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From issue: Trafficking and Transnational Crime (Spring 2010)

AQ Feature

Civic Innovator: David Assael, Chile

To some, Santiago is a city of smog, congestion and contaminated waterways. But David Assael wants the world to know that Chile’s capital city is also home to world-class green spaces, vibrant cultural centers and eco-friendly design. If you don’t believe it, check out Plataforma Urbana (www.plataformaurbana.cl), a website that has become a world-renowned window into Santiago’s innovative community of architects and urban planners.

Assel, a 30-year-old Santiago-based architect, launched the site with David Basulto, 30, in 2005. “Seventy percent of Santiaguinos want to leave, and it’s due to a lack of information about what we have here,” says Assael. The founders were not only interested in distributing information; they wanted to improve their city as well.

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In addition to serving as an information resource for locals, Plataforma Urbana publishes regular posts on issues like transportation systems and innovative architecture. And they found that Santiaguinos cared about urban development. Today, the site boasts a staff of 12 and has posted more than 4,000 articles in its five years.

Success has prodded the site’s creators into further expansion. Under the umbrella title of Plataforma Networks, two additional sites have been added: Plataforma Arquitectura (www.plataformarquitectura.cl) (launched in 2006) and the English-language ArchDaily (www.archdaily.com) (2008). “Once we saw that the posts and comments on Plataforma Urbana were becoming too [technical], we created a separate space for this dialogue,” explains Assael. A year after its launch, Plataforma Arquitectura became the most visited Spanish-language architecture website. ArchDaily, run by a six-person editorial team in the U.S. and Chile, has become the most visited architecture website worldwide.

More recently, Assael and his team have focused their energies on Chile’s reconstruction efforts following the 8.8-scale earthquake that struck in February 2010. The Plataforma Urbana team organized an army of 2,000 architects to volunteer their services in local reconstruction efforts. Since the quake, Assael and his writers have been providing a steady stream of information on topics such as building effective emergency housing, debris cleanup and creating green spaces in affected areas.

The site has received praise for its civic contributions. In 2009, Fundación Futuro, a Santiago-based pro-democ racy organization founded in 2003 by President Sebastián Piñera, awarded Assael its Premio Ciudad for making Santiago “...more green, entertaining, cultured, and safe.” Fundación País Digital, a foundation dedicated to promoting a digital culture in Chile, also named him one of their innovators under 35 years old. Assael participated in the Innovadores Sub35 conferences, touring seven universities in Chile in an effort to engage with university students interested in e-innovation.

For Santiago residents, the site has opened a door to a city few knew about. Only 1 percent of the city’s 5 million residents, for instance, visit Santiago’s Parque Metropolitano, which at 1,784 acres is one of the largest urban parks in the world, notes Assael. Similarly, few Santiaguinos are aware of urban treasures such as La Plaza de la Ciudadanía, a public square adjacent to the Centro Cultural Palacio de la Moneda, that features theatre performances, art exhibitions and film.

But perhaps equally significant, Plataforma Urbana has made the often impenetrable lingo of city planners accessible to the public. “Our advantage is that we have neither the space restrictions of a print publication nor the bureaucracy of the more established names in these fields,” says Assael. The site focuses on young, emerging architects and uses journalistic prose and interactivity to engage its readers, who are also invited to submit guest posts and comments.

Assael believes more citizen information and engagement can transform his city. “In 25 years, [Santiago] will be a city with less inequality, without the pockets of poverty that exist today and with greater access to services and more empowered citizens,” he says. The site’s popularity demonstrates that residents care. The next step is transforming the understanding of the connections between urban planning and city life into political and social engagement.

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