In Ecuador’s highlands, learning from Latin American cities’ ups and downs

What can the Habitat III process learn from the cities of Central and South America?

“We just don’t use our public spaces in the same manner as when we come to the Latin American cities," said one delegate at a recent Habitat III meeting in Cuenca, Ecuador, pictured. (Greg Scruggs)

CUENCA, ECUADOR — On a recent weekday night in the town gazebo here, a half-dozen teenage boys trot out a speaker and begin blasting bass-heavy hip-hop as they try out fresh breakdancing moves in the shadow of an ornate Neo-Gothic cathedral. The police, who keep a watchful eye on the central plaza of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, quickly move in, but not to cut the sound and fine the dancers. Instead, the cops pull out their cell phones and begin filming, many of them smiling as they watch the teens work up a sweat.

In New York City’s Times Square, where semi-nude buskers have become the recent subject of mayoral ire, this probably would not have passed muster. In London’s Trafalgar Square, too, the metropolitan police likely would have been quick to invoke “anti-social behaviour” ordinances. In Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, any activity that rocks the boat is sure to incur the wrath of the authorities.

But in Cuenca, as in much of Latin America, there is a more laissez-faire attitude toward public space. Elsewhere that week, a municipality-sponsored “Bailoterapia”, or dance therapy, gathered several dozen residents of all ages in a small public square, where an energetic instructor led the group in a dance-and-fitness routine.

These unscripted snapshots of urban life proved powerful for visitors to Ecuador’s third-largest city during last week’s Habitat III thematic meeting on intermediate cities, the first such preparatory event in the region ahead of next year’s urbanization summit.

[See: Will the liveability of intermediate cities lead to megacity problems?]

“One of the things that we need to learn from the Latin American experience is how they use their public spaces,” said Kelly Hunte, co-chair of the Barbados National Habitat Committee. “We just don’t use our public spaces in the same manner as when we come to the Latin American cities.”

What the Barbadian delegation gleaned from their visit to the Ecuadorian highlands was not a fluke. Latin America is the most urbanized region in the world, with 80 percent of its residents living in cities. Habitat III will take place in one of those cities, Quito, and shine a bright light on the region’s urban experience.

“With Habitat III in Ecuador, we have to wake up,” urged Ana Claudia Rossbach of Cities Alliance, a global network aligned to fight urban poverty.

[See: Public space: Integrating urban ‘living rooms’ into public development]

Urbanism laboratory

The Latin American contributions to trends in urban innovation are legion. Curitiba invented bus rapid transit, now a worldwide transportation trend, in the 1980s. Medellín pioneered the use of aerial cable cars to connect low-income hillside communities, which now dot the landscape of half a dozen South American cities.

“Latin America functions like a laboratory. The big experiments in urbanism happen in Latin America.”

Ana Claudia Rossbach
Cities Alliance

Likewise, Porto Alegre invented participatory budgeting, a democratic approach to managing a city’s finances that is becoming increasingly popular in the Global North. Brazil’s City Statute is considered the world’s most progressive urban legislation, aggressively staking out the “Right to the City” and pushing for the social function of land, a concept that prohibits real-estate speculation.

[See: Pope Francis invokes Right to the City amid focus on migration]

“Latin America functions like a laboratory,” Rossbach said. “The big experiments in urbanism happen in Latin America.”

Much of this can be attributed to a strong civil society and a robust network of NGOs on key fronts such as housing, transportation and the environment. Rossbach sees the hands of advocates in the 2003 creation of the Brazilian Ministry of Cities, for example. “It was the result of a long period of activism by civil society for 20 years, an important fight to bring the theme of cities onto the national agenda,” she said.

A few years later, in 2006, a citizen-led campaign resulted in a law creating a national social housing fund. This was first piece of legislation drafted and proposed by the public rather than by politicians.

Champions of inequality

But just as the region can point to bold ideas about how cities should function, it is also has its drawbacks.

“We are the champions of inequality and violence,” Rossbach said, pointing out that Latin America averages some 25 murders per 100,000 people, an astoundingly high figure. According to a 2014 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, this number compared to just 2.9 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in Asia, the world’s most populous region.

Last year, three groups — UN-Habitat; CAF, the Development Bank of Latin America; and the Avina Foundation — published “Construction of More Equitable Cities: Public Policies for Inclusion in Latin America”. The book disaggregates national data on inequality to the municipal level and proves that national policies are not indicative of local trends.

Despite Brazil’s Bolsa Familia conditional cash-transfer programme, for instance, in recent years inequality in Curitiba and Brasília has increased by 50 percent. In Belém, on the other hand, it has been reduced by up to 30 percent. The New School’s Michael Cohen called the study “one of the most significant pieces of intellectual work done in an international agency on this question.”

In April, lead researcher Eduardo Moreno spoke about the book during preparatory negotiations for Habitat III. Despite the region’s robust civil society, he cautioned, “You need the state, because citizen participation alone will not reduce inequality; it will not address the structural [problems] of the city.”

The growth and management of informal settlements in the region provides a strong example of this point. Some 860 million residents of Latin America and the Caribbean live in informality, from Brazilian favelas to Venezuelan barrios to Haitian bidonvilles. That’s almost a quarter more than in 2000.

While programmes such as Rio de Janeiro’s Favela-Bairro have won design awards and are considered international models of informal upgrading, politics can sabotage the best of public policy intentions.

Rio’s latest iteration of an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)-funded programme, known as Morar Carioca, aimed to upgrade every favela in the city by 2020. But according to Juliana Barbosa, author of “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God”, the ambitious effort was effectively shelved for political reasons.

Meanwhile, in Rio’s Olympic bid for next summer’s games, the situation was far different. Funds were approved, a design competition was held, contracts were issued, and the programme was discussed as key to the city’s social legacy.

Different velocities

With just 11 months to go until Habitat III, urban experts across Latin America and the Caribbean are finding new ways to share ideas that will ideally have lasting impact beyond the conference.

[See: Ahead of Habitat III, the Caribbean makes a case for a region of cities]

The day before the Cuenca meeting began, the IDB co-hosted a gathering of Latin American and Caribbean members of the “policy units”, the 10 expert groups currently hashing out key contributions to the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year strategy that will come out of Habitat III. The meeting was spearheaded by Cities Alliance, supported by the IDB, GIZ and the Quito-based Center for Public Policy and Territorial Research at the Latin American School of Social Sciences (CITE FLACSO in Spanish).

The hope is that this network, which consists of approximately 40 people, will create a coherent Latin American and Caribbean perspective for the Habitat III outcome, befitting the region’s status as host.

The network will have plenty of opportunities to work toward that goal in the next several months. Both Paraguay and Barbados will host closed-door expert group meetings in December, while Mexico City and Mexico state will host Habitat III preparatory meetings in March and April, respectively. The latter of these will be the regional meeting for Latin America and the Caribbean.

[See: Citiscope’s calendar of Habitat III events]

However, an overture from the network to the U. N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean to serve as an advisory body for the preparation of the regional report was rebuffed.

For Lorena Balbuena from Paraguay’s National Secretariat for Housing and Habitat, the potential is clear. “We must strengthen technical cooperation on the route to Habitat III, while recognizing the different velocities of housing and urban policies in Latin America and the Caribbean,” she said.

[See: The Caribbean seeks to assert its identity in the New Urban Agenda]

A little over two months ago, Paraguay assumed the rotating presidency of MINURVI — the General Assembly of Ministers and High Authorities of Housing and Urban Development of Latin America and the Caribbean — following the roundtable’s annual meeting in Montego Bay. Habitat III was high on the agenda as host country Jamaica, one of the few U. N. member states to have already submitted its Habitat National Report, urged its colleagues in the region to do the same.

With national governments in the region also steadily committing to the Habitat III process, Latin American and Caribbean policy unit experts have all the more reason to organize ahead of the conference in order to learn from one another.

After all, there are vast differences across the region, from high-altitude towns in the Andes to tropical metropolises and from sprawling modernist cities to historic urban settlements. As the IDB’s Michael Donovan pointed out, “Haiti isn’t Brazil, and São Paulo isn’t Tegucigalpa.”

Stay up to date on all Habitat III news! Sign up for Citiscope’s weekly newsletter here.

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary