Quito, Ecuador: From a mountain city with 20 volcanoes to a future smart city. An Interview with Riccardo Porreca

Quito, Ecuador.

Riccardo is the current coordinator of the Research at the School of Architecture and Urban Planning (FAU) of the UTE (Quito, Ecuador) where he is a professor of Urban Design and City Planning. In April 2017 he opened the Urban and Landscape Observatory of the FAU that investigates urban morphology and form of living in Ecuador. He is also a principal investigator of the research project “Urban Studies in Support of the Vision of Quito 2040” and participates in the project “Architecture in movement in the post-catastrophe reconstruction”. In the setting of Habitat III published the book “Hacer Ciudad – Calderón 2040” (Making city – Calderón 2040 ed.). He has been general coordinator of the I Urban Studies Congress organized by the Academic Network for City Studies. As an architect, he has participated, among others, in projects for big events in Italy and Hungary and to integrated sustainability programs in the province of Buenos Aires. He has a  Ph.D. in Architectural and Urban Design and in architecture from the La Sapienza University of Rome.

VG: Riccardo, Quito is famous today for its well preserved historical center, full of histories, memories, and contradictions. What are few of its key elements and what are the challenges for architects, urban planners, and policymakers when rethinking and readdressing the approach to the city?

RP: Quito is certainly a city full of contradictions; it is developed enough to feel it a city but at the same time not advanced enough to consider it a promising key player among the 21st-century cities. Maybe it will be in the near future.

In fact, living in a city with 50 km for 16 km, sprawled, with a very low density means feeling the greatest urban contradiction you can find in Latin America. We are located within the complex topography of the Andes mountains range, surrounded by 20 volcanoes, while Quito’s urban area occupies a long and narrow plateau, with great opposing elements. On the one hand, the historic center has a very compact and legible form and it is really interesting to see how people can creatively use the street.

On the other hand, other parts of the city reveal the consequences of a speculative and low-quality activity of land appropriation; they look very fragmented and without a recognizable image. Why is that? Because, historically in this city architects, urban planners and policymakers never worked in the same direction. The fact that agents didn’t have a high-quality educational level, and because of the absence of a foresight, all these have brought about a number of diverse urban landscapes all along the city. In this sense, Quito is not different from other capitals of Latin America. I mean that Quito is characterized by a neoliberal process of growing that emphasize the big difference among social-economics classes.

VG: What do you think are the critical challenges affecting the city?

RP: The exaggerated dimension of the city forces the low-income and minority populations living in the peripheries (with lower-income residents in the northern and southern poles of the city, and on the surrounding mountain slopes) to drive two or three hours per day to reach work, located at the economic center. Unfortunately, the transportation system and basic mobility services were not adequate to cover the citizens’ needs..Nevertheless, this contradiction says that when nothing is sure, everything is possible. This is Quito.

VG: Is there any ongoing project you can cite that has the potential of affecting urbanization in Quito and what are its challenges?

RP: The first is the underground line, which is a matter of great dispute, is going to be inaugurated very soon. As you can imagine this project could affect the land market and could help Quito to become a smarter city. For example, BIG is going to realize a first thirty – stories building of Quito close to the Carolina Station; and it is very likely that it won’t be the only one. However, the underground line will not reach the expanding suburban areas but will favor only the consolidated city. Considering the great diversity between suburbs and city center, wouldn’t the city profit so much more than regenerating the less favored parts?

Furthermore, because of its width, the BRT or bus line in Quito move parallelly in the south-north direction, so the challenge of this time is to create a complete and transversal transport network. It could really transform a life of the people. Actually, if we implement a good public policy, we could recover a walkable dimension, maybe developing a human scale. The biggest disadvantage is the absence of intelligent management program. Nowadays, if you want to use the public transport, you have to pay with a 25-cent coin and only.  You cannot pay with anything bigger than 5 dollars, not even with the chip; here we have no platform or app that helps you to organize the journey. It is almost ridiculous if you think that Quito has free Wi-Fi in every park and public space (often in BRT station too), you can pay everywhere with your credit card and every administrative practice can be done online. Definitively the underground line is for Quito a big opportunity to face many problems.

Photo Credit: elcomercio.ec

VG: Could Quito be considered a city flexible enough for urban planners to create environments that bring people from different walks of life and different parts of the city together? Are there any projects on movement management that use technology that could ameliorate the city experience? 

RP: Quito is one of the most flexible cities in Latin America. This is because its development is not yet completed; it has not yet reached a balance of density, services and urban development. We have a lot of things to do. It comes from a walkable city model (historic center) but now is a car-centered city; despite this has a lot of parks and every kind of people loves using them during the weekend. Everything here could be different and could be changed in a few years.

In recent years, many initiatives relate to mapping urban flows and to measure and monitor the acoustic impact of capital traffic. For example, Quito Council with Telefonica and LUCA measure the citizen’s movements in the city, based on urban data collected by the smartphones. Moreover, in 2017 some researchers mapped through ICT the acoustic contamination of Quito. The study reveals that in Quito some roads can reach 80 db. In a city so fragmented, giant, segregated and discontinuous, it is necessary to implement the technology to make decisions more effectively and quickly.

The technology already started to change the image of the city, now it is important that the national urban policy will support this change.

Photo Credit: Riccardo Porecca

VG: Does the national urban policy go hand in hand with this infrastructure development? And what specifically is the challenge for a city like Quito?

RP: It is a difficult question. In Ecuador, there is no lack of initiatives or a reluctant government to integrate technological assistance in the various management processes, but there is a big difference among the people who could use them or benefit from the projects and products produced by these programs. In my opinion, it may cause an imbalance between supply and demand, specifically when considering that the industry is underdeveloped because of the existing internal policies. Also the diverse topography (from 0 ma.s.l. to 6.268 ma.s.l in a few miles) does not help so much in these processes.

From the presentation of Ministerio de la Industria y Productividad, we discover that only 50% of people in Ecuador have access to the web, but also that there is a strong training program. Another important aspect is the public investments. Development relates more to the oil extraction, to the agro-industry and tourism. There is no strong focus on the technology industry. I mean that, obviously, Ecuador needs more and better infrastructure to move people and goods more quickly and efficiently, and extraction industry can offer many resources but is essential to provide people the daily technology to face urban problems and at the same time make them more competitive and curious at international level.

Quito can be the pioneer in a technological development due to its political position in Ecuador and especially for its urban situation. Among many reasons, there is no slum system, neither overpopulation and there are many universities that can help promote a very effective change. Nowadays Quito has to decide its future: to invest in technology and educational program or be underdeveloped for the next ten years.

 

VG: How do citizens and researchers embrace technology? Is it culturally accepted or challenged by any reason?

RP: People require technology and researchers are fighting for it. About that, Ecuador is very underdeveloped due to its backward industry policy. in fact, the introduction of technology is still incipient in the country due to a few factors: high costs, low educational level and still low incorporation in trade.

Nevertheless, society reacts. In several places, it is about including technological innovations in the overall work agenda. For example, Impaqto Lab inspires this type of innovation, by generating contests for technology-based ventures. One of these is called Reciveci (the neighbor that recycles ed.), an enterprise of street women recyclers (recicladoras base ed.) that using interactive geographically driven apps, assist the collectors to have fixed schedules and to not dig in the trash. And obviously, the collaborative platform like EasyTaxy, uber and Cabify are changing the idea of the private transport market.

The academic community also reveals a deep and ambitious change. For example, in the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU) of University UTE we are working on a project of a Fab Lab and -specifically for the Urban and Landscape Observatory (OUP) of FAU- where we’re implementing a geographic, urban and architectural survey program with GIS technology using a drone. We are mapping the urban form and studying the form of living of the Ecuadorian coast that is wild and in many cases closed off. We need technology to study and fix the problems of the country so wild and full of wild nature. Just as researchers, also citizen needs technology to be connected and to try to reach an Integral Human Development (IHD).

It seems something basic and not up to date but in this regional context, it is something important. Now the challenge for Quito and Ecuador is to create and use an interdisciplinary platform of scientific dialogue. In fact, there are many projects using GIS, managing drone-tech, implementing mechatronic product but it seems difficult to work in an interdisciplinary way and to reach results that are more effective and useful to society.

Photo Credit: Sebastian Narvaez

VG: Where do you see Quito in the next 5 years?

RP: Quito in the next 5 years could be very smarter or very underdeveloped. Everything will depend on the strategies that the next mayor will apply. I think this city has an enormous potential because of its urban, landscape and social characteristics and, obviously, of the general willingness to develop and the desire and ability to absorb technological innovations.

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