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Kate Houghton, Urbanist in Santiago, Chile

This interview features in the March 2016 edition of The Planner as a part of a series of interviews with RTPI members working around the world. 

Kate Houghton 2

Name: Kate Houghton, RTPI Chartered Member

Job title: Urbanist 

Employer: Junto al Barrio

Location: Santiago, Chile


What do you currently do?

I work as a part time volunteer in the research team of Chilean NGO, Junto al Barrio. The organisation works in several vulnerable neighbourhoods in Santiago, Valparaíso and Coquimbo for 3 year programme periods, delivering community-led urban improvement and social projects. I have supported the organisation with its development of internal GIS analysis, and worked with an external partner to use GIS to identify neighbourhoods that could benefit from JAB's support. I also developed a project to tackle, at the community level, the serious waste management failings which are seen throughout Chile. 


What are your working hours?

Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 10 - 5 plus occasional weekend community events.


What attracted you to the profession?

I originally studied geography, and it was clear to me that place has a hugely important role to play in tackling social and environmental inequality. Planning, especially the statutory UK system, offers many opportunities to use place to improve quality of life.  


What are the three biggest issues in the built environment where you live?

Two issues that apply to Chile in general: firstly, Chile suffers from very high levels of inequality, and this manifests in clear social segregation along geographic lines in its cities, particularly Santiago. Secondly, Chile is very vulnerable to natural disasters, especially earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. The built environment therefore has an important role to play in disaster mitigation (all new buildings must be built to withstand a 9.0 Richter earthquake). Finally, despite Chile being a huge country, 40% of its population live in Greater Santiago. Among the many challenges this presents, most relevant to the management of the built environment are problems with urban sprawl, and serious air contamination. 

Santiago Chile 2 

What three aspects of the planning system would you change?

The current planning system in Chile is mostly limited to municipal zoning and building permits. Firstly and fundamentally therefore, it would be great to see efforts to scale up planning in Chile from approving individual buildings to a strategy for its (rapid) development. I think an opportunity for starting this conversation could be talking more about natural disaster risk mitigation and response not just in terms of building standards, but in terms of wider land use and urban design. Finally, it would be great to see the successful kind of community-led urban improvement projects that JAB carries out used much more widely across the country - both to improve access to green spaces and community facilities, but also in doing so to empower Chilean people to take the lead in implementing improvements to their environment. 


What is the best part of where you live?

Santiago's greatest advantage is being an hour and a half in one direction from the snowy foothills of the Andes, and an hour and a half in the other direction from the Pacific coast. So not Santiago itself, unfortunately!


If I could change one thing about where I live…

There would be a stronger sense of the common good.


If you could change one thing about the planning profession what would it be?

From my position right now working outside the UK, it would be great to see planners communicate to the public more strongly, and more positively, the importance of what we do. Planners have such an important role to play in the UK's challenges, not least resolving the housing crisis. Our voice in the public debate needs to be louder. 


Is there anything else you think UK planners should know about planning where you live?

Given Chile's current prevailing political consensus, which favours a very small state, the concept of town planning as understood in the UK does not really exist in the general public arena. In fact, being here has really made me appreciate the UK system, in spite of its flaws. Ideas are certainly debated among other urban professionals, but for British planners, and perhaps planners throughout Europe more widely, answering questions about how to improve Chile's urban environment has to start by understanding the very significant differences in institutional culture. 

 Santiago Chile 1

Is there anything useful the RTPI assists you with in your role?

I am planning on returning to a career in planning in the UK, and so the RTPI is a great resource for staying in touch with developments in the profession while I am away.


How did you end up working outside of the UK?

I always wanted to live and work abroad, to experience in depth a different culture, and to learn to speak a second language.


Any favourite foods?

Avocado on toast has been a Chilean staple long before it ever became fashionable on Instagram. And, it's not something I commonly have for lunch (!), but the fact there is a lethal Chilean cocktail called a terremoto (earthquake) gives you a little insight into the mind set.