Quito, Ecuador, host of UN Habitat III, is a microcosm of challenges facing cities in an urbanizing world

UN Habitat III in Quito featured thousands of sessions on every imaginable topic relating to planning, financing, housing, accessibility, culture and women’s right to the city and public spaces.

The UN Habitat III conference in Quito will be the first time in 20 years (and the third since 1976) that the international community reinvigorates its commitment to the sustainable development of towns, cities and other human settlements, both rural and urban.

The product of that renewal is the New Urban Agenda. That agenda will set a new global strategy around urbanization for the next two decades.

Nestled at an altitude of 2,850 metres in a valley surrounded on all sides by Andes foothills and volcanos, Quito and its surroundings are full of historic, cultural and environmental treasures. 

iew from above Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Dennis Carr.

iew from above Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Dennis Carr.

It is a UNESCO World Heritage City and has been recognized for being a leader in planning for climate change adaptation and the current government’s development approach has emphasized housing and quality of life.  

Quito is also a microcosm of the challenges facing cities in a rapidly urbanizing world.

With a population of 2.6 million, it faces the same hurdles that other developing cities face as they try to accommodate growth without falling back on urban planning decisions that displace low-income communities and favour cars over people. 

BicaQuito Bike Share in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Dennis Carr.

BicaQuito Bike Share in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Dennis Carr.

Participants at Habitat III in Quito were treated to a dazzling array of workshops, networking events, dialogues, training events, plenaries, high level round tables, etc.

There were thousands of sessions on every imaginable topic relating to planning, financing, housing, accessibility culture, women’s right to the city, public spaces etc.

There was even a workshop on using Minecraft as a planning tool. 

Also included in the compound was a formal country and non-governmental-organization exhibition area while outside the compound, spread around the central area of Quito, was a selection of satellite pop-up exhibits and parallel events including the Habitat III Resistance Forum held at the local university. 

With so many dignitaries assembled, there were long queues for airport-style baggage checks with lines of attendees snaking back through the rest of the park as they wait for hours in the equatorial sun to get on site. 

UN Habitat III attendees lining up to enter the exhibition area. Photo by Dennis Carr.

UN Habitat III attendees lining up to enter the exhibition area. Photo by Dennis Carr.

These long line-ups to enter the formal Habitat III meeting hall in Quito was symbolic of the two solitudes referenced in the principles of New Urban Agenda.

There was security and fencing around the venue and great frustration over the long waits to enter the facility for the regular delegates versus relatively easy access for the state-sponsored delegates. 

While this underlined the importance of inclusivity in planning it also reminded those in the line-up, as it wound through the large El Arbolito Park, about the power of public spaces.

Those in line became participants in the agora, experiencing vendors hawking goods (including over-priced Panama hats to ward off the equatorial sun), children playing, adults strolling, public art, inexpensive street food and even peaceful demonstrations. 

Street vendors in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Dennis Carr.

Street vendors in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Dennis Carr.

But this host city is faced with a particular dilemma. While the New Urban Agenda document calls for smarter, more sustainable cities that prioritize public transit over private motorized transportation, early in the conference, delegates were greeted by a march of activists trying to stop a road expansion project that say would displace nearly 70 percent of a nearby village’s population. 

Peaceful demonstration in Quito protesting a road expansion project. Photo by Dennis Carr.

Peaceful demonstration in Quito protesting a road expansion project. Photo by Dennis Carr.

The City of Quito is partnering with a Chinese corporation to create a $131 million tunnel expansion and bridge project aimed at alleviating the massive gridlock that blocks the city’s busiest road.

Quito’s Mayor believes the project is necessary not only to ease gridlock but also to give the city a new emergency exit if it comes face-to-face with the types of natural disasters that have shattered Ecuadorian cities in the past.

Of course Quito is not alone in its dilemma regarding creating infrastructure for the automobile versus investments in public transportation and non-motorized means of travel. 

In British Columbia, the province (without a referendum) is pursuing replacement of the Massey Tunnel under the Fraser River with a new $3.5-billion, 10-lane bridge.

This is despite the objections of, among others, the Metro Vancouver Mayors who argue the proposed project “represents an expansion of car-oriented infrastructure and diverts crucial funds from transportation projects that support the regional growth strategy." 

In the City of Ottawa, which is currently constructing the first leg of its east - west rapid transit system, the provincial infrastructural minister announced yet another ‘strategic widening’ of the east- west Queensway expressway to, as he put it “spend more time at home with your family”. 

As if.

One week later, Ontario’s Premier announced the details of the provincial long-term energy plan including her government’s aspiration to “become a North American leader in low-carbon and zero-emission”.  

In other words, Quito is a perfect example of the types of contradictions leaders face in the post-Habitat III world, as the legacy of past urban planning decisions conflicts with the New Urban Agenda’s push for more inclusive, sustainable cities without falling back on outmoded urban planning practices, displacing low-income communities and favouring cars over people. 

When the assembled advocates and experts go back to their home countries, will the lessons from Habitat III and the recommendations of the New Urban Agenda be reflected? In Ecuador, Canada and elsewhere, will anything have changed for the better?

In October, Dennis Carr attended the UN Habitat III conference in Quito. He has 26 years’ experience creating affordable housing and social facilities in Ottawa and Vancouver.