How Quito saves its historic district

Partnerships between the local government, national government and the Catholic Church keep Quito's historic center drawing tourists. (Anton_Ivanov / Shutterstock.com)

QUITO, Ecuador — This city on the slopes of the Andes boasts one of the largest and best-preserved historic districts in South America, the first ever to be declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.

That’s well known to many of the 200,000 tourists and locals who walk the Historic Center’s streets every day. What’s less known is the formula Quito has deployed to keep 130 massive colonial buildings and 5,000 historic properties looking great.

Quito’s Historic Center is lined with baroque and gothic churches, narrow cobblestone streets and colonial-era buildings that seem frozen in the 17th and 18th centuries. The effort behind the maintenance of this 360-acre (145-hectare) area is enormous, and based on a solid commitment — and financial effort — that involves the city government, national government and the Catholic Church.

“The interest in caring for the Historic Center is something that is quite ingrained in our culture,” says Angélica Arias, director of the Metropolitan Institute of Patrimony, or IMP, a city agency dedicated to historic preservation. “There is a culture of recognition and conservation of our heritage.”

The conservation efforts date back 75 years, when the first protection ordinances were drafted. But it was 50 years ago when the Commission for Historic and Heritage Areas — the entity that approves all building rehabilitation and maintenance work — was created. When UNESCO’s declaration arrived in 1978, it only bolstered the will of local authorities to work hard at keeping the designation.

Sharing responsibility

A turning point came in March of 1987, when a series of earthquakes damaged many historic buildings in the center. Money flowed in for repairs through the Inter-American Development Bank, Cooperación Española and the Caspicara Foundation, among many others. But the city also created a new operational structure for restoration work through an organization called FONSAL, which later became the IMP. In addition to being responsible for keeping the city’s registry of historic assets, the IMP has developed a management model that makes preservation a shared responsibility of multiple stakeholders.

The biggest partner is the Catholic Church. The 23 convents and religious structures that exist in the area are preserved through general arrangements between the Archdiocese of Quito and the city’s government, under a contract of mutual service.

The IMP provides regular maintenance of the buildings, paying for rehabilitation and supervising the work. In return, the Church opens its many monumental spaces to the public, including some of Quito’s most famous sites — the churches of La Compañía, San Francisco and Santo Domingo, as well as the Carmen Bajo convent. The Church also grants 50 full educational scholarships for children from low-income families, which are managed by the city’s Secretary of Social Inclusion.

The IMP has similar arrangements with private owners of significant buildings, as well as the national government, which owns a number of structures in the Historic Center. There’s a sense of shared responsibility for preservation — the city gives something and the building owners also give by taking care of the properties.

The national government also is involved in preservation efforts through its Revitalization of the Historic Center Project, which has a similar mission to the IMP. There’s been some tension between the city and national agencies, however. The municipality must approve any intervention in the Historic Center, which often requires some negotiation. Most recently, the two sides have had some disagreements about the government’s plan to transform the notorious former Garcia Moreno prison into a hotel.

However, the agencies are on the same page regarding projects such as construction of Quito’s subway, which will pass under significant sites such as the Plaza San Francisco, one of Quito’s most famous public spaces. “There are negotiations that will depend on the political climate,” Arias says, “But the will to preserve the patrimony has always prevailed.”

Costs and criticisms

Maintaining these old buildings costs a lot of money. From 2009 to 2013, the city government invested US$119 million in the effort; IMP’s budget for 2016 is US$23 million. (The municipality’s overall budget is US$1.5 billion.) The national government assigned more than US$150 million to the Revitalization of the Historic Center Project between 2013 and 2017…

Authorities believe the spending pays for itself. Quito’s Historic Center is the city’s main attraction, and an essential ingredient in a tourist industry that brought in US$400 million in income last year.

Still, there are questions about Quito’s strategies.

Jaime Izurieta, a local architect and urbanist, says the preservation effort has been directed too much at tourists and not enough at locals. “They’re betting on marketing,” Izurieta says. “They are betting on people from outside to see all the nice buildings that the city has.” Izurieta says Quito’s Historic Center has not become a place to live, as in Paris or Rome. The public spaces lack amenities such as places to sit down and drink coffee, talk to people and have a nice time. There’s not much use in visiting magnificent buildings, he says, if “when you exit them, you smell urine in the streets.”

An example of this disconnect is the newly restored Capitol Theatre. The neoclassical structure was built in 1910 and later used as an evangelical church. It was beautifully restored in 2014 with a US$3 million investment that enlarged the stage, improved seating and returned the facade to a bright white. But there are no parking spaces nearby and it can be difficult to find a taxi. At night, when most of the shows take place, crime in the surrounding areas can make walking around unsafe.

Another example is La Ronda, a narrow cobblestone street that’s long had a bohemian vibe. Through a project called “Manos a La Ronda” (Hands on La Ronda), the city government offers free use of the street’s restored houses to artists that specialize in the Escuela Quiteña — the Quito School of artistic tradition that can be seen in painting, sculpture, carved woods and forged metal.

In return, the artisans are required to have their workshops and galleries open to the public all week long. But sticking around the workshop all the time can be inconvenient for them and the tourists don’t show up every day. Sales have not exactly been brisk — some of the pieces are big and heavy and can cost many hundreds of dollars. To become a self-sustaining project, “Manos a La Ronda” still has a way to go.

Meanwhile, the Historic Center has been losing residents. From 1990 to 2010 the population dropped from 58,300 to 40,587, and it continues to decline. Part of the problem is economics. “Refurbishing these antique houses makes them much more expensive,” says Cristian Espinosa, director of the Metropolitan Direction of International Affairs. There simply aren’t enough affluent people in Quito who want to live in them. “Eighty percent of the second floors in the buildings of the Historic Center are empty.”

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Marcela is a Quito-based Journalist and writer. She has written pieces for magazines and newspapers in Ecuador and in other countries, including Soho, Mundo Diners and The Guardian. In 2014, she published her first book, a collection of short stories called “Matrioskas.” Full bio
Eduardo is a Quito-based journalist, writer and journalism teacher. He has written pieces for many newspapers in Ecuador and also has collaborated with The Guardian. In 2010, he published his first novel, “Los descosidos.” Full bio

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