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Santiago (Tues., 3/10/09) – Clean Air or Not?
by Sara Sahm -- March 10th, 2009

Impressions from exploring Santiago.

With fears of terrible smog, I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived in Santiago on Friday.  At first glance, Santiago appears to be a very clean and livable city.  I filled my first few days here with exploring the city’s history and culture while walking (and sometimes bike riding) its tree-lined and largely litter-free sidewalks under blue skies.  The sidewalks are filled with people walking and biking.  Every few blocks there seems to be a small park.  Mary Pat and I took on the public transportation system and learned that it is not only cheap at 400-500 Chilean pesos (60-75 US cents) per metro or bus ride, depending on the time of day, but also very easy to use.

Mary Pat and Sara took a bike tour of Santiago. La Bicyclette Verde offered a fun way to learn about the culture and history of Santiago ... all while riding GREEN bicycles!

Mary Pat and Sara took a bike tour of Santiago. La Bicyclette Verde offered a fun way to learn about the culture and history of Santiago ... all while riding GREEN bicycles!

After a few days though, the pollution that I had heard about has become much more noticeable.  I arrived in Santiago with a cold that I have not been able to shake – and I feel as though it’s not so much a cold anymore as much as it is a response to the grime in the air. Many of us are suffering from itchy noses and throats and dry eyes.  Given that it’s the end of summer here, and unseasonably warm, these widespread cold-like symptoms are unusual.  From on top of Cerro San Cristobal, a large hill with lookouts and a beautiful park, there is a noticeable haze blanketing the city.  It is hard to make out the peaks of the Andes, even during the brightness of the afternoon sun.

A view from Cerro San Cristobal.

A view from Cerro San Cristobal.

Where does the smog come from?  It’s a mix of things – lots of people (approximately half of Chile’s population of 14.5 million lives in the greater Santiago area), lots of cars (one out of six people in Santiago has a car), and lots of sprawl (most people commute one to two hours each way to work in Santiago from outer suburbs).

Everyone I’ve talked to offers a different solution to the smog problem.  Some suggest better regulation of the industries around the city and others suggest a re-design of the urban structure to reduce sprawl.  At the end of the day, the biggest concern seems to be finding a green source of energy for the growing nation.  Needless to say, that’s an enormous challenge.  Hopefully, an answer will be found soon so that my initial impressions of Santiago as a clean and livable city become its realities.

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