Faculty Profile

Francisco Sabatini
Octubre 1, 2004

Francisco Sabatini, a sociologist and urban planner, is a professor at the Catholic University of Chile in Santiago, where he lectures on urban studies and planning and conducts research on residential segregation, value capture and environmental conflicts. He combines his academic work with involvement in NGO-based research and action projects in low-income neighborhoods and villages. He served as an advisor to the Chilean Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs after democracy was restored in 1990, and as a member of the National Advisory Committee on the Environment in the subsequent democratic governments. Sabatini has published extensively in books and journals, and has taught in several countries, mainly in Latin America. He is a long-standing collaborator in the Lincoln Institute’s Program on Latin America and the Caribbean, as a course developer, instructor and researcher.

Land Lines: Why is the topic of residential segregation so important for land policy and urban planning in general?

Francisco Sabatini: Zoning, the centerpiece of urban planning, consists of segregating or separating activities and consolidating homogeneous urban areas, for either exclusionary or inclusionary purposes. At the city level, this planning tool was introduced in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1891 and was adopted elsewhere to address environmental and social problems due to rapid urbanization and industrialization. In modern cities the widespread practice of zoning to separate different activities and groups has aggravated these and other problems. It affects traffic and air pollution because more car trips are needed to move around the city, and it contributes to environmental decay and urban ghettos characterized by symptoms of social disintegration, such as increasing rates of school dropouts, teenage pregnancy and drug addiction.

It is indisputable that the desire for social segregation has long been a component of exclusionary zoning, along with concerns related to the environment and health. The influx of working-class families and immigrants is often considered undesirable and politically threatening, and zoning has been used to segregate such groups. Ethnic and religious discrimination are the most negative forms of social segregation. When a national government defines itself in religious, ethnic or racial terms, residential segregation usually remains entrenched as a severe form of discrimination, intolerance and human exploitation, as in Ireland, South Africa and Israel. Segregation can be positive, however, as in many cities around the world that become socially enriched with the proliferation of ethnic enclaves.

LL: What are the economic impacts of segregation?

FS: Besides its urban and social effects, residential segregation is an important aspect of land policy because it is closely connected to the functioning of land markets and is a factor in motivating households to pursue economic security and the formation of intergenerational assets. Fast-growing cities in unstable and historically inflationary economies convert land price increments into an opportunity for households at every social level to achieve their goals. It is no coincidence that the percentage of home ownership is comparatively high in Latin American cities, including among its poor groups. Land valuation seems to be an important motivation behind the self-segregating processes of the upper and middle classes. And, the increase in land prices is a factor in limiting access to serviced land and contributing to spatial segregation. In fact, the scarcity of serviced land at affordable prices, rather than the absolute scarcity of land, is considered the main land problem in Latin American cities, according to research conducted at the Lincoln Institute.

LL: What makes residential segregation so important in Latin America?

FS: Two of the most salient features of Latin America are its socioeconomic inequality and its urban residential segregation. There is an obvious connection between the two phenomena, though one is not a simple reflection of the other. For example, changes in income inequality in Brazilian cities are not necessarily accompanied by equivalent changes in spatial segregation. Residential segregation is closely related to the processes of social differentiation, however, and in that sense is deeply entrenched in the region’s economically diverse cities.

The rapidly increasing rate of crime and related social problems in spatially segregated low-income neighborhoods makes segregation a critical policy issue. These areas seem to be devolving from the “hopeful poverty” that predominated before the economic reforms of the 1980s to an atmosphere of hopelessness distinctive of urban ghettos. How much of this change can be attributed to residential segregation is an open question, on which little research is being done. I believe that in the current context of “flexible” labor regimes (no contracts, no enforcement of labor regulations, etc.) and alienation of civil society from formal politics, residential segregation adds a new component to social exclusion and desolation. In the past, spatial agglomeration of the poor tended to support grassroots organizations and empower them within a predominantly elitist political system.

LL: What features are characteristic of residential segregation in Latin America, as contrasted to the rest of the world?

FS: Compared to societies with strong social mobility, such as the United States, spatial segregation as a means of asserting social and ethnic identities is used less frequently in Latin America. Brazil shares with the U.S. a history of slavery and high levels of immigration, and it is one of the most unequal societies in the world; however, there is apparently much less ethnic or income segregation in residential neighborhoods in Brazil than in the U.S.

At the same time, there is a high degree of spatial concentration of elites and the rising middle class in wealthy areas of Latin American cities, although in many cases these areas are also the most socially diverse. Lower-income groups easily move into these neighborhoods, in contrast with the tradition of the wealthy Anglo-American suburb, which tends to remain socially and economically homogeneous over time.

Another noteworthy spatial pattern is that the segregated poor neighborhoods in Latin America are located predominantly on the periphery of cities, more like the pattern of continental Europe than that of many Anglo-American cities, where high concentrations of poverty are found in the center. The powerful upper classes in Latin America have crafted urban rules and regulations and influenced public investment in order to exclude the “informal” poor from some of the more modern zones, thus making the underdevelopment of their cities and countries less visible.

Finally, the existence of a civic culture of social integration in Latin America is manifested in a socially mixed physical environment. This widespread social mingling could be linked to the Catholic cultural ethos and the phenomenon of a cultural mestizo, or melting pot. The mestizo is an important figure in Latin American history, and it is telling that in English there is no word for mestizo. Anglo-American, Protestant cities seem to demonstrate more reluctance to encourage social and spatial mixing. Expanding this Latin American cultural heritage should be a basic goal of land policies aiming to deter the formation of poor urban ghettos, and it could influence residential segregation elsewhere.

LL: What trends do you perceive in residential segregation in Latin America?

FS: Two trends are relevant, both stimulated by the economic reforms of the 1980s: the spatial dispersal of upper-class gated communities and other mega-projects into low-income fringe areas; and the proliferation of the ghetto effect in deprived neighborhoods. The invasion of the urban periphery by large real estate projects triggers the gentrification of areas otherwise likely to become low-income settlements, giving way to huge profits for some. It also shortens the physical distance between the poor and other social groups, despite the fact that this new form of residential segregation is more intense because gated communities are highly homogeneous and walls or fences reinforce exclusion. Due to the peripheral location of these new developments, the processes of gentrification must be supported by modern regional infrastructures, mainly roads. Widespread private land ownership by the poor residents could help to prevent their complete expulsion from these gentrified areas and achieve a greater degree of social diversity.

The second trend consists of the social disintegration in those low-income neighborhoods where economic and political exclusion have been added to traditional spatial segregation, as mentioned earlier.

LL: What should land policy officials, in Latin America and elsewhere, know about residential segregation, and why?

FS: Residential segregation is not a necessary by-product of public housing programs or of the functioning of land markets, nor is it a necessary spatial reflection of social inequality. Thus, land policies aimed at controlling residential segregation could contribute to deterring the current expansion of the ghetto effect. In addition, officials should consider measures aimed at democratizing the city, most notably with regard to the distribution of investments in urban infrastructure. Policies such as participatory budgeting, as implemented in Porto Alegre and other Brazilian cities, could be indispensable in helping to undermine one of the mainstays of residential segregation in Latin American cities: public investments biased toward affluent areas.

LL: How is your work with the Lincoln Institute addressing these problems?

FS: Residential segregation is widely recognized as a relevant urban topic, but it has been scarcely researched by academics and to a large extent has been neglected by land policy officials. With the Institute’s support I have been lecturing on the topic in several Latin American universities over the past year, to promote discussion among faculty and students in urban planning and land development departments. I also lead a network of scholars that has recently prepared an eight-session course on residential segregation and land markets in Latin America cities. It is available in CD-ROM format for public officials and educators to support teaching, research and debate on the topic.

LL: Please expand on your new role as a Lincoln Institute partner in Chile.

FS: This year we inaugurated the Program on Support for the Design of Urban Policies at the Catholic University of Chile in Santiago. The program’s advisory board includes members of parliament, senior public officials, business leaders, researchers, consultants and NGO representatives. With its focus on land policy, particularly actions related to the financing of urban development and residential social integration, this board will identify relevant national land policy objectives and adequate strategies to reach them, including activities in the areas of training, applied policy research and dissemination of the results.

The board’s first task is to promote broad discussion of the draft reform of major urban laws and policies that the government recently sent to the Chilean Parliament. Since the late 1970s, when the urban and land market liberalization policies were applied under the military dictatorship, the debate on urban policies has fallen nearly silent, and Chile has lost its regional leadership position on these issues. Overly simplistic notions about the operation and potential of land markets, and especially about the origins of residential segregation (due in part to ideological bias), have contributed to this lack of discussion. Both land markets and the processes of residential segregation must be seen as arenas of critical social and urban importance. We want to reintroduce Chile into this debate, which has been facilitated by the Lincoln Institute’s Program on Latin America and the Caribbean and its networks of experts over the past 10 years.

References and Resources

Sabatini, Francisco, and Gonzalo Cáceres. 2004. Barrios cerrados: Entre la exclusión y la integración residencial (Gated communities: Between exclusion and residential integration). Santiago: Instituto de Geografía, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

———. Forthcoming. Recuperación de plusvalías en Santiago de Chile: Experiencias del Siglo XX. (Value capture in Santiago, Chile: Experiences from the 20th century). Santiago: Instituto de Geografía, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Sabatini, Francisco, Gonzalo Cáceres and Gabriela Muñoz. 2004. Segregación residencial y mercados de suelo en la ciudad latinoamericana. (Residential segregation and land markets in Latin American cities). CD-ROM.

Espaço e debates. 2004. Segregações urbanas 24(45).