sediments that express a terrifying semantics related to the construction of the otherness, such as the micro-utopias involved in these exercises. Some examples illustrate this point: there is an explicit acknowledgment that the political trajectory of the population movementis moving towards the definition of the business management on the part of dwellers. According to Audre Lorde: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. Likewise, it would not be coherent to promote the sustainability of a neighborhood by “selling” culture as a series of services. This is the kind of business that adversely affects sustainability. These issues may be explored just as in the case of the Lisbon outskirts and other parts of the marginal world. The problem lies in how these transactions are conceived and what is the most suitable theoretical framework to read such exchanges. The discussion is open and there is the challenge of finding the proper verb to reveal the truth about a large number of cities that are violated by the same machinery whose language permeates into the academic field.

Understanding the city means understanding its inhabitants. The recognition of these individuals means breaking the barriers of prejudice about their condition. Such an exercise also entails acknowledging our short-sighted view, thus inviting us to explore critically the conceptual frameworks that describe the processes in which marginalized and favored populations are intertwined within the urban space. This compilation of papers helps us to highlight what is concealed: the transforming power of underprivileged populations affected by the urban order.

This exercise in revelation poses another challenge to city researchers: becoming part of the situation that excludes some individuals in favor of the comfort of others. Such a task consists of empathizing with the neighbor, understanding the city from within, from an epistemology that involves us in the same phenomenon, thus expanding the proposal made by Luis Iturra—further explained in this issue. In the end the revelation is a way to recognize rights and welcome those who are not wanted as neighbors. Recognizing means granting the privileges of a city that is being built at the expense of those who are forced to live in all kinds of marginalization.