by Jaime Izurieta-Vareaby, architect and urban designer, Quito, Ecuador
Rosa works about six miles away from her home. On a typical day she walks for 20 minutes to the nearest transit stop, where she takes two 45-minute buses followed by an additional 15 minute walk to arrive into work. Rush hour public transit rides can be stressful, with packed buses, thick smog, dangerous crossings, unfit bus stops and aggressive drivers. And that is when the weather helps. The design of the city that will host Habitat III in a few days time seems to deliberately neglect the more than 70% of citizens who do not travel by private car.
The city is preparing for the big event by encouraging private actors to implement placemaking projects within the La Mariscal neighbourhood, located right at the urban core. This settlement, dating from the early 20th century was the first local attempt of building a Garden City, and it has retained its scale and charm, although it concentrates a disproportionate part of the tourism and entertainment industries for the whole metropolitan area and is home to most bars, nightclubs and restaurants.
Many placemakers will install street furniture, plant trees and build parklets and bike parking. Artists will create open air galleries by painting over facades and walls. Food vendors will show up with happily designed trucks selling local and international dishes, restaurants and bars will contribute to the neverending block party and business owners will dress their shop fronts in their best wares. That is what most of the twenty- or thirty thousand visitors who come to Quito during the week of 17 October will see - and that will be the mental postcard of Quito that they take home.
Most of the people attending Habitat III will not have to make Rosa’s two-hour trip to get to the venue and afterparties. They will walk along streets that were designed when we still valued urban life and that have been renovated to meet current standards. They will most likely ignore the few glitches that make sidewalks hard to cruise and they will be able to enjoy the sunny walks that can be torture for those who have to work outside on tree-deprived streets.
The bones of La Mariscal. Photographs by author.
La Mariscal has about 20,000 residents and a daytime population of over 180,000. People flock daily to work, to school, or to grab a bite and a beer. The neighbourhood has enormous potential of becoming a centre of educational urbanism. Good practices within La Mariscal would raise awareness and recruit almost two hundred thousand neighbourhood ambassadors who would go back home every evening to the farthest reaches of Quito's metropolitan region thinking about lessons learnt and, with the right kind of encouragement, about how to share them.
The potential is there, and it does not require billion dollar investments in infrastructure and services. What we need is to turn every resident and visitor to La Mariscal into a potential citymaker. And, as it turns out, this will be less of a feat than one would otherwise think.
Quito is sitting on a gold mine, urbanistically speaking. The bland cityscape of underserved neighbourhoods (or wealthy ones with security concerns) that boast endless perimeter walls and deserted sidewalks miraculously disappear when you enter La Mariscal. Close proximity between people is pervasive on mostly open facades built with non-residential uses on the ground floors. The human scale of stores, food stalls and shopfronts adds to the ease of walking and keeps the trail interesting. The experience is part of an adequately designed, properly scaled, outside 'living room' where public space is open, inclusive and ready to be shared by all.
Only it currently doesn’t work quite that way. Violent crime is not unheard of and petty thefts occur daily in the area. Old diesel engines battered by the low oxygen in this city at an altitude of 2800 metres above sea level spew black smoke on every street, and noise is well beyond acceptable limits. Storefronts are not inviting and people rarely say hello, let alone chat about the weather with strangers. We can safely affirm that La Mariscal has the bones, but still has a long way to go before it is able to set an example and recruit its floating population as unconscious citymakers and ambassadors of good urban practice.
Typical Quito streets with endless perimeter walls and deserted sidewalks. Photographs by author.
I strongly believe that public space that gives out the right messages can transform the urban experience and motivate urbane and civic behaviour for all sorts of people. Experiments conducted by the Happy City Lab and the University of Waterloo tell us of the power of good urban environments in building strong, connected communities and curbing antisocial behaviour. The lessons that a city with the conditions of Quito can learn from those experiences and implement as part of a regional educational programme are countless.
We even have a neighbour with similar problems that has done this quite successfully. Medellín, Colombia is well known around the world as a back-from-the-brink, urban renaissance case. It has relied on a strong vision for transformation from the crime-ridden site of drug wars to a global leader for innovation and best urban practices. Millions of dollars have been invested on improving the built environment and on inclusive policies to weave together the social tissue. But there was one aspect of the renewal that could not have been bought with any amount of investment: the power of a well-designed educational campaign that relied on both urbanism and children.
Medellín bet on using every part of the experience within rehabilitated urban environments as an educational tool. They speak of “educational urbanism” as an instrument to teach citizens how to share public spaces, embrace diversity, respect one another and take care of the Commons. The strides that this city of three-million people, and roughly the same conditions as Quito, has achieved are an international example of urban reinvention. It has taken, literally, a village. Change would have come at a much slower pace had they not prioritised the educational component and the power of children to spread progress to all corners of the metropolitan area.
Quito has the bones but is lacking the software. Habitat III will bring tens of thousands of urban thinkers to the city, almost ten times the amount of visitors that we normally receive every day. It will put Quito's citizens to a test of tolerance, its systems to a test of resilience and its government to a test of efficiency. The city, its people and its administration will be dissected and analysed. Problems and solutions will be discussed and proposed, Our disposition to learn lessons and incorporate the key aspects of the New Urban Agenda to urban life will establish the path that Quito will tread in the coming years. How we respond and what we learn from the big event will shape our ability to create an exemplary urban environment one shopfront at a time and inspire the hundreds of thousands of citizens that come to La Mariscal on a daily basis to be ambassadors of good urbanism. By creating a critical mass of potential city makers we can spread the best practices on a metropolitan scale.
Good city form and an appropriate interface will not only impact our behaviour in a positive way. In the long run, it will create better interactions between citizens, build better urban networks and contribute to a happier, more sustainable city life for Rosa and all three million residents.
About the Author
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