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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.86 Santiago abr. 2014 


From the Home to the Neighborhood


Margarita Greene*(1), Felipe Link*(2), Rodrigo Mora**(3), Cristhian Figueroa***(4)

* Professor and Researcher, Centro de Desarrollo Sustentable, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.
** Professor and Researcher, Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago, Chile.
*** Collaborator and Researcher, Laboratorio de Ciudad y Movilidad FADEU, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile.


A shifting from quantitative to qualitative issues drives urgent reviews of housing policies in Chile. The mere provision of housing units gives way to the recognition of the neighborhood and its integration into the total city as key factors of new social programs.

Keywords: Urbanism - Chile, social housing, segregation, community, public space.


A Social -spatial Perspective: From More Housing to Better Neighborhoods

In the last 100 years of history, Chilean public housing policy has been continually adapting to the social, economic, and political circumstances of the country, adopting numerous strategies and solutions according to the moment. This resulted in its passing from a State provision to a subsidiary, from building large housing complexes of finished homes to progressive small scale housing solutions that must be finished by the occupants themselves. It changed from a model based mainly on public funding to one where the private sector is the protagonist. Also, in the last few years both authorities and experts in the field have expressed the need for a new change in the political housing approach. This change would aim to incorporate a "neighborhood perspective" to housing policy, improving both housing and its surroundings.

The rationale behind this latest change seems to have, at least theoretically, its roots in two papers published in the last 10 years: "The New Urban Poor" by Manuel Tironi (written in 2003) and "Those with Roofs" by Alfredo Rodríguez and Ana Sugranyes, published in 2005. Although different in their approach, the first focuses on the social and environmental dimensions of what it currently means to be poor in Chile. The second work focuses on the absence of community in the social housing complexes built in Chile since the '90s. Both coincide in that the current problems of Chilean cities are no longer associated with basic material or food shortages (such as the lacking shelter or malnutrition) but with issues of social vulnerability or exclusion (Wacquant, 2001).

The previous diagnosis comes at a time when, after more than 30 years of housing policy with an emphasis on the production of new solutions, for the first time we are foreseeing overcoming the quantitative housing deficit in the short term (Hidalgo, 2007). This reality has allowed us to rethink the design of traditional housing policies and instruments geared towards the production of housing solutions to the urban environment in which they are installed. Thus, the improvement of public space, of neighborhood relationships and citizen participation acquire more and more relevance in the sectoral discussion. It is no longer just about producing housing, but how both new and existing housing form part of neighborhoods with infrastructure and services that, in turn, are properly inserted in their cities. In summary, the focus moves from a quantitative to qualitative perspective and from a "sectoral" vision –centered strictly on housing– to a more integrated one that includes improving infrastructure and the neighborhood along with strengthening the community.

The Neighborhood as a unit of analysis

This new paradigm has led to the emergence of the neighborhood as a unit of urban intervention. The value of the neighborhood as an identifiable territorial unit has been promoted since the middle of last century. By 1960 Lynch emphasized their morphological characteristics, while Jacobs highlighted its ability to permit the exchange of relationships and information for the inhabitants. The concept of a neighborhood for Lefevre (1967) appears as a more accessible meeting point between the geometric space and the social space, that is, as the element that articulates the social space with the physical space and whose structure largely depends on the general structure of the city.

For Mayol, in his article "The neighborhood" from 2006, this stands on practices such as greeting, walking in a certain way or knowing one another in a neighborly way that over time forges a common identity, building confidence and belonging. Then the neighborhood would be the result of a collective imagination that brings together the ideas of community in its residents, operating like a front yard to the home. The neighborhood is also a place where space is negotiated, where different groups try, sometimes covertly, sometimes more explicitly, to impose their values and lifestyles (Gravano, 2003).

In fact, several writers identify the erosion of community as a result of the new urban poverty. Katzman (2001) suggests that the consolidation process of vulnerable neighborhoods in Santiago appear to limit the potential attributed to the neighborhood scale, often converting it into an isolating element for the urban poor. Thus, this research attempts to advance the understanding of consolidation processes of popular neighborhoods and communities in order to realize the complexity of the neighborhood as a unit of analysis. Thus, this study(1) is performed through a systemic perspective considering multiple variables that interact both simultaneously and sequentially at more than one urban scale.

The Case Studies to be Analyzed

Beginning with the neighborhoods of the Chilean Ministry of Housing and Urbanism minvu's "Neighborhood Recovery Program" (prb) from 2010, the study focuses on two relatively close housing developments: one of houses (Santa Elena II) and another of apartments (San Francisco) and two additional ones, one of each type that did not receive prb interventions (Las Acacias and Vicente Huidobro, respectively). The four cases analyzed are located in the municipality of El Bosque, on the southern fringes of Santiago between the axes of Santa Rosa and Gran Avenida. Located within a radius of 500 m, all are located in the poorest areas of the capital with few green areas and public spaces and an infrastructure deficit (Reyes y Figueroa, 2010). The logic of this sampling can be schematized; grain and location of the developments can be indicated in a simple manner (Table 1 and fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Location and typology of the analyzed complexes.

Table 1. Sample of analyzed neighborhoods.

The morphology and building typology is perhaps the most evident variable (and as such, an almost obvious gateway) when it comes to defining and understanding these types of neighborhoods. In this sense, the selection responded to physical and historical aspects that lend homogeneity to this sector of the city: building height, predominant materiality, grouping system of the buildings and construction data. Lynch argues that the generation of coherent urban images depends, in part, on the existence of uniform groups based on morphological characteristics such as height, typology, architectural style, or by its urban history or structure (Lynch, 1960).

A number of authors suggest that certain typologies or architectural forms can affect the quality of the community. Gehl (2001) argues that the measured distance between houses can influence the degree closeness among neighbors by enabling more frequent contact. For his part, Newman (1972) suggests that the key to the creation of "healthy" communities is in the definition of the borders and limits of the complexes. Hillier, in Space is the Machine, of 1996, posited instead that there are aspects of the urban fabric that, under certain circumstances, may generate sick communities in the sense of restricting the access of strangers and dissociating the places where women, men and children transit. According to Hillier, the form and quantity in which streets and passages are connected in the city have a direct relationship with the quantity of people that move along them, creating the initial conditions for forming relationships among neighbors. Along with the latter, recent housing policy related to urban safety emphasized the importance of a visual relationship between the house and the street as well as the relationship between the street and the location of services and infrastructure (Espacios urbanos seguros, 2003).

The Three Fold Socio-spatial Perspective

Aware that the construction of what is known as "neighborhood space" is a multi-dimensional phenomenon, the investigation addressed the issue simultaneously both from a social and spatial perspective integrating tools and methods that complement and facilitate a more complete understanding of the problem. To accomplish this, three approaches were used: an analysis of the spatial visibility of the principal spaces of each one of the complexes, a study of perception and the use of space, and finally, an analysis of the perceived limits of the neighborhood by means of mental mapping.

I. Visibility Analysis

The visibility analysis conducted with the computer program, Depthmap, accounts the more or less visible areas of the analyzed system. The software traced an orthogonal grid (in this case one by one meter), over the free space of the complexes and later the relationships of mutual visibility were measured between all the resulting cells. This provided a numerical value for each cell and a color gradient visualization that ranges from areas with greater fields of vision in warm tones to the spaces with less visibility in cooler tones (fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Visual integration in the four neighborhoods.
Published scale. 1: 5.000

The graph, with respect to public spaces, reveals large distances between the four complexes, specifically in relation to local plazas(2) (fig. 2). The first cases are the "A" plazas of the Las Acacias complex, which correspond to interior plazas accessed by pathways halfway through the block. They appear less visually integrated to the immediate surroundings, meaning that they are barely visible from the other public spaces of the neighborhood. However, the on-site work reflects that the houses around them visually control these plazas. Also, in addition to windows, the homes have doors entering directly into the plazas. In Santa Elena II, the principal public spaces, the "B" plazas, are presented as highly accessible from a visual point of view and the houses also have windows and direct entrances to the plazas (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Detail of interior plazas and entrances.
Left: Las Acacias, plaza A detail . Published scale 1: 1.000.
Right: Santa Elena II , plaza B detail. Published scale 1: 500.

In the case of the buildings, identified with the "D" and "E" plazas, corresponding to the Vicente Huidobro and San Francisco respectively, the plazas are larger and more visually integrated with the general public. However, by being separated from the apartment buildings, there is no visual control from the interior or entrances into these spaces (Table 2).

Table 2. Comparative visibility scheme of the plazas of the four complexes.

II. Identity and Satisfaction

A second look at these neighborhoods is related with the existence of common habits of the inhabitants, lending itself precisely to the idea of the neighborhood as a defining space between the private space of the home and the generalized urban space of the city. The results of this analysis, taken from a survey of 405 residents of the area on their social characteristics, community rooting, resident satisfaction and patterns of public space use demonstrated obvious differences mainly arising from building type.

For example, in relation to the building characteristics such as acoustic and thermal insulation, lighting, ventilation or dwelling size, it was detected that houses are more favorably evaluated than apartments, regardless of the intervention of public policy. Effectively, while the housing subdivisions averaged a score of 5.4 and 5.3 respectively, the apartments averaged a 4.7 and 4.5 respectively(3). The following graph demonstrates the variation among attributes and that apartments were consistently evaluated worse than the houses (fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Assessment of housing attributes according to neighborhood.

Similarly, the assessment of housing as a space to facilitate domestic activities in its interior such as studying, resting, eating, interact, cook, bathe or receive friends, is significantly better in housing complexes than in apartments. Indeed, while 45% of the apartments of San Francisco and 49% of the Vicente Huidobro residents claim that their housing does not provide adequate space for social activities, these percentages are lower in housing subdivisions.

Thus, a synthesis of the housing, neighborhood and community evaluation in the four residential complexes can be observed. The highest scores correspond to the dwellings and the worse to the neighborhood and, again, in the residences the houses score higher than apartments. There is also a significantly lower score of nonintervened apartments compared those intervened upon. This trend maintains in practically all areas of the investigations: housing subdivisions maintained higher ranges compared to apartments. Similarly, scores descended from housing to the community and then to the neighborhood. The results followed the same trend when compared to the capacity of the housing, community and neighborhood around the possibility of permitting a satisfying life and if they would move if possible (fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Assessment of housing, community and neighborhood.

An overall consistency was observed between poor evaluations and a desire to move (fig. 6). It is important to remember that the San Francisco and Santa Elena II were subject to large-scale interventions in their public spaces, specifically the access stairs to the apartments, the roofs and plaza infrastructure. The data collected indicates that the dwelling typology, house or apartment, was crucial to the assessment and even more so whether or not government intervention was received.

Fig. 6. Assessment of housing, community and neighborhood capacity to provide life satisfaction - interest in moving.

The latter suggests that the impact of this kind of intervention program is greater in building complexes than in housing subdivisions and that it improves the relationships between neighbors and overall neighborhood satisfaction. These results appear to align with previous studies that people value houses more than apartments (Brain, Iaccobelli and Sabatini, 2005). Given that the four complexes are practically at equal distances from the center, it is not strange that the housing subdivisions score higher than apartments, even after they have been intervened. On the contrary, the substantial improvement of the San Francisco project regarding satisfaction in the neighborhood, suggests that interventions from the PQB-PRB(4) programs have had an important impact on the quality of life of its residents.

Why did the same not occur with the houses where the subdivision that did not receive intervention increased in value more than the intervened one? One possible explication, worthy of future investigation, is that the intervened neighborhood had greater problems in its constitution, and so the interventions could have helped to improve it and facilitate closer relationships in the neighborhood although not fully accomplishing the objective.

Moreover, within each neighborhood, the effect of the local scale variables was investigated. For example, it was found that despite the poor systematic evaluation by the residents of the Vicente Huidobro buildings, whose apartments where not improved, displayed some differences in the subjective evaluations according to the specific location within the neighborhood and is proximity to the few available public spaces. While the average residents' score of the neighborhood of this project is a 3.9, the score increases to 4.2 if one lived close to a plaza and decreases to 3.4 if the residence is located far away from the public spaces. In the same way, the community score increases from 4.2 to 4.4 if it is closer to plazas and 3.7 if farther away. While these results do not demonstrate large differences in the other neighborhoods analyzed, yet we can infer a degree of influence in the presence of plazas in the value of the neighborhood. According to Borja and Muxi (2003), although one cannot demand that urbanism resolve the series of problems that appear to be of another order, they should at least not make them worse. Lastly, we wish to emphasize that the overall assessment of housing shows minor differences between the analyzed complexes (fig. 5). In this sense, the step from the house to the neighborhood as an object of public intervention becomes more important for architecture and urbanism.

Thus, the results coincide with those proposed by Bordieu in "The effect of place" in 1999. The process of consolidating neighborhoods, analyzed from a social perspective is associated not only with the characteristics of each community but also with the physical conditions of the dwelling and surroundings as a determinant structure of social relationships, where the social space is somehow generated within the physical space.

III. The Spatial Cognition and Mental Recognition of the Neighborhood

The third approach used in this work is related to the capacity of the residents to identify the limits of what they consider to be their neighborhood. The majority of these approximations of the neighborhood that address this definition are centered on the presence of the "other" in space, which would generate conflict through the imposition of certain behavioral patterns and values between the groups in a neighborhood dispute (Márquez, 2011; Márquez y Pérez, 2008).

The approach used in this research deviates from the latter theory, not in the sense of trying to unravel the conflict between the different groups occupying the space, but rather how each one establishes the limits of what they consider their neighborhood. Seen this way, the approach relates to the traditional methods as in Lynch's work (1960) on the image Bostonians have of their city. According to this vision, the image of a city originates from the interplay of five elements: nodes, paths, roads, neighborhoods and landmarks, which, when viewed repeatedly, generate what is known as a cognitive map of a city in the short term (Tolman, 1948; Siegel and White, 1975; Thorndyke and Hayes-Roth, 1982).

In the present study, the participants were asked to outline the borders of what they considered as their neighborhood. For this they were given a black and white plan with the principal streets and landmarks with the result of their different cognitive maps (fig. 7). In this first instance, the maps were analyzed by calculating the averages and standard deviation of the area and perimeter of the drawn plans. The results show that of the four analyzed complexes; three have an average area between 499 and 532 ha while the Santa Elena II has an average area of 361 ha. Furthermore, the latter has a smaller standard deviation. That is, the drawings were more similar to each other than those of the other three. Unlike the area, the drawings showing perimeters appear to show more consistency: whereas the housing subdivisions perimeters have average lenghts of 2,043 and 2,524 meters, the apartment buildings reach average values of 2,087 and 2,285 meters (Table 3).

Fig. 7. Cognitive maps by the residents of the neighborhoods analyzed.

Table 3. Comparison of the cognitive maps drawn by the residents.

Finally, the study considered the coincidence of the borders drawn by the inhabitants with those institutionally defined by the intervention program and by the municipality. Here some important differences were found: the apartment complexes coincided more than the houses. In the Vicente Huidobro complex the borders coincided 45%, in the San Francisco complex the percentage was 36%, Santa Elena II at 32% and Las Acacias at 14%. This suggests that at first glance the building complex draws a stronger line between immediate neighbors and the rest.

On the other hand, this result reveals this same hierarchy as the subjective assessment of the neighborhood expressed in the survey: less coincidence is linked with less desire to change neighborhoods, and more coincidence in the cognitive map of the residence and the institutional definition with greater wish to move neighborhoods or less rooting (fig. 8).

Fig. 8. Coinciding limits of the neighborhood and interest in moving.

At first glance the above results seem surprising: Why do the residents whose perception of neighborhood limits coincide with the institutional definition have lower evaluations of their neighborhoods? One possible explanation is that the people's drawings could have reflected the perceived limits as the social space of the neighborhood, that is, the physical area where people meet with their neighbors. A recent publication suggested that the main factor in successful rooting within social vulnerable groups is the presence and quality of interpersonal networks, even more so than the time spent living in the area, living conditions, age, or if the people grew up in the area or not (Livingston et al., 2008). From this perspective it can be understood that the residents mapping their neighborhood would be alluding to their interpersonal networks and, those that are not limited to the institutional definition, reflect greater diversity in the type and quality of interpersonal relationships. This would also explain the higher levels of satisfaction.


After having revised a selection of perspectives addressing the neighborhood issue and its relevant dimensions for better understanding, three aspects stand out that frame its focus, the magnitude and form of undertaking the present investigation. The first is related to the importance of the territorial and spatial perspective chosen for approaching the problems of poorer neighborhoods. In this regards, many of the researchers and experts in the area have recognized the importance and necessity of a territorial perspective after years of housing policy that undervalued this approach.

The second is related to the interest for addressing habitat problems at multiple scales, which is also aligned with current land management. In this regard, a book published by the Inter-American Development Bank on informal settlements and lowincome peripheries recently, highlights precisely the need for "focusing on the spatial scale in which problems manifest themselves and work towards a solution at that scale. For many of these problems, this is not the neighborhood scale" (Rojas, 2009).

Finally, while searching for a set of variable that affects the complex phenomenon of neighborhood consolidation, one must avoid the deterministic responses and opt for probabilistic answers. For example, when Hillier (1996) analyzed urban communities, he describes "potential areas of co-presence and encounter," adding "beyond that, it is the effect of culture."

Summarizing the main tendencies seen in this case study, it was found that despite being socio-economically homogenous housing complexes and located in the same urban context, the apartment buildings are consistently more poorly evaluated than the houses. Perhaps this is why the impact of the prb in the building complexes, in terms of improving neighborhood relationships and resident settling, is greater than those of the housing subdivisions. Meanwhile, the structure of the urban grid proved to have significant effects on the visual control of public plazas. Internal plazas of the housing complexes offer less visibility from exterior to exterior, but greater visual and access control from the interior of the homes to the public space. In the case of the apartments, the larger field of vision from exterior to exterior is contrasted by a strong dissociation from the interior space to the exterior. As such, greater relationship satisfaction was observed when dwellings were close to the plazas.

It is also important to note that a complete consistency was observed between the evaluation and the lack of rooting in a housing complex: the intervened housing subdivisions received the highest evaluation and index of settling. On the contrary, the non-intervened apartment complexes were the ones where the evaluation was lower and with higher resident turnover. The fact that the complex with the best evaluation reflects less coincidence with the neighborhood limits and that with the highest limits coincidence appears also a higher desire to move seems to indicate that the limits are not an appreciated or valued aspect, but rather, they reinforce a "prison-like feeling", an environment that one wishes to leave.

Thus, the present study aims to highlight the importance of the local territory to give local solutions that transcend the neighborhood scale, seeking to identify a set of factors that affect the processes of construction and consolidation of low-income neighborhoods.



1. This investigation had the support of the fondecyt project 1100068 Consolidation of vulnerable neighborhoods from a socio-spatial perspective. This also had the support of cedeus –Center for Sustainable Urban Development, Chile project CONICYT/FONDAP 15110020.

2. For effects of the study, the plazas are identified with letters from A to E.

3. In a scale from 1 to 7, equivalent to that of the grades at Chilean primary schoolss.

4. "Programa Quiero mi Barrio" –I love my neighborhood program– and "Programa de Recuperación de Barrios" –Neighborhood recuperation program– respectively.



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1. Margarita Greene. Architect, 1973 and Master in Sociology, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 1988; PhD in Architecture and Urbanism, Bartlett School of Architecture at the University College London, 2002. The principal themes of her work as researcher, docent, and consultant, realized in England and Chile, have been social housing, the urban project and spatial modeling. She currently teaches in the School of Architecture and in the Master in Urban Projects program at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, where she acts as professor.

2. Felipe Link. Sociologist and Master in Social Research and Development, Universidad de Concepción, 2003 and Doctor of Architecture and Urban Studies, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2010. He has been the main researcher and co-researcher in various projects in the field of urban sociology, particularly on themes such as personal networks in the metropolitan space, urban fragmentation and socio-territorial inequality. He is currently assistant professor at the Instituto de Estudios Urbanos y Territoriales uc.

3. Rodrigo Mora. Architect, Universidad de Chile, 1996; MS c, 2001 and PhD in Cognitive Studies and Space Syntax 2009, Bar tlett School of Architecture at the University College London, United Kingdom. His principal lines of investigation are linked to spatial navigation and perception where he has been chief investigator and co-investigator of projects with external and institutional financing. He is currently an adjunct professor of the Universidad Diego Por tales School of Architecture

4. Cristhian Figueroa. Architect and Master of Urban Project, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2011. He is currently a collaborator and researcher of the Laboratorio de Ciudad y Movilidad fadeu where he par ticipates in diverse projects of investigation and urban design that deal with urban mobility, public transport and public space.

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