Urban renewal for whom?
Quito, the first city to be awarded the World Heritage distinction by the UNESCO, has been under continuous observation by national and international organizations that aim to protect mostly its historical center, one of the biggest and best preserved of the Americas. But, it is necessary to ask ourselves the following: what is exactly being preserved in this almost three-decade process of constant urban renewal? and, what has been the real cost of this preservation?
On the eyes of tourists operators and some urban planners there is no doubt that the rich morphology of the Historical Center offers the kind of beauty that can be exploited for city marketing and commercial development.
Although this area of the city had acquired a commercial spirit even before the World Heritage distinction took place, the great renewal project has created a new synergy between young entrepreneurs and physically renovated amenities and public spaces, bringing new franchises and even more consumers back to the historic downtown.
It is relatively easy to list the countless benefits this renewal has brought to ground level shops, by putting consumers to walk directly in front of the shops. What is not very easy to see, at least not in the eyes of regular visitors, is the exclusion that many legitimate residents and street vendors are suffering.
An elderly street vendor walks around the Independence Square (Plaza Grande) of Quito. This is a daily routine for many who search for customers in public spaces, and sometimes get expelled and rejected.
As it would be expected, this renewal has implied a selective process, in which the formal and profitable is separated from the informal and “undesirable”. And the special focus on formal retail activity and tourism, has left aside two fundamental groups of our society: residents and street vendors.
Behind the facade, lies a degraded housing scheme that threatens the quality of life of its residents, and the many attempts to “bring back” residents under special housing programs pose the risk of becoming municipal gentrification instruments. Those nationals that came to Quito to populate the historical center 30 to 50 years ago, after many quitenians settled in expansion districts, were considered immigrants who took advantage of the circumstances: an uncontrolled housing scheme of low rent prices and valuable access to job opportunities,at the cost of space. But after all these decades, they might still not be treated as legitimate residents since they are not participating of the urban renewal benefits.
And not only them. Many street vendors that were expelled from the public space around 15 years ago suffered -and still do- a more explicit form of exclusion. Past municipal administrations have relocated them in a sort of from formal popular marketplaces, located in sectors where urban renewal is poor. That partly explains why they are slowly reclaiming the historical streets of Quito, where their consumers actually go. Thus they are becoming again a visible component of this heritage city.
Nonetheless, this does not mean exclusion has stopped. Despite what authorities order, the metropolitan police tends to expel street vendors that are in touristic areas, in benefit of the city marketing and formal retail shops.
The Historical Center of Quito is disputed by many, but renewal is still happening only around those who can pay for it. This exclusion process seems to be intended to reveal the value of our colonial architecture, but might be actually revealing a problem that we haven’t stopped to figure out.
Why insist in expelling or ignoring those who build up an important part the social and economic structure of our the Historical Center?
Before social tension arises we need to focus in developing new instruments and policies that include all of the actors, and thus transform urban renewal in a vehicle for overall well being.
My name is Andrés Cevallos. I am 29. I was born in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. I have always been curious about how a city works, which has has awakened my interest in social studies and urbanism. Since I graduated as an architect I have worked in several projects related to the urban problem: social housing developments, consultant teams for projects for comercial public amenities and public space rehabilitation. Prior to becoming an IHS student, I had been working for a governmental institution that aims to develop a 'knowledge city' for Ecuador. This helped me to understand the role of public policy in shaping our cities. But it was only until I joined IHS that I acquired the knowledge to integrate all the dimensions into a managment framework: economics, public finances, legislation, policy, environmental management, social issues and infrastructure. Since I graduated as a MSc UMD, I have been working in the Municipality of my city, contributing as a specialist in the Habitat and Housing Municipal Company, contributing with ideas for urban development under an integrated perspective.