Meet Augusto Barrera, the man who first thought to bring Habitat III to Quito

As the U.N.’s urbanization jamboree finally kicks off, what does the former mayor want the world to know about his city?

Barrera in 2012, while he was still Quito mayor. (Municipio del Distrito Metropolitano de Quito)

QUITO, Ecuador — Every idea starts in someone’s head, and the idea to host Habitat III in Quito sprang from the mind of former mayor Augusto Barrera.

This week that idea came to fruition, as Ecuador’s capital hosts tens of thousands of people from throughout the world to take part in the U. N.’s every-20-year conference on cities and sustainable urbanization.

Barrera was inspired by his experience 20 years ago, when he attended the last Habitat conference — Habitat II, held in Istanbul — as a young researcher on his way to a doctorate in sociology.

As mayor from 2009 to 2014, he planted the seed of Ecuador’s successful bid to serve as host country for Habitat III. The bid was in part an act of political unity — both Barrera and President Rafael Correa are members of the leftist Alianza PAIS party.

However, Barrera is not seeing his vision come to be from a perch at city hall. He was defeated at the polls in May 2014. Later that year, the U. N. agreed by consensus on Ecuador’s bid to host Habitat III. The unexpected political transition meant that Mauricio Rodas, from the conservative Movimiento SUMA, was handed the job of executing the conference in concert with his political opposition in the national government.

[See: Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas wants to show off a city of urban innovation and solidarity]

Barrera now coordinates the Center for Territorial Public Policy Research, known by its Spanish acronym CITE, at the Ecuador branch of FLACSO, a Latin American social-science university. CITE will host its own symposium, “Toward an Alternative Habitat III,” in parallel with the U. N. conference, boasting high-profile mayors such as Barcelona’s Ada Colau and Madrid’s Manuela Carmena alongside key intellectuals on the urban scene including Richard Sennet and Sassia Sasken.

Citiscope spoke with Barrera in April on the sidelines of the Habitat III Thematic Meeting for Latin America in Toluca, Mexico. This interview was conducted in Spanish; it has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you suggest Quito as the host of Habitat III?

While it is true that a lot of regions can contribute to the debate about cities and the urbanization process, Latin America has done it really well so far. We have had an absolutely accelerated urbanization process. In other words, what in Europe has taken a century and a half, in Latin America, it has taken 40 or 50 years.

And in spite of the weak development of industry, job generation and modernization of the economy, the cities in Latin America have been able to offer millions of people more access to utilities, better opportunities in life, higher levels of cultural exchange. We have overcome many obstacles to finally achieve what we could call the “social production” of habitat. Lots of neighbourhoods in Latin America are made by their own people through cooperatives. The concept of participatory budgeting and interesting mobility models, such as Curitiba, first appeared in Latin America — we are the pioneers.

[See: Delayed by earthquake, Ecuador moves forward on national urban priorities for Habitat III]

There is a lot to learn but also a lot to say. Based on these ideas we promoted a bid, which at first was kind of wild: a relatively small city in the south. We immediately had a very good response and support from the Latin American countries and cities. Then, we managed to convince the G77 [a major negotiating bloc of developing countries at the United Nations] to support a resolution for Habitat III to be held in Quito.

Which other cities or countries were bidding to host Habitat III?

Germany — Berlin were interested. Some Arab countries were also interested. Saudi Arabia was interested, and there was a certain interest from China. Berlin was a very strong opponent. Of all the other options, it was the one most willing to do it. We achieved something that, to me, is an extraordinary milestone, because it is a city that in a global scale is a big city, but it is not a great metropolis … Let’s just say it is not Istanbul. It is in the south; it is an Andean city.

We never saw it as one of these trendy mega-events, like the Olympics or the World Cup. We never saw it like that. We saw it from the perspective of collaborating [on] this New Urban Agenda.

Compare Quito to the host of the last World Urban Forum, Medellín, which is also an Andean city but is known around the world for its urban innovations. What about the city will inform this weeklong discussion about the New Urban Agenda?

As you say, there are cities that have dedicated more effort to their international image, and that is totally legitimate. But I am going to give you some basic facts about Quito: The coverage of utilities, like drinking water, in Quito is pretty close to European countries … over 99 percent. We have practically universalized electricity, we have almost 96 percent in that aspect. Regarding garbage collection, 97 percent.

So Quito is a city that, in spite of having grown extraordinarily, has achieved an important production of services, and this has been done by following a public enterprises model, like Medellín. We are not so well-known, but we have been almost as efficient.

Quito has the advantage of being the first [UNESCO] World Heritage Site, together with Cracow in 1978. And this gives Quito an extraordinary and attractive characteristic, because it is a city that has preserved almost 300 blocks of the historic centre. It has an extraordinary, monumental historical heritage, but it also one of the few cities that has managed to maintain a living historical centre, which we have to strengthen.

[See: Historic cities already embody sustainability principles]

Quito has an extraordinary level of regularization and formalization of neighbourhoods. This was one of the main tasks of my administration. Different from other cities with a high rate of growth in Latin America, at the moment the number of informal settlements is insignificant. We have almost solved the problem of neighbourhood regularization.

Quito was almost the first city to implement [bus rapid transit]. Only a few months after Curitiba, we started the first electrical BRT corridor, and now we have four corridors. We started building a metro, in a model of an integrated system in transportation. We developed a significant number of bike paths and launched our first bike-share programme. We have a network of parks and metropolitan areas — almost 22 square metres of green area per inhabitant.

During my administration, we developed a very interesting model of community development centres, which are akin to the centers in Medellín — maybe less ambitious, from an architectural point of view — but we built 43 centres to be able to develop social cohesion and inclusion in families. And, we have Sesenta y Piquito, which is probably the biggest programme dedicated to the elderly who do not have insurance, and which ranges from social services to medical plans to psychological support.

The Habitat III debate has raised a number of topics — the right to the city, integrated territorial development, the engendered city. Does Quito’s experience speak to any of these concepts?

We incorporated the right to the city in the Ecuadorian constitution, because we totally agree that the city is a common good. The city is not only infrastructure to support production; it does not have only, let’s say, an exchange value. It has a value of use that is the environment in which millions of people, through generations, develop their lives. And in that regard, we consider that that usufruct should be for everyone.

[See: The challenges of land and inclusion for the New Urban Agenda]

That is the concept we have about the right to the city, and we split that concept in three great pillars. First, the right to the city as overcoming material conditions: water, sewage system, mobility, parks, etcetera. The second pillar is a model of participative democracy. In Quito, we have participatory budgeting. And the third pillar has to do with no discrimination — an inclusive city that respects gender diversity; that is multicultural, with an indigenous and Afro component which, sometimes, is invisible; a city that respects children and that respects young people’s cultures.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa came to the U. N. in April to sign an agreement to host Habitat III. In his remarks, he specifically singled out real estate speculation as a practice that should be forbidden. How has that issue been addressed in Quito?

For us it is a vital matter, because the city is this accumulation, let’s say, of centuries of what we could call “spatial capital”. That capital must be distributed in an appropriate way, and the earnings produced by urbanization must be socialized. Those earnings, in the case of the cities, are expressed by land rent. For that reason, we support the creation of mechanisms to regulate and avoid real estate speculation and that socialize the earnings that rent produces. In other words, the earnings of that person should be shared with the society.

What is Quito’s biggest challenge?

While we have improved a lot regarding poverty, our city still has a high level of inequality. For us, the matter of equality in the city is very important. We believe in cities that reverse the segregation processes, cities without closed doors, in cities with lots of uses, with mixtures regarding social classes. We do not believe that the city should be an archipelago of islands, of closed developed areas and poor neighborhoods.

We believe in another kind of city. We do not believe in a sprawling city that consumes the ecosystem indiscriminately. We support a compact city, with densification at human scale, with a solid concept of poly-centricism; this is the key to us. It should not be a city with zones full of museums and monuments, and others where there are no hierarchies in the territory.

We made a clear bet, which is sometimes politically hard, on transforming the energetic matrix and the urban mobility system. We restricted the use of private vehicles with Pico y Placa [a road-space-rationing scheme based on license plate]; we developed non-motorized mobility and strongly boosted investment in public transportation systems. It is easier to say this than to actually do it because, in general, the one with the power in the cities is the car, right? When you refer to mobility, you think about streets and cars, and every time it gets clearer that neither the streets nor the private cars are the ones that solve mobility — in fact, they are the ones that complicate mobility in the city.

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

We made a very strong bet on multiculturalism and on building a civic culture of tolerance and respect. In the context of Europe with the refugees and the United States with racial tensions, there is a need to build civic multiculturalism, right? And in the second place, it is important because it has to do with the economy. While it is very important to value investment, it is much more important to value the availability of jobs. Considering that we are young cities, the quality and quantity of jobs for the young generation now is going to be determinant. Whether or not a young person can have access to a good job in 10 years, in my opinion, is crucial in Latin American cities.

So, here are some basic ideas about which we have taken a clear position: yes to the right to the city, yes to a model of a compact city, yes to working on facing inequalities, no to segregation, no to walled cities, no to expansion of rich suburbs towards poor cities, yes to regulation, yes to a fiscal tax policy, yes to a model of mobility based on public transportation.

What will be the legacy of Habitat III for Quito?

The statement itself should mark a milestone. In this regard, I do not buy that statements change the world. I am too old to believe in that, but I believe that having a forward-looking statement on rights helps a lot to change the world. A good statement can actually help, and I believe that a legacy should be a statement marking effectively a new urban agenda.

The other legacy, as important as the first one, is building a critical mass, a great global network. At the level of Quito, from the academic world, like FLACSO, we are creating a network of universities that are working to put together an urban academic agenda, which has never happened before. This network will be linked to networks of university students and scholars worldwide.

For people who are passionate about this topic, we should start thinking about the scenario post-Habitat. In other words, the way the resolutions and the agreements we are making regarding this critical mass start to work from the day after Habitat ends. I refer to supervision mechanisms, observation mechanisms, the types of indicators, observatories … the way in which the media handle cities, which I think is a key task. For a great part of the media, the city is basically a crime scene, the scenario for violence. Most media prefer to present the bumps, the person in an accident, the fallen lamp post, and not the set of social processes that allow urbanization to become a marvelous inspection of civilization. So, there is a lot to change.        

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