Quito day 0: the calm before the storm

MSD's Carolyn Whitzman and Andre Stephan describe what it's really like on the ground at Habitat III.

Photos by Carolyn Whitzman and Andre Stephan

Quito is expecting 50,000 delegates at Habitat III, the four-day UN global summit on housing and urban sustainability.  Although not quite on the scale of the one million tourists who came to Brazil for the World Cup in 2014, Habitat III represents a powerful economic boost for this city of 1.6 million.

There has been quite a bit of attention paid to the dark side of Olympic bids, for instance corruption and payoffs in relation to the International Olympic Committee’s recent awarding of the 2020 Summer Olympics to Tokyo.  The majority of studies on the longer term economic, social and environmental impact of these mega-events on host cities and countries suggest that sports venues are under-utilised after the Games, other infrastructure is built poorly and not necessarily in the long term interests of residents, and that social cleansing - displacement of poor people before the event - is rife.

In contrast, the process of locating Habitat III in Quito was fairly straightforward and transparent.  The UN General Assembly convenes a conference every 20 years to establish an agenda on housing and global urban sustainability. Along with Krakow, Poland, Quito was the first city to obtain World Cultural Heritage designation from UNESCO in 1978.  The then-mayor of Quito, Augusto Guarderas, developed a bid to host the conference, which stressed Quito’s work on adaptation in response to climate change. Quito’s bid went uncontested and the final decision was made in December 2014 by the UN General Assembly.

Quito has had its large events before, most recently in July 2015 when half a million people lined the streets to see Pope Francis. It has also hosted other large events earlier this year such as the fourth Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit. But there is, perhaps, a special pressure associated with a global summit on the future of cities.  Cities of the Global South are often assumed to have high levels of crime, poor infrastructure and risk of disease.  The challenge, with fairly high level delegates from over 150 countries, is to impress visitors with a message of progress and efficiency.  So far, Quito appears to be succeeding in that public relations exercise.

There is no new infrastructure associated with the Habitat III event. However, recent improvement to existing infrastructure related to Habitat III is apparent. The main venue is the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana in the Parque El Ejido just north of the historic centre.  The building has received some major renovations, which were able to be studied at leisure during the long queues for security control and then to receive registration badges on Saturday, two days before the official opening of the conference. The park itself has a number of temporary exhibits related to new building technologies, as well as the usual amount of temporary security fencing.  Local entrepreneurs were doing excellent business in selling bottled water and umbrellas to somewhat frazzled delegates from over 150 countries, who at least had free wifi while they braved line ups that ranged wildly from 10 minutes to over 6 hours.

Members of the University of Melbourne delegation were fortunate enough to get a tour from a recent alumni, Jorge Andrade, who teaches urban planning at the Catholic University of Ecuador.  We were impressed by the fact that the Old Town still has a many older businesses that have not yet gotten priced out by gentrification: tiny furniture shops, hardware stores and bulk food providers – even a local barber shop at the bottom of the Palazo National. However, this authenticity might be endangered on the medium to long term with the recent boom in tourist numbers and its subsequent implications.

While there were some people sleeping on streets and a number of street vendors and people begging, that appeared to us as a positive sign that police are not engaging in social cleansing, or temporary measures to remove the ‘unsightly’ poor from the gaze of tourists.

Like many South American cities, there are a series of plazas in the Old Town.  It was particularly impressive to see a commitment to new plazas and pedestrianised streets. There is a rapid bus transit system, which is being augmented by a new subway line.

There is certainly an augmented police presence in Quito in and around the conference venue, in the Old Town and in the Mariscal Sucre, where many of the delegates have their accommodation.  But thus far the message obtained by delegates is that Quito is doing a good job of preserving its heritage while embracing the future.  In a global world where urban liveability is a selling point for business as well as tourism. Quito has chosen an excellent way to market itself to the world.

By Professor Carolyn Whitzman and Dr Andre Stephan