Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Field notes from Chile

I am doing fieldwork in a village in Chile, and it occurred to me that small villages like this one could learn a lot from big cities in Europe.

Alhué is my favourite place in Chile. I started working here last year, after having done research in other parts of central Chile. I work on nature conservation, particularly in woodlands. When I come to Alhué I like to walk around the village and then up into the hills. While I love the hills, which are beautiful habitats, I am also fascinated by the village itself. Settlements in Alhué date from the prehispanic period. There were indigenous people, as well as Incas who came to mine for gold. The area was given to the famous Inés de Suarezés_Suárez in the late 1500s and Villa Alhué became the principal settlement in the area. Today residential areas in the municipality of Alhué cover 383 ha, and in Villa Alhué, where I'm staying, there were 1989 residents in 2011. The village seems to be growing, with houses stretching along the edges of the mountains and new houses popping up inside the village.

In many ways, Alhué is an illustration of a place at a crossroads between poverty and development, rural traditions and integration with urban cultures and centralised services - and maybe at a tipping point between acting as a biogeographic refuge, and being degraded, contaminated and developed like the rest of central Chile.

Looking at how the village is developing in terms of urban planning and housing styles is one illustration of this. The village is laid out in a grid, centred around a main square with a public garden. The traditional adobe houses have almost all fallen down in one or the other of the last big earthquakes: most of the houses are wooden. The traditional style of garden in central Chile is a space with beaten earth and potted plants, often surrounding the edge or veranda of the house, under a trellis, or with some trees or roses and other objects - benches, bread ovens, etc, forming spaces. A minority of houses in Villa Alhué have very nice gardens with cactuses, flowers, native trees, grapes hanging from a trellis, and tidy paths. Many others use their gardens as places to discard broken items and store building materials. All the houses seem to be in a constant state of minor repairs and additions. People also frequently keep chickens, geese, goats, sheep, and horses in their gardens, and have kitchen gardens. Some houses are rather weird brand-new constructions that look like American suburban homes, with the bare green lawn and the pool (unlike other houses which always have cars, people, or music, these mainly seem uninhabited- they might be second homes). While there is a concentration of shops near the main square, there is obviously no kind of residential vs. comercial zoning. In terms of spatial organization, it is also interesting how within a block, several houses, sheds, barns, workshops, animal enclosures, etc., have been placed in a somewhat random-looking way, according to a spatial logic entirely defined by personal convenience. What is really interesting as well is that inside the village, there are many blocks that are still farmland - several are open woodlands used for pasturing sheep, horses, or cattle, others have been plowed to grow crops, and there is at least one vineyard. It is strange and charming, compared to my experience in Santiago (the capital of Chile, a modern developed city), or towns and cities in Europe or the US, to walk through Alhué and see this huge heterogeneity of land-uses and spaces within the village.

Today I was talking to a man who drives trucks, and also hunts, and he told me that various birds, mammals and reptiles are more and more scarce because as human activities expand into the available space in the valley and up the mountains, the animals move away. Like many Chileans, he was quite pessimistic about the future of the environment. I suggested that human settlements didn't need to exclude animals and that maybe there were ways of building houses and making gardens that could provide them with spaces to live. First he looked slightly baffled - I don't think he had ever heard this idea before. Then he mentioned that the tortolas (a kind of dove) have come into the village because "they know they can't be hunted there" and showed me some photos of foxes near his house (he said "its a myth" that they eat chickens). Later I also was talking to the person in charge of "Ornato and Aseo" or parks and sanitation, at the municipality. He is very involved with the Environment section of the municipality. Environment and conservation are key themes of the municipal planning document. We agreed that to raise the consciousness of the residents of Alhué, one should start with the gardens. Though more and more people enjoy walking in the mountains, many never leave the village. I hope to talk to him more about how some of the lessons from urban biodiversity research in big cities could inform their own urban planning. It seems to me that rural villages like this one, still half rural and not entirely modernised, could benefit from thinking about greener urban planning models. They have plenty of pressing issues, like informal trash heaps and the lack of recycling facilities. But maybe modernisation can go hand in hand with green development.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein