On February 27th 2010, Chile was hit by an 8,8º Richter scale earthquake and tsunami. As many as 300,000 housing units were damaged; 500 people died, 100 of them in Constitución. The physical damage was followed by social unrest: people afraid of not having basic needs satisfied, started sackings and lootings of stores. Police and the military were called to keep the public order. The reconstruction was urgent. But it was also clear that rushing without a plan could compromise the quality of the result.
So, forest company Arauco, called Elemental to deliver a Masterplan for how to rebuild Constitución. We were given 100 days to design from public buildings to public space, from housing to new transportation routes, from rethinking the energy matrix of the city to strategies for fast economic recovery. And mainly, how to protect the city against future tsunamis, something unheard in Chilean urban design. We called it PRES Constitución, which stands for Plan de REconstruccion Sustentable (Sustainable Reconstruction Plan).
Such a huge level of potential transformation of the city had to include its citizens. So, we started a participatory design process in order to inform the form of the designs. Participatory design is not a hippie, romantic, let’s-all-dream-together-about-the-future-of-the-city kind of thing. It is actually not even asking a community what they think is a right answer to their problem. It is mainly trying to identify with precision what is the right question. There is nothing worse than answering well the wrong question. And the question here was how to protect the city against future tsunamis. There were some alternatives floating in the air.
The first one: Forbid installation on ground zero. 30 million dollars spent mainly in land expropriation.
Second alternative: build a big wall, heavy infrastructure to resist the energy of the waves. Big building companies conveniently lobbied this alternative, because it meant 42 million dollars in contracts, and was also politically preferred, because it required no land expropriation.
But given we opted for a participatory process; we asked the people: What else is bothering you? What other problems do you have, and you want us to take care of now that the city will have to be rethought from scratch? And what they said was: look, it’s fine to protect the city against future tsunamis, we really appreciate, but the next one is going to come in, what, 20 years? But every single year, we have problems of flooding due to rain. In addition, we are in the middle of the forest region of the country, and our public space sucks. It’s poor and it’s scarce. And the origin of the city, our identity, is not really connected to the buildings that fell, it is connected to the river, but the river cannot be accessed publicly, because its shores are privately owned.
So, we thought that we had to produce a third alternative: Against geographical threats, provide geographical answers. What if, between the city and the sea, we have a forest? A forest that doesn’t try to resist the energy of nature but dissipates it by introducing friction. A forest that may be able to laminate the water and prevent the flooding, that may pay the historical debt of public space and that may provide, finally, democratic access to the river.
The alternative was validated politically and socially, but there was still the problem of the cost: 48 million dollars. So, we did a survey in the public investment system, and found out that there were three ministries with three projects in the exact same place, not knowing of the existence of the other projects. The sum of them: 52 million dollars. So, design’s power of synthesis is trying to make a more efficient use of the scarcest resource in cities, which is not money but coordination. By doing so, we were able to save four million dollars, and that is why the forest is today under construction.
Architect: ELEMENTAL | Alejandro Aravena, Gonzalo Arteaga, Juan Cerda, Diego Torres, Víctor Oddó
Design Team: Felipe Arrue, Matías Magnelli, Claudio Tapia
Client: Municipality of Constitución | Arauco Forest Company | Ministry of Housing and Urbanism
Location: Constitución, CHILE
Length: 16.0-hectare park | 4.5 km length promenade
Built: 2023 (under construction)
Photo Credits: @Felipe Diaz Contardo, @ELEMENTAL
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