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Urban Sprawl In Quito Ecuador History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The issue of urban sprawl affects areas differently, if not necessarily in the vein of infrastructure, then definitely in response. Quito, Ecuador, like the rest of the world is adjusting to the twenty-first century and dealing with a change in its historic city center. However, the scenario that plays out in the United States stages a little differently in this capital on the equator.

In its current state, Ecuador has only existed since 1999. The area where Quito, the capital of Ecuador, now resides once was a part of the Incan empire. However, when the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizzaro, arrived in 1533 the Incan empire soon fell. Quito acted as the governing settlement for the new Spanish territories in South America in 1563. In 1717, Quito and the surrounding area joined the Viceroyalty of New Granada. This gave way to the federation Gran Colombia in the early 1800’s. Quito moved away from this federation a couple decades later and took a name reflecting its geographical place in the world, Ecuador, meaning “Republic of the Equator”. The 1900’s saw continual border disputes between Ecuador and its neighbors. 1999 finally brought what seems to be a stable state to the boundaries of Ecuador. While the physical boundaries appear to be decided, the twentieth constitution for Ecuador gained approval in 2008; elected presidents have had a hard time maintaining power and the last three have been thrown out before completing a term. The make-up of the government is similar to the United States with an executive, legislative, and judicial branch all present.

Quito’s population is around 1.5 million according to differing census reports. The city is the capital of its province as well as the country of Ecuador, and it has the second highest population in the country behind the coastal city of Guayaquil. Quito lies in the Guayllabamba river basin in the Andes Mountains. An active volcano borders the city, and the city sits at an elevation around 9,000 feet above sea level. The bulk of the population is a mixture of Spanish descent and native Indian descent (the native population makes up about a quarter of the population). Also, multiple languages are spoken: the two main ones are Spanish and the native tongue, Quichua. Due to the high elevation in the Andes and the location on the equator, Quito’s climate is consistently mild year round, though snaps of cold have been known to drift over the mountains.

The look of Quito comes from its Spanish colonial roots. Spanish Baroque architecture characterizes the lavish churches and buildings making up the city’s center. “The church of San Francisco is lavishly decorated, its main altar rich with platinum, gold, and myriad tiny mirrors” (Kiernan, J. p 6). An agency of the United Nations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) placed Quito on its World Heritage List in 1978; they said of Quito, “the colonial center of the city to be part of the universal cultural patrimony, the first city in the Americas to be so designated” (p 7). The Union of South American Nations also picked Quito to act as its headquarters.

With Quito being the capital for Ecuador, many issues concerning the nation affect the city directly as well. One example is the constant conflict with the indigenous tribes of the Amazon. The bulk of Ecuador’s income derives from oil. In 1992, a coalition of Amazonian people marched out of the jungle and into Quito to demand recognition for lands to protect it from foreign oil companies destroying the homes they knew.

Though urbanization is coming slower to Ecuador as a whole, many other twenty-first century issues are being experienced in Quito. The depletion of the urban center is one. However, more factors are at play than the building of the suburban dream that drives the phenomenon of urban sprawl in the states. In Quito, the issue of land invasion helps to skew the numbers when examining the issue.

Five hundred families moved to Quito in 1990 and began to build homes on privately owned lands. They opted for private lands because of the ferocity with which the government defends public property in contrast to the attitude of indifference concerning private estates. Sixto Durán Ballén was mayor of Quito then. He decentralized the Quito government and made the city responsible for “electricity, water, sewers, and titling throughout the Quito metropolitan government” (Dosh, P. & Lerager, J. p 35). Meanwhile, district officials suffered no accountability to the voters because they were appointed by Ballén. This meant that as private lands were being stolen, the district officials had little incentive to do anything about it. So as more land invaders flooded in, population numbers rose in outlying areas of Quito.

“Urbanism permeates the world view of the white-mestizo sectors of Ecuador and is denied by other Ecuadorians” (Whitten N. et al. p 664). These areas are considered the prime locations to live, defining those that do as the premier citizens. These people tend to be wealthy, politically connected and Catholic. While there is a sharp distinction in social structure along rural and urban classes, the poor rural citizens find it possible to stay with relatives in the city making urban life accessible. The bulk of urban growth coincided with Ecuador’s dependence on petroleum which began in the 1970’s; this has begun to change the look of the city from a colonial relic to now include skyscrapers and foreign building materials.

Many generalizations regarding Latin American cities and their urbanization hold true about Quito. With the greater importance of global networking, many rural families are moving to the urban life in Quito to access better jobs. “This revaluation has, among other matters, two explicit determining factors: the process of globalization and demographic transition” (Carrion, F. p 2). In this regard, Quito is experiencing positive growth in the right areas, as city denizens are allowed to congregate in natural centers providing strong networks to encourage the growth of a healthy city. In the first half of the 1900’s, Quito tended to expand outward, today the city is filling in rather than out. The historic center in Quito has such a rich history it remains a rallying point for this growth. When it was named on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, there were obligations to maintain the integrity of the downtown area. “Gentrification has come to the colonial center; houses are being converted into aparatments….mansions have restored and cultural spaces opened up…at night, the city’s largest churches and squares are bathed in spotlights” (Kiernan, J. p 7).

Still, beauty alone might not be enough to hold the attention at the city’s Historic district. While Quito’s downtown is an attraction to many visitors, a lot of the central functions have moved away. The street markets have been given indoor residence closer to the periphery of the city. “The moment at which historical centres lose their centrality functions….[they] can erode or drain away by various routes” (Carrion, F. p 4). One way Quito has maintained the vitality of its downtown historic district is by keeping it accessible to another major economic center: this is the Mariscal Sucre. The Mariscal Sucre a major international airport, by aligning it with the historic district, interest is kept alive in the heart of Quito.

The city square can also be a vital place for residents of a city to congregate and interact. This solid identification with known landmarks helps bind the city together. Quito’s square is consistently bustling, but it is not the residents that make up the majority of this crowd. “In Quito….about eight times more people than live there, commute….because the centrality is a public space which concentrates information, forms of representation and markets, in addition to organizing collective life and the city” (Carrion, F. p 8). Helping to capitalize on these pilgrimages, Quito switched an old warehouse into a shopping mall, and hospital houses into museums. By keeping the city’s historic center relevant, Quito helps attract residents to the city center, and drives business to its heart.

A lot of the missteps that North American and European cities hit during industrialization were avoided by South American cities because industrialization and urban growth resisted until the mid-twentieth century. This delayed growth has also resulted in a slower rate of increase, but this has not necessarily resulted in strict negatives. “The Latin American inner city is fundamentally different from its US and UK counterparts [in]….the continuance of a vibrant central economy and the lack of inward investment fuelled by strong public policy” (Bromely, R. & Jones, G. p181). Quito in particular has seen a transition in function in its historic district. Competition with the Northern part of the city over commercial areas is evident. Other options have opened; however, storage space by street vendors is in high demand. The aforementioned decentralization of the 1990’s has also led to a hit in the economics of the historic district, but the residential character has improved with the gentrification of the downtown area.

This does not mean the income brackets living in the downtown remains the same. “In Quito, wealthy households began to leave in the 1920’s, clearing the way for poorer in-migrants and the transformation to a largely low-class residential area” (Bromely, R. & Jones, G. p 182). This is reflective of US and UK cities, but failure to benefit from heavy industrial growth like the US and UK, old industry did not close, and therefore the jobs didn’t disappear from the historic sector. Another benefit the historic center has to help prevent de-population is the strong identification the city has for its boundaries.

Reassessing the financial worth of the downtown has proved wise. The Ecuadorian populous equivalent to the US yuppie culture of the 80’s is finding the converted warehouses and lofts ideal for affordable housing with character. During the 70’s up to the 90’s, Quito experienced an influx of people largely in the outer lying areas. Again this mirrors the occurrences in US cities. It is in the response to this population loss where the real difference is evident. “In contrast to the situation in North America and Europe, politicians and planners in Latin America do not seem to regard such population decline as a problem” (Bromely, R. & Jones, G. p 185).

Actually, the planners at the time investigated what they thought the people would prefer and determined it would be best to deflate certain areas, including the historic district. The loss in Quito’s inner barrios is consistent with the rest of Latin American cities. Immigrants tend to prefer the periphery as they do not have to assimilate so completely in the outlying areas. The inner city of Quito continues to demonstrate a pull to those born within the city. Elderly citizens have the highest density in the historic center. The average household occupancy number is also lower in the historic center of Quito.

The US city’s historic center has traditionally become a haven for ethnic minorities, resulting in ghettos. This isn’t seen in Quito’s historic district because the data are not collected. Even without raw data, though, the cross section does appear to be racially diverse even if the economic stratosphere is generally along racial lines as well (Spanish whites being the wealthiest). There is no evidence suggesting the development of a ghetto in Quito, but again, this could be because of the lack of research. The bulk of professions held in the historic district, according to 1990 census data reveal professional jobs were in the minority for these residents.

Most households in the historic center are renters. Quality of life was looked into by evaluating the number of toilets available to renters. Just under half the households shared bathrooms. The outer city statistics for this aspect were markedly different. In the out lying areas, merely a quarter shared bathrooms on average.

While the numbers seem to match the US and UK counterparts of historic inner city centers, the response is what sets Quito apart. Depopulation is seen as a good response as opposed to the US and UK’s answer to renovate an area and re-attract the citizens to the area. Planners in Quito don’t try to shape an area so much as move the people to match the trends the times are exhibiting. While the response is not what the US and UK’s are, there are other possible reasons. One could be a result of the decade difference in population increase and dispersal from the city center; there could be more of a correspondence between Quito and its North American counterparts in the coming years. There is also the option the discrepancy is a result of insufficient research in the field.

The concern for population increases is evident all over Ecuador, and in Quito in particular there is a neighborhood undergoing a targeted plan. Sangolqui is an outlying suburb of Quito. The problem Quito is experiencing is a lack of urban area rather than space to build. Housing for poorer families is scarce. This is one of the reasons for the land invasions discussed earlier. Quito’s unauthorized housing population is around eighteen percent. One of the answers has been to redraw municipal lines to accommodate future growth or, to put it more simply, urban sprawl. Quito teams propose expanding the city west, but the effectiveness of those proposing this growth is questionable.

Quito used to have well thought out plans for development due to the centralized government of Ecuador. However, as the country decentralized, much like the transportation system in the US, the ability to effectively manage or predict city planning deteriorated. The main faults lay in the conditions the planners needed to enact their visions: “promoted by the Association of Municipalities of Ecuador (AME), were based on a new planning paradigm that emphasized participation of a broad range of stakeholders and incorporated a broad range of social, economic and cultural issues. Unfortunately [failing]….because they required too many decisions to fall into place with nothing more than the power of persuasion….to affect those decisions” (Angel, S. p 14).

Poor planning has resulted in chasing opportunity rather than spearheading it. This coupled with the land invasions is resulting in depleted agricultural land. The decentralization of Ecuador has left municipalities in Quito weak to instigate real development plans and instead urban sprawl is encouraged. One tool that is being implemented, though, is “arterial infrastructure corridors” (Angel, S. p 15). These are dirt roads developed where future growth is predicted or desired. Still even this suffers from improper utilization.

The road development lacks any true vision for future development. Rather than building block by block or “super blocks”, these “arterial roads” are congesting city traffic onto narrow strips and increasing pollution. Unfortunately the lack of unification and solidarity has resulted in a breeding ground for further urban sprawl development. One of the main setbacks is money. Ecuador has little to no credit and obtaining a loan from the World Bank is unlikely.

While I had originally hoped to find a different solution to urban sprawl in a developing part of the world, it would appear the result is the same. The differences lie in the confusion afflicting the country, whether in regard to the continual change in boundaries, constitutions, or leaders, or the constant influx of unauthorized inhabitants on private land; Quito has many outside factors working against a sound plan for development. Their lack of concern seems to be what is preventing a crisis. This seems to be a difference of culture rather than strategy. One can only wonder if the US shared the priorities of South America if the great American city would look the same today.

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