Just a few decades ago, Santiago’s Mapocho River was known for its terrible odor. Now, the shore will have its own state-of-the-art cycling track, thanks to years of work and pressure by regular citizens.
This article was originally published in Spanish in our sister site, CityLab Latino.
April 5, 2016, was an important day for cyclists in Santiago, Chile. For five years, regular citizens had been working to rehabilitate the shores of the city’s Mapocho River—creating a bike path and a floodable park—and asking for government assistance. Then, finally, as 100 cyclists waited in the gardens of the executive palace, president Michelle Bachelet announced her support for their project, Mapocho Pedaleable.
After that milestone, everything started rolling faster, according to members of Pedaleable, an NGO, and Muévete, a collective of mobility organizations, that came together to work on the revitalization.
The ground-breaking ceremony will be in March 2018 and the full project will be ready in December 2019. The existing bike path will be improved and extended, and a pedestrian lane added. The full extension will span 5.2 kilometers (3.2 miles), connecting some areas of the city with the most traffic and allowing cyclists to move freely without any stops. It will run parallel to the river and be designed to flood, while resisting damage, during the rainy season.
Tomás Echiburú, one of the creators of the project, a former member of Pedaleable, and a current councilmember for the Providencia district, acknowledges how uncommon it is for a project born from the citizens to be picked up by the government.
“They aren't ready for this kind of thing,” Echiburú explains to CityLab. “And this plan makes it clear: the state doesn’t have mechanisms that allow it to work with the communities in a really participative way, to make them part of the process. There isn’t an apparatus that accepts that citizens not only want to protest for what they want, but also propose what they want.”
An urban scar becomes a common space
Since before Chile’s independence, the Mapocho has been an axis of the city. “But suddenly it was abandoned and slowly degraded, eventually becoming a sewer and a scar for the city,” Echiburú explains.
The bike path project began in 2010 as two parallel architecture theses at the Universidad Católica—Echiburú’s and Osvaldo Larraín’s projects to get their degrees. Around the time Echiburú and Larraín came up with their idea, a separate group began planning to clean up the river’s water.
Then, in 2011, Echiburú and Larraín decided to invite people and civil-society organizations to go down to the river’s shore with their bikes. They didn’t have an official authorization. 500 people arrived and it was all over local media.
Along the way, Pedaleable faced resistance from government bureaucrats, Echiburú says. “The first time that I had, for example, technical meetings with the Public Works Ministry, their hydraulic engineers would say to me, ‘Forget it, this will never happen, I’ll never approve this,’” Echiburú remembers.
They started working with the Public Policy Center at Universidad Católica, and later did a social profitability study with the Chilean Ministry of Transportation. By 2013, the idea for Mapocho Pedaleable was well formed and earned support among bike fans and policymakers.
Echiburú and Larraín kept going: with the support of the mayors of two districts—Santiago and Providencia—they organized the first official activity on the river bank. Around 4,000 people arrived.
That same year, they got an award from the Andean Development Corporation (also known as CAF) and formalized the creation of the Pedealeable corporation, as the collective group Muévete. In 2014, they organized another event in the river, this time with 5,000 participants. And in 2015 they did it twice, for more than 30,000 people. In 2016, they managed to have the river open for a week and 60,000 people came. During a four-month pilot, 270,000 people used the temporary bike lane.
But despite that success, the project wasn’t officially funded until June 2017, when the regional council finally approved the nearly $10 million needed to complete it.
The project achieved support from other politicians—including four mayors and the regional governor—along with the community. “Our biggest success was that so many took up the cause. It snowballed and finally was unstoppable,” Echiburú says.
A victory for the community
For its creators, this project is more than a nice bike lane. “We needed to get people to come back to the water,” Echiburú says. The goal was also to invite residents to “discover what the river can offer to them,” adds the spokesperson of the citizens’ collective Muévete, Daniela Suau, who is also part of the cyclist group New Indie. “The bicycle was a perfect tool for this.”
In addition to serving as a weekend recreational space, Suau says, the project will allow cyclists and pedestrians to bypass some of Santiago’s most congested and complex areas on workdays, cutting the commute from some parts of the city in half.
But, to the creators, Mapocho Pedaleable’s future uses are open to what the community makes of it. “All that we did is open a door,” Echiburú says.
Mapocho Pedaleable’s creators say they looked to New York City’s High Line for inspiration throughout the process. The elevated park is another ambitious urban project that was promoted by community members and eventually built, and has since become one of the city’s iconic tourist destinations. Echiburú thinks that the new bike lane and pedestrian path can likewise become part of Santiago’s global image.
“We just need to organize ourselves, articulate our project, and pressure until we are heard,” Echiburú says. “This is a precedent and can show the community that they can also build their cities.”