The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


DPU PhD candidate successfully defends thesis on global and local approaches to inner-city change

9 March 2023

Congratulations to Isabel Brain who has recently successfully defended her thesis in which she identifies a concept of ‘kaleidoscopic densification’ to explain the repopulation of inner-city Santiago.

Santiago scene

Her work shows that neither the ‘gentry’ nor the ghetto dwellers are the residents of the new high-rises in the Santiago inner area. Instead, the new residents are a socially diverse community that shares a relentless experience of economic insecurity while enduring the hardships of living in increasingly unsustainable density. The phenomenon of ‘kaleidoscopic densification’ breaks from the traditional pattern of socioeconomic segregation of cities in Chile and Latin America.

Her research connects with the academic debates on drivers of inner-city change in the global South. She looks at these processes differently by bringing forward the concept of hybridity. The need to analyse inner cities' change in the South from a different perspective has been claimed by scholars studying cities worldwide who have raised the problem of north-south theory transposition/imposition. The main argument supporting such an assertion is that using concepts and theories from north-western cities to understand urban change in southern cities generates a theory-reality mismatch. This mismatch conceals relevant aspects of cities' change in the South and, by so doing, inhibits a proper understanding of urban dynamics happening outside the realm of cities in the North. 

The inner-city change process of Santiago, Chile is a good example of the problem described. Characterised by a massive repopulation through housing verticalization, the process has been interpreted both as gentrification (i.e., progressive elitization) and ghettoisation (i.e., progressive marginalisation), which describe entirely opposite urban phenomena. Furthermore, there is a significant discrepancy between these two interpretative frameworks and the basic features of the case. She traces this theory-reality gap to the lack of attention to the contextual elements and mechanisms (interplay between structures and actors), inhibiting a more accurate comprehension of urban dynamics in southern cities like Santiago. However, she points out, this critique should not entail isolating southern cities' analyses from global urban trends. It instead requires looking closer at the hybrid nature of city change processes. 

Therefore, building upon the concept of hybridity and its application to urban theory, Isabel proposes a different framework to analyse the process of inner-city change in Santiago. She considers a particular set of concepts that address what, in her research, are some of the missing elements in the academic debate around inner-city change in the Latin American context: i) The high imbalance in the distribution of opportunities within cities, ii) the class structure (the population's actual income distribution including the high-rise dwellers) and iii) the nature of the verticalization process in the inner area. Altogether, the research framework she proposes here offers an alternative strategy to analyse the forces and mechanisms underpinning Santiago's inner-city change. And maybe, of other cities in the global South that share similar characteristics, particularly in Latin America. In sum, the findings in her thesis contribute to the academic debate on the drivers of urban change in the South and elaborate on better-tuned policies to address the housing and urban challenges in Santiago.