Lake Sagaris

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2005
This description of Lake Sagaris's work was prepared when Lake Sagaris was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005.


Lake Sagaris is tackling the challenges confronting Latin American megacities by launching and nurturing a citizen-based structure for involvement in planning and city management. With a parallel goal of redefining and implementing what makes cities livable, Ciudad Viva (Living City) is reframing how decisions are made in Latin America’s urban areas.

The New Idea

In a newly restored democracy still lacking in public involvement, Lake Sagaris is working with local and regional community leaders to build practical and theoretical solutions to current urban woes, while instituting a new system for participatory urban planning. Through practical structures for participation and training on how to use them, Ciudad Viva (Living City) empowers new and existing citizen groups and their leaders to become a part of the city management process. In Santiago, where fragmentation prevails in civil society and in political arenas, Ciudad Viva has become a major city-level unit for democratic expression. Through the Assembly for Urban Rights and other initiatives supported by Ciudad Viva, Lake unites the disparate voices of Santiago, bridging the divides of class, geography, and sector that prevent city residents from taking collective ownership over their surroundings.
Ciudad Viva’s tactics ultimately change the way citizens conceptualize their role in and power over their surroundings. Lake believes that sustainable cities are healthy cities─and the efforts of Ciudad Viva and its partners have already helped make Santiago a more livable place by increasing green space, improving public transport, and building more pedestrian-friendly walkways. This focus on the spaces that citizens use each day serves a far more strategic function because it has the power to galvanize a long-powerless citizenry to take charge of its democracy. In a world where the corrupt and powerful rule the ordinary citizen and where cars preside over the pedestrian, Ciudad Viva’s leaders are showing Chile’s citizens they can effectively exercise their voices to claim a more livable city for themselves.

The Problem

Residents of Santiago see their city as many things─an economic haven, a political quagmire, a cultural center, but they all agree that in recent years it has become virtually unlivable. Even among its mega-sized peers in Latin America, Santiago stands out as the most polluted metropolis after Mexico City. Thousands die unnecessary deaths each year as a consequence. But smog alone does not account for Santiago’s disgruntled citizenry. Green spaces hardly exist, public transportation is unreliable, and urban services fail to meet minimum acceptable thresholds. Public areas and friendly, functional neighborhoods─long a mainstay of Santiago life─have been bulldozed or fallen into disrepair. Even worse, distrust is rampant among Chileans and Santiago’s population feels helpless to improve these problems, leaving citizens with little control over their city.
These sentiments are well founded. Projects affecting the cityscape and city life alike, ranging from small repairs to major infrastructure projects, go from conception to construction with little input from the public unless some hardy group dares to challenge the authorities. Santiago was not always this way. Before surviving nearly two decades of military dictatorship, the city was widely held up as an example of participatory democracy. Pinochet’s rule intentionally set out to dismantle the social infrastructure supporting these processes. Beyond fundamental political changes, the regime discouraged and in some cases dissolved social sector organizations, using fear-based tactics to cultivate suspicion where community had existed. Fifteen years after the restoration of democracy in Chile, Santiago is only just beginning to experience a new wave of urban activism and there remains an enormous need to inject solid information about the best way to deal with the issues at conflict, to create genuinely sustainable solutions. For Ciudad Viva, “sustainable” requires equality and respect for human, civil and urban rights; environmentally friendly planning and policies; and economic initiatives that encourage solidarity and genuine improvement of people’s living conditions.
The existing political structure in Santiago exacerbates the barriers to full citizenship. Chile’s highly centralized national government drafts laws that local municipal governments then implement. In Santiago, only a presidential appointee, with limited legitimacy, has some authority over the 34 independent municipalities that make up the city, each with its own elected mayor and council. Moreover, because Santiago is the capital city, central authorities tend to intervene on all levels of city management─from daily decision making to important infrastructure projects. Together these political structures sever the links between voters and their city. The lack of a democratic, elected authority to govern the metropolitan region also hampers consistent, sustainable planning of transportation, density, green space, waste management and other crucial urban issues.
Santiago shares many of these troubles with its neighbors. The social fragmentation characterizing post-dictatorship countries exists across Chile as well as in most Latin American countries. The inherent complexity of urban challenges that makes participation so important and yet so difficult applies to some degree to all of Latin America’s megacities. These urban areas, massive in scale, demand public participation to improve the urban environment─no single authority can sufficiently address the emerging environmental, transportation, and quality-of-life issues. Above all, the “democratic deficit” inhibits public debate and consensus-building and both are essential to effective changes in favour of sustainability.

The Strategy

In a highly diverse and fragmented city, Lake has worked with talented and dedicated local leaders to create an entity capable of uniting and amplifying the diverse voices of concerned citizens. A broadly representative network of local and semi-local organizations comprises the group’s core, including 25 burgeoning neighborhood associations from both rich and poor neighborhoods. This base then draws in other partners as appropriate, including other citizen sector organizations (CSOs), universities, professional groups, and private sector companies. Where local, city-wide, and national authorities fail to communicate, Ciudad Viva traverses artificial borders and spurs coordinated action on all three levels. Recycling programs, for example, are coordinated between local and city-wide authorities while critiques of national and regional transportation policies equally engage neighborhood groups and federal-level authority.
Through her work in Ciudad Viva with other organizations, Lake has built the structures necessary for active and representative community participation. Regular meetings, festive gatherings, and standardized communications─including print, radio, and online media─engage member organizations and broad swaths of the population. Participants diagnose problems through learning circles designed to help member organizations dissect an issue they face and, by consensus, formulate action steps toward a resolution. Volunteerism has emerged as a key component in improving city life; Lake believes that each paid employee hour must generate many times its worth in volunteer hours. Finally, Ciudad Viva’s umbrella structure provides a direct antidote to the isolated, limited effectiveness of existing efforts─meetings include forums for understanding the work of each involved group and eliminating replication while reinforcing synergies. Rather than creating a new city-wide recycling program, for example, Ciudad Viva has introduced programs to coordinate and increase use of existing programs.
In a city where distrust is rampant, Ciudad Viva has bridged the confidence gap through the most obvious means: practice. It systematically brings together groups otherwise unlikely to connect, in the process breaking down stereotypes and eliminating distrust. Lake knows that individual leadership capacity will serve as the catalyst for new ideas and movements to take shape in Santiago. So Ciudad Viva is conditioning a new generation of leaders and working with students hungry for change, using a “learn by doing” philosophy. Rather than a seminar dictating rules for meeting with government officials, community leaders actively participate in such a meeting, inspired by a mixture of techniques from Chilean popular history and the Canadian student movement, which deeply inspired Lake’s own leadership style. She leads Ciudad Viva from the background, coordinating, providing assistance, improving communications and information flow, so that community groups can make their own independent choices with the best information possible.
To complement these structures and practices for community participation, Ciudad Viva works with municipal governments and universities to educate current and future government planners in solid participatory practices. While this aspect of the work remains in its earlier stages, mayors of several municipalities in Santiago are increasingly calling on Ciudad Viva to provide input on policy, particularly participation.
As Lake contributes to Chileans’ efforts to build stronger and more effective democratic voices, she has seen concrete results. Today, issues of sustainability and livability are galvanizing citizens toward tangible results that they can revisit and remain proud of long after their participation ends. For example, Ciudad Viva works on transportation projects at both the metropolitan, national, and local levels. It effected a change in the course of a major highway project, and more locally has succeeded in changing existing traffic patterns and temporarily closing off streets for neighbourhood festivals. Thanks to the efforts of Ciudad Viva and cyclist groups, growing networks of bike paths now line Santiago, streets sit narrower beside new pedestrian walks, green spaces dot the city map, and heritage buildings and markets remain standing.
While Lake empowers the citizens behind Ciudad Viva to continue their work, she perpetually tends to the future of both the organization she has founded and all of Latin America’s cities. Currently, Ciudad Viva’s leaders set a high value on autonomy and as a result have experimented with a series of revenue-generating activities tied to community outreach efforts─from the sale of t-shirts and buttons, to a printing service that helps local businesses advertise their wares while highlighting historic value. One dream of Lake’s and several Ciudad Viva leaders is to create a viable real estate project that will provide them with financing for urban initiatives, protect heritage and demonstrate sustainable building techniques. Ultimately Lake sees Santiago as a testing ground for an initiative that will contribute to participatory movements throughout Chile, the Southern Cone, and all of Latin America. Ciudad Viva has linked to organizations in other major Latin American cities and has provided some assistance to groups in Chile’s other urban centers, including Valparaíso, Talca, Concepción, and Puerto Montt, which are involved in parallel democratic and urban revitalization efforts. The attention that Ciudad Viva has already garnered from the press and the political world─including being publicly named by President Lagos as an exemplary citizen group─have helped the organization to grow.

The Person

Lake Sagaris began her life as a part of two worlds─first raised in Canada by her Canadian mother and British father, she moved to England with her parents and siblings when she was 8 years old. This turn of events changed her life. After a peaceful childhood, the difficulties of integration into still-classist English society thoroughly changed her. Moving back to Canada two years later did not solve the problem; Canadian children were just as cruel when their compatriot returned with a British lilt. These early experiences pushed Lake toward what would become a lifelong empathy with those marginalized and disdained by society.
Lake resolved ongoing conflicts arising from her increasingly different viewpoint on social, environmental, and women’s issues by leaving home at 16 years of age. She finished high school early and headed to Vancouver to study creative writing, at that time an unheard-of program and one considered unlikely to provide a decent livelihood to its graduates. Despite her youth, Lake participated actively in the women’s and then the student movement. As the founding member of several province-wide student groups, Lake took an active role in expressing the discontent of the student population with current events in the world. Not satisfied with the limited voice of these organizations, she participated actively at the national level in student press, helping to found local student papers—a handful with a three-weekly circulation above 20,000 copies. These early activities left her with a storehouse of experience in concrete democratic practice that has nourished her life and efforts with Chilean communities ever since.
In 1979, a student group in Alberta selected Lake to travel to Chile and investigate the anti-dictatorial student movement that the international press had failed to capture. Alongside an active but underground youth movement, Lake found something unexpected: love. In 1981 she returned to live permanently in Chile, working as a journalist for 20 years (writing for the London Times, Newsweek, Toronto Globe and Mail, CBC, among others) as well as building a family and a deeply rewarding partnership with Patricio, a fellow leader in Ciudad Viva, and the man she met on her early trip to Chile.
Since the fall of the dictatorship, Lake has been working toward the empowerment of Chile’s urban citizens. Today, as well as her BFA in creative writing and her experience as a journalist, she holds a master of science degree in urban planning and community development (University of Toronto). With her Canadian background, she has continually strived to create systems of participation that give Chilean citizens the voice in their affairs that she was afforded as a student in Canada. She has served as the civil society representative in international meetings organized by the World Bank and other entities, but above all she likes to work with her “nose in the asphalt” at the local community level. Lake also loves to spend time in nature and is an award-winning poet.