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Why Valparaiso works for me

09 August 2017 Author: Kate Houghton

Valparaiso is Chile’s principal port and third largest city, located on the Pacific coast about two hours’ drive from the inland capital Santiago. ‘Valpo’ also has a strong claim to being Chile’s most creative and dynamic city, characteristics that find physical expression in its ingenious and gravity-defying urban form. This form is so unique the city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003.

While Chile’s capital Santiago takes the typical form of American cities, laid out on a flat central grid, surrounded, criss-crossed and tunnelled by urban motorways, Valparaiso defies the reason of a certain school of urban planning. Its commercial and port sector is squeezed into its only narrow strip of flat land, while the rest of the city sprawls upwards, clinging to the vertiginous hills that frame the bay, and looking out to the ocean.

Valparaiso 1

Photo: Dave Musson, 

This blog isn’t though an easy story of a beautiful and characterful city without challenges: The people of Valparaiso experience socio-economic outcomes consistently below the Chilean average, and UNESCO has expressed strong concerns about the management of the World Heritage site. Are there, then, any lessons for planners in the complex urban and social fabric of this historic port?

Valparaiso grew to the city it is today during the 19th century, thanks to its strategic location as the first major stop for ships having travelled from the east around Cape Horn. The booming whaling industry and California gold rush in particular drove traffic through its port, generating wealth and status. The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 saw this internationally significant role virtually disappear overnight, and a pattern of decline take hold.

Valparaiso remains Chile’s busiest port, the focus of imports and exports as the South American country becomes the wealthiest on the continent and its only member of the OECD. But the city bears the scars of a grander purpose lost, familiar to all who know Britain’s great industrial and port cities.

16.9% of residents of the metropolitan area of Valparaiso live in poverty, compared to 14.4% nationwide. The region has more informal settlements than any other Chilean region, reported crime rate is much higher than the national average, and educational outcomes in reading and maths are consistently lower than the Chilean average. Mortality, including infant mortality rates, compare unfavourably with the rest of the country and complete the picture of an urban region struggling to benefit from Chile’s growing wealth. (Source: 

So why on earth look for lessons for planners in a city that statistics say is failing?

The answer is of course that while the statistics tell an important story, they do not capture those characteristics of a place where the potential for a better future lies. Notwithstanding the urgent challenge that the people and administration of Valparaiso face, I have known few cities that are more charming, dynamic, and perhaps most importantly, loved, than ‘El Puerto’. So why is this? And what if the legacy of Valparaiso’s urban form can be harnessed to build a better future?


Valparaiso 2

Photo: author's own

Places need a purpose, and Valparaiso’s purpose is unmistakable. The city’s maritime history is reflected in street names, monuments, landmark buildings, and even the nickname of its people who are known affectionately throughout the country as ‘Porteños’ – ‘port people’. While Valparaiso’s international maritime significance has waxed and waned, the port remains at its literal and figurative heart, with the rest of the city encircling it and facing out to the Pacific Ocean. The future development of the port – for imports and exports, passenger services, fishing, and naval use – will be critical to the future of the whole city.

Human scale

Valparaiso 3

Photo: author's own

Valparaiso’s development has responded to its geography. A narrow strip of flat land, ‘El Plano’ is densely occupied with the city’s port and commercial infrastructure. Residential neighbourhoods have been forced to grow up the slopes of the steep hills that surround the bay. In many cases each of these 42 hills is separated physically from its neighbours by a deep ravine, with the result that each has its own name and distinctive character. The hills behave as villages within the city, making your place within the city clear at all times, and offering a quiet human-scale retreat from the hectic bustle of ‘El Plano’.

Chile’s system of neighbourhood committees, ‘Juntas de Vecinos’, means that each of the hills is represented to municipal and regional authorities by a group of residents committed to their positive development.

While the distinctiveness of the hills makes an essential contribution to Valparaiso’s character, the ravines between them can contribute to the city’s challenges. They often see illegal and dangerous building, and can be a magnet for fly tipping.  In 2014 a fire ripped through ten of Valparaiso’s hills, killing 15 people and leaving almost 3000 homeless. The speed at which the fire spread was blamed in part on these twin-problems, and highlighted the failure to manage housing and waste disposal in Chile’s poorer neighbourhoods.

The balanced relationship between the traditional commercial heart of the city in ‘El Plano’ and the more residential hills is also under threat from the development of Valparaiso’s first major mall. In spite of major protests from interests as diverse as the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, the Commander in Chief of the Chilean Navy, the Chilean College of Architects, and local residents, a permit has been granted for the mall on the northern edge of the commercial heart of the city. This threatens to pull much-needed investment from the historic centre, therefore undermining the established spatial relationship between this centre and the residential hills.

Connectivity and public transport

While the hills give Valparaiso its human scale, their sheer steepness and separateness pose an accessibility challenge which is overcome by a well-established and effective public transport system. 

Trolley buses serve ‘El Plano’, running more or less straight routes along its few wide avenues. At points along these avenues there are funicular railways providing access to the hills for those unable or disinclined to use the long, steep and well-trodden staircases to the top. Most of these railways were manufactured in Victorian Britain and shipped to Valparaiso during its boom days.

Those that survive to this day have seen out earthquakes and fires with which the city is all too familiar, and provide efficient and good value connectivity. But age, wear and tear, and in some cases neglect, has left the funiculars in particular vulnerable to closure, and several have been lost over the past decades.

A light rail system runs north along the coast to Viña del Mar, the resort town just to the north of Valparaiso, extending the public transport network outside of the city itself.

The hills give Valparaiso its human scale. To improve its inclusiveness, however, the importance of connectivity between different communities and the commercial centre should not be underestimated.

A home for creativity

Street Art 2

Photo: author's own

Valparaiso has long been home to a thriving artistic community, and counts Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda as one of its most famous former residents. Its creative spirit is clear to see, and nowhere more obviously than in its abundant street art.

This creative face is no accident: Valparaiso is the only place in Chile where street art is not explicitly outlawed, and the benefits that hosting it brings mean that property owners compete to see their buildings decorated with colourful social and political commentary. As a result Valparaiso is home to some of the world’s best street art, and draws artists nationally and internationally to make their mark. 

Valparaiso’s topography and urban form are unique. A bright future beckons if the city’s human scale, strong sense of place, community networks, access to public transport, built heritage, and clear and defined purpose, guide local and national policy initiatives aimed at improving outcomes for its people.



Kate Houghton

Kate Houghton

Kate Houghton lives in Edinburgh and is RTPI Scotland’s Policy and Practice Officer. She works with the RTPI’s members in Scotland to promote planning and planners, and shape the planning system so that it is as effective as it can be. Kate is on Twitter @KateHoughton35