Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

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The rapid population growth of Santiago, Chile’s capital, has brought a series of problems for the city, all of which were complicated by Chile’s unusual geography.

One Landsat image spans the breadth of this narrow country, from the Pacific Ocean to Argentina. These images were taken near the end of the warm, dry summer; the mountains show only a dull red vegetation signature, and a fire appears in the 1989 image. But there are still patches of snow visible in the Andes Mountains, over 6,000 meters above sea level.

In contrast, the Central Valley, between the Andes and the coastal range, shows a bright red signal from agriculture. Rivers feed into a network of canals irrigating vineyards, fruits, and vegetables. This Central Valley is the heartland of Chile and the home to 70–80% of its people.

With rapid industrialization after World War II, Chile’s population urbanized earlier than many other countries, already 68% urban by 1960, 81% by 1980, and 89% by 2010. Santiago itself contains more than a third of all Chileans, and its share of the country’s economic activity is even greater.

One result was some of the world’s worst air pollution. Santiago’s view of the mountains was often blocked by smog trapped in the valley by the mountains themselves. The government imposed carless Sunday mornings, regulation of the city’s 11,000 private buses, and other remedies. By the mid-1990s the air had improved.

From 1975 to 2020, Santiago’s population increased from under 3.5 million to just over 7 million. In the late 1970s, housing shortages were increasing, particularly for the poor. In the early 1990s, Santiago’s elites moved to the northeastern suburbs to escape the city center’s increasing congestion, retail, and rural immigrants. The affluent Barrio Alto district is in this quarter, flanked by the Andes and the San Cristobal Hills.

A squatter settlement existed in the Barrio Alto, housing many domestic servants and workers for wealthy households nearby, until the mid-1970s when the government evicted them. A park in place of the squatter settlement was discussed, but instead one of Chile’s largest shopping malls, the Parque Arauco, was built. The former squatters were resettled in public housing in the southeastern part of the metropolitan area.

This followed the pattern of the military government: slum clearance in the city’s center and northeast, with a shift to public housing on the urban fringe, which has been called “the bedroom community of the working poor.” The bulk of metropolitan growth since the World War II has in fact been along the southern edge, where the Central Valley widens and land is relatively cheap. In the mid-1970s, the government bought large tracts of agricultural land and committed its housing resources in this area. The government’s “making neighborhoods healthy” (saneamiento) program has brought services such as water, sewer, and electricity to much of this housing.

A Bit of Trivia
Because Santiago is close to the west coast of South America, it might be hard to tell whether it’s east or west of Los Angeles. But it’s not even close. Santiago is almost straight south of Boston. In fact, because of the angles, the orbit path for this scene (path 233) is one path east of Newfoundland (path 1).


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