President Sebastian Pinera is determined to fulfill an old dream: turning the river that once carried sewage through the center of the capital into a navigable waterway, lined with parks and attractions.
Inspired by the transformation of Barcelona, Spain, before its Olympic games, Pinera hopes to encourage a greening of Santiago's most gritty neighborhoods with the Mapocho river project, which is finally beginning in earnest and is expected to be completed before he leaves office in 2014.
"We came to the conclusion that Santiago's soul, its backbone, was the Mapocho river, which we had abandoned tremendously," Pinera said recently as he laid the first stone in the initial $28 million phase of the project — a riverside park to be financed with private donations. "We want to transform the Mapocho river into a more welcoming gathering place, pleasant and full of life."
The river, which runs for 21 miles (34 kilometers) through the capital, was turned into a concrete trench many years ago and stopped serving as Santiago's open sewer only last year, when a treatment system was installed to collect wastewater.
Long stretches of the Mapocho's banks are lined with garbage, and homeless people live under some of its bridges. A relatively shallow but rapidly gushing and dangerous flow of water rushes down the middle of the canal year-round, swelling to considerable depths only with the snowmelt from the nearby Andean mountains that form Santiago's dramatic horizon.
The riverside park project should become a big attraction for Santiago's citizens. Slowing a section of the river with a system of five locks, the idea is to feed a lagoon where people can row around in small boats. There also will be a large swimming pool, green spaces for picnics, a huge fountain and a Ferris wheel.
Pinera has dreamed about this project for a long time and went public with the idea in 1990, asking his architect friend Cristian Boza to develop plans. At the time, the center-left government scoffed at the idea, and the project was shelved. Many doubted the river could ever be navigable.
As soon as he became president last March, the billionaire entrepreneur revived his dream.
Inspired by Barcelona's transformation ahead of the 1992 Olympic Games, Pinera told Boza that Santiago could do the same, and Boza drew up plans for the entire 21-mile urban stretch of Santiago's river. He has prepared ambitious projects before — in 2006, he and his students developed a plan to remodel Havana's Malecon waterfront that Cuban officials are apparently still considering.
This initial project covers only a short section of the Mapocho, near poorer areas of the capital, where the banks have been used as garbage dumps and recreation areas are scarce.
The rest of the river will have to be developed by future governments, said Pinera's public works minister, Hernan de Soliminihac. "It will fully change the face of the area," he said.
Construction is being financed privately through donations by givers who will form a corporation to administer the funds. A company chosen through open public bidding will manage the park, which will charge admission.