3 April 2017

This April marks the very first El Gran Malón, Chile’s answer to The Big Lunch. All across the country, neighbours will be taking to the streets to share food and celebrate community. To tell the story of how this happened, we have to travel half way around the world...

El Gran Malon celebration in Chile.

Image credit: http://elgranmalon.cl/

Early in November 2016 my colleague Lindsey and I visited Santiago, Chile, at the invitation of Ciudad Emergente, an NGO dedicated to developing ‘Human-Centred Cities.’ Earlier that year, several members of their team travelled to the UK to visit a Big Lunch. Six months later, Santiago had its very own Big Lunch model, the Malón Urbano, up and running in communities across the capital.

“We try to build cities collectively,” says Javier Vergara, Director of Ciudad Emergente. “We want people to get to know each other, and for that we do interventions in public spaces that are very simple, very cheap, that try to actually change or shape cities in the long term.”

The political context is very different to our own here in the UK however. As fellow Director Barbara Barreda describes, “During the dictatorship we didn’t gather on the streets. So when you used to get together it would be at home, in a secure environment. Now it’s difficult to break this barrier and invite people to go out and use the public space.”

Ciudad Emergente have embarked on a series of projects to support the reclaiming of Santiago’s streets by its citizens. Their impressive collection of events and actions, described as ‘Tactical Urbanism,’ include experimental cycle lanes and Chairbombing. The Malón Urbano, translated as ‘Urban Potluck,’ is their own version of The Big Lunch, where a community is invited to share a meal and come together. They describe it as “a participatory tactic where neighbours are invited to share a big table to discuss, share and build community.” Sound familiar?

It’s a testament to the pervasive power of social eating that the Malón Urbano felt simultaneously exactly like a Big Lunch and yet completely its own thing. There were tables, chairs, so much food, even bunting (although the trees it was hanging off were a bit more impressive than the ones on my street!) Yet there were also innovative approaches to data collection and public engagement which you would be less likely to spot at a street party on this side of the Atlantic.

“In Chile we have a lack of social capital in our communities,” Javier explains. “We know the idea behind Malón Urbano works, because The Big Lunch has been doing this for so many years, and our dream has been to adapt it to our local context.” This adaptation includes some seriously well-thought through tools to draw out the views of communities in which, in the words of team member Kurt Steffens, “It’s very complicated to share. It’s something we lost along the way, and I don’t know why.”

“We’re collecting data: different kinds of indicators, about the wellbeing of the community,” continues Javier. “The problems, the challenges, the dreams… and we’re putting all that together to inform the redesign and the reshaping of the neighbourhood, because it’s changing quite a lot.”

Residents gather around a giant map, using coloured stickers to indicate where they feel at home, or unsafe. Children and adults alike distil their ideal imagined communities into a few scribbled words on tags hanging from strings. Teams of volunteers roam the street gently engaging residents in conversation about what their neighbourhood means to them.

But the Malón Urbano is not just a research exercise; it’s also an idea which has already caught the imaginations of numerous communities across Santiago. We caught up with Christopher, who has organised a Malón in his street in Providencia, and has plans for more this year.

“I’m not sure if I can call myself a local leader,” explains Christopher, “before Pinochet it was common, but now it’s not normal to challenge why people don’t participate so much.” He told us that it was surprisingly easy to close the street, and they even had help from city officials to redirect traffic on the day, but that the impact has been immediate. “Everyone wants another one, we’re looking at March or April next year. More people talk, and feel safer, it’s been a way of speeding things up by being creative. But there’s still more to do, we are still a closed society. We all need to find free time to do the fun stuff.”

At The Big Lunch we will continue to watch the development of El Gran Malón and Ciudad Emergente with real interest, and hopefully continue to share ideas and findings. In the wake of the current and potential divisions in UK society perhaps there is also a role for us to play in helping communities find common ground again. As Barbara suggests, the beauty of our simple idea is that it can work anywhere: “You might be from that culture or this culture, or a different economic situation — The Big Lunch or Malón Urbano’s scope is more or less the same: at the end we just want people to gather. It’s a very good example of how to engage people and make people who are not leaders able to lead their communities. It’s been very useful to learn from the Eden Project, it’s a very good example for us.”

The feeling is entirely mutual!

It’s a testament to the pervasive power of social eating