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Notes from Quito - Observations by an urban planner

Quito, Ecuador

What can delegates attending Habitat III expect to find in Quito? Zoe Green sent us some observations on Ecuador’s capital, where she has been working with a client on an urban development programme that aims to encourage climate resilience in cities across Latin America.

Quito is known to many as the ‘Spring City’. Located on the equator, it experiences a near constant spring climate; it’s for this reason that leaves never fall from the trees. At an elevation of 2,850 metres above sea level, it’s also the highest official capital city in the world. The thin air will quickly become apparent to any visitor from lower climes and, flying in from London, the feeling of ‘breathlessness’ and ‘headache-inducing tiredness’ can be a little overwhelming at times.

Luckily, there are ways of reducing the effect of altitude sickness: according to the locals this includes enjoying the delicious local food such as ceviche (a mix of raw seafood and shellfish cooked in citrus juices), llapingauchos (potato cakes filled with cheese) and eating your body-weight in dark chocolate. Plenty of water is often advised but, then again, it is for most things.

A sprawling city

Next month around 30,000 delegates will descend on the city of Quito for the UN Habitat III conference, an event that takes place only every 20 years. Hotels are almost at capacity and there is a tangible feeling that the city’s infrastructure could be stretched. It may be the capital city of Ecuador but Quito is not designed to accommodate temporary population increases of this scale.

Nevertheless, Quito has certainly sprawled, climbing up into the mountains which encircle it. This came about from a long period of limited planning controls and monitoring, the result of which is an urban area that extends some 50km. Thankfully, the Guayllabamba river basin in the Andes Mountains, including close proximity to an active volcano, act as a fairly clear constraint in many directions.

But the result, unfortunately, is a long and thin urban form. To tackle the informal housing issue, numerous regeneration projects are underway to improve the quality of buildings and to help link these to basic infrastructure and services.

Under Quito’s skin

You only get under the skin of a city when you walk through the streets and interact with the people that live and work there. As a planner, my natural inclination is to reach for a map, get out on foot, and explore the scope and scale of a city. It’s easier said than done though in Quito – the city is notorious for petty crime and almost every hotel and office will advise you to travel by pre-booked taxis and stay inside at night. Thankfully for me, ‘business wear’ is one of the safest outfits as it’s in keeping with generally plain Ecuadorian fashion and distinct from the colourful clothes of many tourists.

I broke out on foot at day and night and, from my explorations, it was clear that Quito is divided into three character areas; the north, the south and the historic centre. The most eye-catching part of the city is the historic quarter, which is rich in Spanish Baroque architecture from its colonial past and it was unsurprising to learn after wandering through the Plaza de la Independencia around the beautiful churches that this was the world's first city to be declared a UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage Site, along with Poland's Krakow, in 1978.

"As a planner, my natural inclination is to reach for a map, get out on foot, and explore the scope and scale of a city"

Rush hour in the city is chaotic and the major arterial routes are filled with cars. The main form of public transport is the bus network, which features Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in the centre. Although bus journeys are subsidised by the government, security is definitely an issue, which prevents many from using the bus network after work and in the evening.

In addition, the pedestrian/cycling experience feels secondary to motorised vehicles – there are few formal pedestrian crossings and no cycle pathways. Improving Quito’s cycling and pedestrian infrastructure presents a real opportunity for the city to encourage more sustainable modes of travel.

Indeed, the city government is taking steps to improve its public transport offer in city and is in the process of building a new metro line that will be opened in 2019. It is clear that the success of this project will largely depend on how safe users will feel on the new mode of transport in a city of relatively high crime, making security and surveillance key to the success of this initiative.

The measure of success

So what, then, does the Habitat III conference have in store for Quito? Well, for a week in mid-October the city will throng with statesmen, lobbyists and other visitors from all over the world, filling hotels to bursting point. Then they will all return home, having agreed a ‘New Urban Agenda’, and the city of Quito will be quiet again – fighting sprawl, crime and wrestling to establish itself as a destination for tourists and business.

It’s appealing to shower Quito in short-term publicity but, as much as we may want to look to the city during the conference, the real testament of its success will be to look at Ecuador’s capital in 30,40 or 50 years’ time and see whether the discussions held there have translated into positive change on the ground.

Zoe Green is an urban planning and development specialist and a manager in the cities and urbanisation team at PwC

Images | Zoe Green




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