How is Quito preparing for Habitat III?

In eight months, tens of thousands of international delegates, local authorities, stakeholders and urbanists are expected to descend on Ecuador’s capital for the U.N.’s major urbanization conference.

The Old Town of Quito as seen through the towers of the Basilica del Voto Nacional. (Rafal Cichawa/Shutterstock)

Seventeenth-century churches will be transformed into public forums discussing the latest innovations in housing and urbanism. The largest-ever gathering of mayors and local leaders will give cities a voice on the international stage. Some 40,000 people, among them grass-roots activists, business leaders and curious citizens alike, will stroll through neighbourhoods transformed. One by one, world leaders will commit to a new urban agenda for the next 20 years on this increasingly urbanized planet.

This, at least, is what organizers hope will be the scene in Quito on 17-20 October, when the Ecuadorian capital hosts the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development — commonly known as Habitat III. It will be the first U. N. summit held in Ecuador and will almost certainly be Quito’s largest-ever event in terms of foreign visitors. For attendees familiar with the World Urban Forums, the biennial gathering hosted by UN-Habitat, the event is shaping up to be a WUF on steroids.

Still, Quito is no stranger to major events, particularly following a visit last year by Pope Francis that mobilized a million people for a public Mass, over half of them visitors from outside Quito. But the scale, global visibility and prestige of Habitat III has officials paying attention. “We should be very proud that Quito will host this grand event,” Housing and Urban Development Minister María Duarte said this week. “We are prepared to organize Habitat III in Quito — it’s a great responsibility.”

Duarte spoke to a crowd of dignitaries during the formal launch of Ecuador’s path toward Habitat III, which will include a countrywide dialogue about the state of the country’s cities and culminate in a national urban forum.

[See: Ecuador hosts Habitat III discussion on intermediate cities]

Quito is Ecuador’s second-largest city behind the port town of Guayaquil and is dealing with many of the issues at the heart of Habitat III’s debates — rural-to-urban migration, urban mobility, public space, minority rights, natural disasters and cultural heritage. Indeed, some of these issues have direct bearing on how well the city will be equipped to handle the influx of visitors later this year.

Lay of the land

In understanding Quito’s preparations for Habitat III, it helps first to understand the lay of the land — how, physically, the event is planned to take place.

“We should be very proud that Quito will host this grand event. We are prepared to organize Habitat III in Quito — it’s a great responsibility.”

María Duarte
Ecuador’s Housing and Urban Development Minister

“Being the host of Habitat III will allow us to open up our country’s front door to the world,” Duarte said Wednesday at La Capilla del Hombre (The Chapel of Man), a small art museum designed by Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamiín and dedicated to the suffering of Latin American people.

The museum is one of the many cultural gems that dot Quito, which promises no lack of unique venues for a once-in-a-generation gathering like Habitat III. The historic centre’s well-preserved collection of baroque architecture — the city is the oldest capital in South America — was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, among the first cities to receive that distinction, and has made Quito a global leader in historic preservation and adaptive reuse.

[See: Cultural rights pushed as ‘key pillar’ of sustainable development]

The equator — the country’s namesake — runs through the northern part of the city in the aptly named Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World). The neighbourhood was a symbolic choice for the headquarters of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR in Spanish), a political and economic grouping loosely modeled on the European Union that came into effect in 2011.

In 2014, Quito hosted eight heads of state and government during the UNASUR summit that inaugurated the new headquarters — a modernist, cantilevered affair quite different from the downtown’s ornate facades. And last month, 13 regional leaders converged on the building for the annual summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

The exact number of heads of state and government expected in Quito for Habitat III will be known only later this year. Whoever comes, they will meet nearer to the historic centre, at the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana (Ecuadorian House of Culture, or CCE), a 1950s-era multipurpose building that is home to museums, libraries and theatres.

During the conference, the CCE will temporarily become United Nations territory — under which certain rules differ from Ecuadorian law — and will only be open to accredited delegates. The CCE will host all plenary debates at Habitat III in its two theatres, the 4,500-seat Agora and 2,100-seat National Theatre. Up to 10 side events can also take place there simultaneously in rooms holding 200 people each.

When Citiscope visited Quito in November, sections of the CCE’s exterior were tired — fading concrete in places had been tagged with graffiti. But the interior was buzzing, at the time, with bibliophiles browsing stalls during an annual book fair.

According to Juan Andres Salvador, the government’s coordinator for Habitat III, the building will undergo renovations ahead of Habitat III. It will probably also host the High-Level Summit of Indigenous People later this year, helping to ease the building through its temporary transition from national cultural centre to host of an international summit.

Delegates can expect to find one or two entrances to the security perimeter surrounding the conference complex, which will encompass the entire Arbolito Park next to the CCE. As at the  World Urban Forums, there will be an exhibit hall for traditional booth displays by countries, cities, universities, NGOs and any other group looking to have a public presence at Habitat III.

[See: Quito Questions: How do I apply to attend Habitat III?]

While the call for these exhibits has not yet been released, national and local officials suggested that the most likely venue will be the Ecuadorian National Assembly, just 850 metres from the CCE. In that case, it is probable that both the plenary hall and exhibits will be contained within the security perimeter for accredited delegates, with the adjacent 6 of December Avenue pedestrianized for easy access between the two.

Across the avenue to the west lies El Ejido Park, which will remain outside the security perimeter during Habitat III. As the largest park in downtown Quito, it will offer a public space during the weeklong conference, potentially hosting anything from performances to protests while also providing delegates a chance to interact with everyday Quiteños.

Inside ‘the zone’

The Habitat conference complex is centrally located and within walking distance of the Mariscal neighbourhood, where most hotels are located. Plaza Foch, ground zero for the Mariscal neighbourhood’s bustling mix of bars, restaurants, nightclubs and backpacker hostels, is just a kilometre away.

“At every global conference, unless it’s in New York, there’s always a concern about where people are going to stay.”

Manuela Pinilla
Huairou Commission

The best estimates suggests that there are approximately 22,000 hotel beds in Quito, according to Jonathan Viera, a spokesperson for the government’s Habitat III office. “In this city there is sufficient accommodation,” Duarte told Citiscope in November.

“There are inexpensive, mid-level and top-notch lodgings, which, even though prices are competitive, have all the conditions for presidents and other world leaders,” she said. “What’s more, Ecuador is one of the countries with the most affordable accommodations, and there’s no problem finding cheap lodgings.”

At present, the government does not have plans to temporarily boost lodging options by, for example, partnering with websites like Airbnb to encourage home sharing during Habitat III.

In January, the Huairou Commission, an NGO network representing grass-roots women actively organizing ahead of Habitat III, sent a delegation to Quito, in part to secure affordable lodging. Manuela Pinilla was part of the delegation and acknowledged that housing during the event is “definitely a concern”. However, this issue is not unique to Quito. “At every global conference, unless it’s in New York, there’s always a concern about where people are going to stay,” she said.

The complex is also relatively near the historic centre and a cluster of five universities, which are likely to host events in parallel with the conference. But these other venues are not quite walking distance for those with physical limitations or pressed for time running from one event to the next. For example, Plaza Grande, the colonial plaza at the heart of the historic district, is 2.3 km away — a solid 30-minute walk, at 2,850 meters above sea level, no less.

[Have a question about Habitat III? Ask Citiscope!]

Quito does have a bus rapid transit (BRT) system, and the CCE is served by a stop on the EcoVía line that runs down 6 of December Avenue. The fare is a modest USD 0.25 (Ecuador uses the U. S. dollar). Still, at 7:00 pm on a weeknight, three buses too full to take on passengers whizzed through the station before this reporter gave up and took a taxi that spent a fair amount of time stuck in traffic.

With tens of thousands of visitors needing to get around central Quito during the conference, what is the government’s mobility plan? There isn’t one, Duarte, the minister responsible for Habitat III, said during an interview in her office in November. Investments in public transit are the Quito government’s responsibility, she noted.

“We have talked to the mayor, and during those few days we’re going to give people facilities so they can get around on public transport,” she said. “That’s a commitment by the mayor.” Duarte’s office did not return requests for updates.

Duarte made it clear during the November interview that, in her opinion, the national government’s responsibility largely stops at the CCE’s doors. She suggested that the government would help with logistics for some high-level events, such as a mayors’ cocktail, but that these would be kept near the plenary halls. “People could walk to these places,” she said.

Cristian Espinosa, meanwhile, is the international-relations coordinator for the City of Quito. He referred to a “zone”, the 3 km radius from the CCE where most Habitat events are likely to take place.

“The city has proposed that inside this zone [we will] make available a bus circuit that will be available for all accredited delegates,” he said in November. But he indicated that there was no official plan yet on the table. It is also unclear how pedestrianizing 6 of December Avenue would affect BRT operations.

In response to a request this week for updates on the mobility plan, he said: “The municipality is coordinating with the United Nations and the government, and the mobility plan will be ready in a timely fashion for the conference. We are certain that the planning will facilitate successful logistics for the delegates during Habitat III.”

Other than the CCE renovation, the national government’s only committed financial outlay is a USD 9.8 million contribution to the Habitat III Trust Fund, a direct payment to the United Nations to cover the extra costs of hosting the conference in Quito as opposed to, say, New York City or Nairobi. Duarte indicated that the government will not be investing in major infrastructure upgrades ahead of the conference.

[See: Ecuador announces initial funding for Habitat III preparations]

Coping with Cotopaxi

Before delegates navigate Quito’s streets, however, they have to get there. And the risk that a volcanic eruption could interrupt Habitat III probably wasn’t on U. N. negotiators’ minds when they picked Quito to be the host city in late 2014.

“According to the chief volcanologist at Ecuador’s national Geophysical Institute, the worst Quito would suffer during a serious eruption is a coating of ash and recommendations that people stay indoors.”

But last summer, the Cotopaxi volcano, just 55 km from the historic centre, awoke from a century-long slumber, sending up ash plumes that were visible from the city. In 1999, the Guagua volcano, just 12 km from Quito, erupted for the first time since 1660 and closed the airport for 36 hours. Since then, Quito has opened a new airport further from the city, but ash clouds from Cotopaxi could still affect it.

[See: As Cotopaxi awakens, Quito and its suburbs get ready for a volcanic eruption]

Representatives of Ecuador’s national government, Quito’s local government and the United Nations all assured Citiscope that the tens of thousands of delegates planning to come to Quito, including many national leaders, have nothing to worry about. Following a two-month state of emergency last year, Cotopaxi has calmed down.

Still, scientists continue to monitor the volcano closely. According to the chief volcanologist at Ecuador’s national Geophysical Institute, the worst Quito would suffer during a serious eruption is a coating of ash and recommendations that people stay indoors. The event thus would probably not be life threatening, but it definitely could be disruptive to a major international conference.

Cotopaxi is just one of numerous peaks along Ecuador’s so-called “Avenue of the Volcanoes”. Both Duarte and Espinosa said all necessary emergency and contingency plans are in place, and they referred additional questions to the figure in charge of volcano preparedness in the country, Security Minister César Navas. He would not go into much detail on the issue, saying only that there are “cantonal, provincial and national contingency plans” for an eruption, coordinated by his office.

[See: Who are the Habitat III major players?]

“We have had several volcanoes in eruption for years, and we know how to live with erupting volcanoes,” Duarte said. “More than any other country, we have the capacity for resilience when it comes to volcanoes.”

Stay tuned to Citiscope as more information becomes available about Habitat III in Quito — on travel, lodging, registration and more. Sign up for our weekly newsletter here! 

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